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Hirabai Badodekar is 75

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For more than four decades this renowned gayan-kokila (nightingale of music) from the Kirana gharana has regaled audiences all over India. She will be 75 next Thursday (May 29)

The Illustrated Weekly of India, May 25, 1980 


Hirabai Barodekar.

Hirabai Barodekar.

“WHEN your mind is troubled and distraught, you could do no better than listen to Hirabai’s music. It has an uncanny quality of conveying a sense of peace.”

That is how Ramakrishna Buva Vaze, the venerable maestro of the Gwalior gharana and one of the pioneers to bring the khayal gayaki from North India to Maharashtra, summed up Hirabai Barodekar’s art.

B.S. Mardhekar, a pioneer of modern Marathi poetry and also a perceptive connoisseur of classical and popular music, once exclaimed: “To hear Hirabai sing is like watching a bird in flight. Her music has the grace and poise of such a bird-wings spread to caress the air with their soft touch, not agitate it.”

S. Phadke, the celebrated Marathi novelist and critic, hearing Hirabai’s Marwa at an evening concert, turned poetic when he said: “She does not create music: she just flowers into it as naturally as does the vast universe into a starlit night.”

Music: Her Life

Hirabai Badodekar’s music, like every great work of art, has thus evoked deeply personal responses from different listeners. And as for Hirabai herself, music is her life-she lives it and for it. Her sole ambition is to breathe her last with music on her lips.

The story of Hirabai’s life and career sounds almost as dramatic as a thriller – as incredible as Ripley’s “Believe it or not”! Not many may be aware – especially outside Maharashtra – that this “Gayan-Kokila’ (nightingale of Indian music), who has regaled her audiences at countless jalsas for more than four decades and won enviable national acclaim and recognition, was actually given up for dead at birth!

Hirabai was born prematurely at Miraj (South Maharashtra) on May 29, 1905. The attendant of the maternity home, taking the baby girl to be still-born – she was too weak to cry or show any sign of life – left her unattended in a corner of the ward and rushed to bring in the doctor to examine the mother who was herself in a serious condition. While attending on the patient, however, the doctor looked at the baby out of sheer curiosity. And, within moments, she gave out a shrill cry to proclaim, as it were, her existence.

Hirabai Badodekar comes of a family where melody ruled and rhythm had a shrine. Her grandmother was a leading singer in the former Baroda State. Her mother Tarabai Mane was a great votary of Abdul Karim Khan and had put her only son, Suresh Babu, under the maestro’s care for professional grooming.

But Tarabai had different ideas about her daughter. She wanted Hirabai to be a doctor. The impressionable girl, however, neglected her studies and schooling and, instead, kept constant company with her elder brother, watching him sing while the ustad taught him. She would even repeat his every phrase, pattern and sequence quietly to herself with an accuracy and precision amazing for her age. The discerning mother soon realised the futility of forcing her talented daughter into channels that did not interest her; and she finally let Hirabai learn and pursue her music.

Another fact not so widely known about Hirabai’s initiation into music is that it was one Ahmed Khan, an exponent of the Agra gharana, who first taught her the rudiments of classical singing. Bhaskar Buva Bakhale, another Maharashtrian maestro of the older generation, had also chanced to hear the child artiste and agreed to teach her.

The real break came at Indore (then a princely state) in 1918, when Hirabai heard and met Abdul Wahid Khan at the mammoth soiree held as part of the Holi celebrations. Deeply impressed by her musical potentialities, Wahid Khan offered to teach her anywhere she desired. Meanwhile, Hirabai also moved from Baroda with her family to settle down in Bombay and the ustad, too, came to stay with the family to groom his new disciple in the true spirit of gurushishya parampara.

Great Guru

Hirabai was lucky in getting as great a teacher as Abdul Wahid Khan – and, come to think of it, no teacher could have perhaps wished for a better pupil. Abdul Wahid Khan was a nephew of Abdul Karim Khan and both the stalwarts are regarded as the foremost pioneers who popularised the Kirana gharana all over India. This style of singing (named after a village near Kurukshetra, in Haryana) gave a new élan to the history of Hindustani music, in that it set a novel trend in classicism by making a fundamental departure from the several styles of traditional singing then in vogue. The vocalism is distinguished for its utterly sweet and feeling manner of elaboration, immaculate swara intonation and sensitive, delicate gamak-taans.

Abdul Wahid Khan was undoubtedly the most orthodox interpreter of the gharana. He had inherited all the compositions of the great Bande Ali Khan, the eminent beenkar and founder of this gharana. Affectionate but extremely short-tempered, the ustad subjected his teenage disciple to a grueling training. Hirabai nostalgically remembers how he devoted three months to teaching one single raga and how he trained her to avoid a repetition of any single taan in a raga exposition. Patdeep, incidentally was the first raga she learnt from the ustad.

Hirabai acknowledge, with equal gratitude, the part played by Abdul Karim Khan himself and Suresh Babu in shaping her musical genius. Indeed, gifted as she is with a silvery, emotion-laden voice, she has imbibed all that is rich and sensuous, subtle and beautiful, from the individual styles of the three masters and moulded it into a vocalism that expresses her own personality. There are, in fact, very few vocalists in our midst today whose performance can mirror their whole inward being as completely as does Hirabai’s.

It will not be difficult to find vocalists who have a far more extensive raga repertoire than Hirabai Badodekar. But she is one artiste whose renderings are sustained with all the verve and grace of a felt emotion. An artiste par excellence in presentation, it has been a rare joy to find her coming to the sam with a sharp twang on the shadja string of her tambura, while the tabla gives the beat and the sarangi the note in immaculate unison with her voice.

While khayal-singing is her forte, she is equally at ease in thumri, ghazal, bhajan, qawali and Marathi bhavgeet. In this sense, she is a “complete” performer whose music caterss to all tastes.

Hirabai’s contribution to the stage and the theatre is another aspect of her artistic personality that may not be known to many. It was she who broke the anachronistic convention prohibiting women from appearing on the professional stage in Mahrashtra. In fact, she ushered in a social revolution by featuring plays with mixed castes. This she did by initiating a dramatic wing in her own Nutan Sangeet Vidyalaya, which she had started earlier for teaching music to girls from respectable families – a bold venture by itself. She staged ten plays, including popular classics like Sangeet Soubhadra and Sant Mirabai and new ones like Yugantar. She played the heroine while her brother and other male artistes essayed the lead in these plays, with her younger sisters, Kamala and Saraswati in supporting roles.

Although, Hirabai had to disband her drama troupe with the advent of the talkie in the early ‘thirties – she sustained heavy financial losses in the process – she contributed to the enrichment of Marathi stage music as few else could. Her Marathi natya geets set a new trend in theatre – singing. Even the mighty Bal Gandharava, Maharashtra’s greatest actor-singer of this century, was charmed by their innovative quality, Commercial discs of these songs are still being heard in many a Marathi home with renewed delight.

Hirabai also took to films in an effort to seek new avenues for her acting abilities, but did not succeed in her venture. Suvarna Mandir, Pratibha, Janabai and Municipality were the four Marathi films in which she played the heroine.

It was then that she took to music as a full-time profession and began to participate in public concerts.

Recounting some of the reminiscences of her professional career, Hirabai said that she gave her first public performance in Bombay in 1921, at the invitation of the celebrated Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, at the anniversary function of his Gandharva Mahavidyalaya.

Her first participation in a major festival at the national level was in the All-India Music Conference, held at Calcutta in 1937. Strange but true, it was the eminent Kesarbai Kerkar who took Hirabai along with her to Calcutta and introduced her to the mammoth assemblage. Hirabai’s debut at the conference came as a revelation as much to the huge audience as to the sponsors, both of whom were understandably apprehensive of the performing abilities of an unknown, shy and frail singer from Bombay.

Hirabai has been a radio artiste right from the inception of Indian broadcasting. Despite busy professional tours, she has groomed more than 50 vocalists, including a male artiste, Sadashiv Jadhav, of Miraj. The long line-up of disciples includes her youngest sister, Saraswati Rane and Prabha Atre, Sita Heble (Moolky), Sita Kagal (Mavin Kurve). Malati Pande, Shaila Pandit, Janaki Iyer, Sarojini Sahotre, Suvarna Chandrashekaran, Vrinda Limaye, Bakul Pandit and several others. All these disciples have made a name, in varying degrees, on the concert platform.

Recipient of the Padma Bhushan and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards and numerous other accolades, Hirabai visited China as a member of the first Indian cultural delegation in 1953. The Chinese Government offered her an assignment to train its singers in Hindustani music which she politely declined. She also visited the East African countries in 1956.

Hirabai turns 75 this week. Meeting this ageing woman of Spartan simplicity, clad in a cotton sari, is an experience to cherish. Her dark, lustrous eyes make you feel that she has within her the peace she imparts. She disarms you by her refined sensibility and dignified demeanour. Her conversation is softly modulated and simply phrased. There is no pretence about her and no callousness either. She keeps busy, entertaining her visitors and guests, or doing domestic chores on tending plants in her garden or playing with her grandchildren.

Although Hirabai Badodekar has now retired from her concert career and lives with her son, she continues to teach music to students. Hirabai’s modest, double-storeyed home, aptly named “Swar Vilas”, on Prabhat Road in Pune, is still a rendezvous of musicians. There is music in her daily prayer and worship. An ardent devotee of Satya Sai Baba, she performs bhajans every Thursday.

Hers has been a life with many ups and downs. The sudden, untimely death of Suresh Babu in 1952 was a stunning blow to the entire family. For long she had had to shoulder heavy family responsibilities. But she has no regrets. The flame of her music is the flame of her soul. Both still burn steadily, luminously, calmly at her “Swar Vilas”.


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