Song of Surrender

Sunday, 10 July 2016

A memory of Veena Sahasrabuddhe

A magical glimpse of Gurukulavasam
By Kamakshi Mallikarjun

The lilting Chandrakauns tarana in the Music Today cassette compilation Tarana – Flights of Melody was the first time I heard Veena Sahasrabuddhe. I was blown away and longed to attend her concert. Thereafter, during periodic trips to Chennai, I used to search for Veenaji’s cassettes and CDs and continued to hope that one day I would be able to attend her concert.

Circa 2008, I heard that a local organization called Sangeet Society was arranging a Veena Veena Sahsrabuddhe concert in New Jersey. At a gathering at my friend’s house for Ganesh Chaturthi, I bemoaned that here was this golden opportunity to listen to Veenaji but it was too far for me to drive but not only did I find a ride to the wonderful concert, my friend introduced me to Suraja who was one of the organizers. Suraja informed me that Veenaji would be staying with her. She was arranging a workshop and invited me to attend that as well.

Veenaji was that rare avatar: a legendary performing artist who was also a great teacher with a passion for igniting a greater understanding and appreciation of Hindustani classical music amongst all students. In every facet of this workshop, Veenaji would come back to the guiding principles – ultimate respect and devotion for the great art of classical music, dedication, integrity and daily, diligent practice. Her dictums, explanations, corrections and clarifications were so lucid and struck such a deep chord in me that I came back home and wrote it all down.

Some excerpts of what Veenaji shared with us:
Ascending the stage is like entering aag or fire
You want fast results ; input-output. It won’t happen

All of you are singing because it makes you happy; if you had the slightest desire of performing, I will not proceed further till you get the ni re ga ma phrase of this raga correct

I want it 100% correct every time
No hovering around the note; if that is where the note is, that is where it should be
You need to repeat each phrase at least 50 times

I don’t understand why people ask me, “Do you still practise? Of course, I still practice—for three or four hours everyday. A marathon cannot happen suddenly. In your work, if you decide to not do anything for five days or just spend half an hour here and there, will it work?

In every raga, you need to learn at least ten songs or bandishes as a starting base for understanding the raga

My father used to make me sing every bandish I learnt while playing the tabla; I also had to showcase all the embellishments for the bandish while playing the tabla

Alap has patterns of symmetry like drawing a rangoli—if there is a loop here (lower octave) there is a loop there (higher octave), a double loop there, double loop here

We must treat the raga with respect ; the raga is in front of us and we pay respect and we are not in front. We cannot utter things that don’t make sense.

During the workshop, when Veenaji tuned the tanpura and strummed it, the reverberating nada brought tears to my eyes. We started with singing notes and akara for the raga Yaman traversing the notes from the lower ma to the higher pa. Veenaji also took the extraordinary and completely unexpected step of having each of us take turns on strumming her tanpura, as she would have done for her full time students in India. The entire experience was indeed a magical glimpse of gurukulavasam and, for two spellbinding hours, my dreams were no longer daydreams.

She next taught us Purya Dhanasri, taking the unusual step responding to repeated pleas from many participants in the workshop to please teach something other than Yaman. She did admonish us repeatedly for that sentiment saying that more than a lifetime is needed to master Yaman. 

The choice of Poorya Dhanasri was perhaps a masterstroke to get these pivotal points across to every student in the workshop. In the raga, there is no safety of Sa or Pa in the ascent and hence the phrases ni re ga ma, re ga ma ni are fiendishly difficult and slippery. And yes, it did become crystal clear to everyone why there is a prescribed progression to the ragas that beginning students are taught.

Veenaji said that since our primary focus was a better understanding of Hindustani classical music and singing for the sake of personal enjoyment and not professional aspirations, she would still teach us the bandish. She then taught us the hauntingly beautiful bandish Tere daras ki and also shared with us the notation written in her own hand. 

Even though I had been an avid listener of Hindustani classical music for several decades, understanding of the grammar and innate intricacies came only after listening to Veenaji’s Language of Raga Music CDs and later the more comprehensive online lecdems at IIT Mumbai/ IIT Kanpur. These lectures were structured meticulously, the explanations are articulate and poetic and the demonstrations sublime. They progress from the fundamentals of swara, laya, raga to gamakas, tala, bandish, alap, and gharanas. In addition to the grammar of Hindustani classical music, Veenaji illustrates the aspects of improvisation and embellishments in the singing of alap and bandish.

You can get a glimpse of this master class in the following youtube link – an excerpt from Veenaji’s lecdem on 24 October 2010 arranged by Sruti, the India Music and Dance Society Philadelphia. Veenaji explains the difference between the allied ragas Poorya, Marwa and Sohini.

In a concert the previous evening in Philadelphia, one of the ragas featured was Chandrakauns. As she explained in her lectures, Veenaji sang three pieces in slow, medium and fast laya, starting with a mesmerising Chandarki Chandini (it was a full moon night) and ending with a tarana in Chandrakauns.

You can view excerpts from this concert at this link (Chandrakauns is Video 4)

In an interview for the Hindu, With ragas in her heart, Veenaji said – “"My father taught not just music but every other skill that a singer needs; writing, reading notes, the basics of each instrument... I try to do the same with my students, even though they are spread out all over the country and the world."

Veenaji, you will be an eternal guiding beacon of light in our lives.

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