The Pull of a Sweet, Undying Voice: Remembering Veena Sahasrabuddhe

Deep emotiveness, wonderful voice modulation and a sensitive blending of rhythm and melody made Sahasrabuddhe’s musical style unique and enduring.

Gwalior gharana vocalist Veenu Sahasrabuddhe. Credit: youtube

Gwalior gharana vocalist Veenu Sahasrabuddhe. Credit: youtube

It’s her voice that first got me. Deep and resonant in the lower octave, soaring to the higher octave like the effortless and graceful flight of an eagle, without a hint of strain or shrillness. Powerful all through.

Veena Sahasrabuddhe was hailed as a torchbearer of the Gwalior gharana (a musical lineage, ideology or tradition) who also used the fragrances of the Jaipur and Kirana styles to enhance her music’s personality.

To me, analyses of her style just didn’t matter. How and when Gwalior dominated in a melodic phrase and Jaipur or Kirana took a backseat, or the other way around, depended on Sahasrabuddhe’s unique musical sensibility. For me, that’s what made it her brand of music – distinctive and meditative. She never sounded like anyone else.

Sahasrabuddhe did have the advantage of being born into a musical family and being trained by both her father, Shankar Shripad Bodas, and brother, Kashinath Shankar Bodas. Hers were ideal circumstances to imbibe the basics of the Gwalior gharana. The influences of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, her father’s guru, and her other gurus, Balwantrai Bhatt, Vasant Thakar and Gajananrao Joshi, gave her the rigour of a khayal singer.

Keeping the listener guessing

But she rose way above the technical, to infuse generous doses of the emotional in her music. In short, her concerts were never dry. They were, without fail, melodious in the deepest sense.

Often, when Sahasrabuddhe concluded an alap (a free improvisatory section exploring the melodics of the raga), there would be a twist. Virtually each time she sang it, the mukhada – the section that heralds the beginning of the tala or rhythmic cycle, or that opens a composition – would sound different yet graceful, when she would return to it at the sum, or the first beat.

Another characteristic of her singing, one perhaps influenced by the Jaipur gharana, was repeating the same note twice or thrice in a melodic phrase, before moving on to the next.

Take, for instance, her rendition of the morning raga Ahir Bhairav: she typically uses the phrase ga, ga, re, re, sa (with the sa prolonged), instead of a simpler and direct ga, re, sa. Her singing married melody with complexity, which kept the listener guessing.

Preferring not to use a vilambit or extra-slow tempo for her raga exposition, Sahasrabuddhe’s alaps were distinctly rhythmic, the notes falling pat on each beat, apart from being punctuated by a plethora of staccato khatkas and flowing meends. Her bol-tans and tans (the patterns exploring the notes of the raga within the rhythmic cycle) were robust, with a profusion of gamaks.

And a thread running through all her presentations was her wonderful voice modulation – soft, strong, at all times expressive. Some disapproved of her ‘jabde ka tan’ (jaw movement while singing tans), but the richness of her note patterns and force of her renditions overshadowed this shortcoming.

Sahasrabuddhe started performing early, and became known for her khayals and bhajans. It was her recital at the prestigious Sawai Gandharva music festival in Pune, at the invitation of the Kirana gharana doyen Bhimsen Joshi, that catapulted her to fame. From the mid ’80s onwards, she was a regular performer at all major music festivals, and had a hectic travel schedule. About 20 years ago, during a practice session with her tabla player in her Pune home, she said to me with a smile: “You see me only on stage. You don’t know what all I have to juggle before I go on stage – a home, children, cooking, looking after relatives, students and then squeezing time out for practice.”

She also admitted, as an afterthought, that being born into a family of musicians gave her the advantage of learning the intricacies of the art much faster than someone who hadn’t had that privilege.

But carving out a distinct style goes beyond tutelage and family. It requires talent, but also out-of-the box thinking and experimentation – which is where Sahasrabuddhe showed her mettle.

There are several musicians today who are not just good performers but are also equipped with an education that helps them communicate to the world what they are doing.

Among the female musicians, though, Sahasrabuddhe was perhaps one of the earliest to do this, way back in the 1980s. She had studied English, Sanskrit, Tabla and Kathak, giving her the confidence to teach and engage with international audiences. She conducted music appreciation sessions at the IIT Kanpur campus where her husband taught, and continued this later in life as well, in Pune, where she and her husband settled after his retirement, and abroad.

It is tragic that this fabulous vocalist’s career was ended by illness when she was just 67, an age when many artists reach their peak. Fortunately, she has left behind a recorded body of work that will live on and continue to inspire.

Priya Kanungo is a classical musician and journalist.