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Another “jubilee” goes unnoticed

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Another “jubilee” goes unnoticed

The Economic Times, October 25, 1987

Close on my last week’s column comes the information that another celebrity from the Hindustani tradition has just crossed her 60th year, without ado, without fanfare.

This is bound to put many connoisseurs guessing. Yes, she is a female artiste, whose name has now become synonymous with the light classical tradition of Uttar Pradesh – a tradition as vast and as varied as to cover the genres varying from thumri, ghazal, geet, dadra and bhajan.

She also is one of the few surviving top-notchers of that intractable tradition still in her midst. What is also so unique about this artiste is that she does not belong to the Eastern Uttar Pradesh region, more popularly known as Purab.

It, therefore, speaks volumes for her talent, imagination and dedication that she is now acknowledged as one of the two or three top-notchers of the fast-vanishing Purabi genre still happily in our midst – and more. Musically, she is still growing stronger with each passing year.

The guess-work for her aficionados should now turn simpler. The artiste is none else than Shobha Gurtu, who, by all accounts, is highly reticent to speak about her age, much less the date of her birth. Even the sources close to her could not draw her out to specify the exact details, but had to be content with the rather grudging answer that she was born at Belgaum in 1927.

Which highbrow listener of the present day does not know Shobha and her artistic achievements? Even so, it is an irony of our times, that her name and contribution to the preservation and enrichment of the “Purabi” singing tradition has not received the limelight and the recognition richly due to her. Part of the reason for this is to be seen in her own temperament and outlook. She is shy, modest and introvert and has none of the qualities that usually go to make an image-builder.

Strange but true, it is only with the passing away of the Purabi stalwarts like Begum Akthar, Siddheshwari Devi and Rasoolan Bai that Shobha’s multifaceted genius has come to be recognised and appreciated wherever the light classical tradition of Uttar Pradesh is still a popular art-form.

Shobha Guru comes of a blue-blooded musical lineage. A Goan by birth, her mother, Menakabai Shirodkar, was the rage of her time. She had the double distinction as a sensitive dancer and equally gifted singer. Needless to say, the precocious Shobha inherited her mummy’s gifts and benefited from her early training.

In course of time, the mother placed the youngster under the tutelage of the veteran maestros, Nathan Khan and Gamman Khan. The former groomed her in classical singing, while the latter gave her a winsome command of light classical and popular styles. After marriage, Shobha had the added privilege of receiving sound guidance and direction in her quest from Pandit Narayan Nath Gurtu, her father-in-law and an eminent scholar-musician.

Come to think of it, Shobha Gurtu is a self-taught artiste born and brought up far away from Uttar Pradesh. Secondly, Konkani is her mother-tongue and Marathi is her adopted language. These have nothing in common with the kind of diction and delivery that individually distinguish various written or spoken languages in this vast continent. It is, therefore, a tribute to her tenacity that in her quest for mastering north India’s singing genres, she has managed to work a miracle. Indeed, she has imbibed its content and spirit like few else in the field, and achieved the singular distinction as one of the ablest exponents of the “Purabi” tradition.

I have known Shobha Gurtu fairly well, over the last few years. To my mind, what puts her in a class by herself is not merely the unique qualities of her warm, sensuous voice, which blends strength with suppleness, and vigour with grace. It is the equally uncanny combination of talent and soul that makes her self-expression worth listening too, ever so often, even at this age. Whatever the theme, she reveals her impassioned urge, her intuitive feeling for the emotional and the artistic.

Impassioned expressiveness in fact, is the keynote of her music. The technique of expression she has evolved is her own, but firmly based in the traditional moorings, even though it carries the occasional but unmistakable redolence of Begum Akhtar or Siddheshwari Devi. Mind you, she hasn’t had any direct studentship with those departed stalwarts.

It is only recently that multinational recording companies, as also a few indigenous agencies, have taken due notice of Shobha Gurtu. Somehow, it did not occur to them to catch her young when she was already quite a force to reckon with, as much on the concert platform as in TV and AIR. Better late than never, for these small mercies.

Incidentally, the great Girija Devi of Varanasi happens to be the only other surviving exponent of the rich “Purabi” gayaki and Shobha is another. One, therefore, does not know how Shobha’s claims to recognition, which are in no way less than those of Girija Devi, have till now remained unnoticed by the powers that be.


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