Sui generis music of Hirabai
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, November 26, 1989
The year 1989 will possibly go down as the darkest year in the annals of Hindustani music – what with the series of deaths of top exponents of the North Indian tradition in so short a time-span as four months. First it was the nonagenarian, Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, the oldest maestro of the Gwalior gharana, followed by Ram Marathe, actor-musician of the Bakhale gharana, the noted sarodia Bahadur Khan of the Seniya gharana, nephew of the greate maestro Allauddin Khan and Munawwar Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana.
Now comes the passing away of Hirabai Badodekar, who was the oldest living doyenne of the Kirana gharana, made so famous by Abdul Karim Khan – the vocalism which has thrown up a brilliant galaxy of vocalists like Swai Gandharva, Roshanara Begum and Beherebuva of the last generation, and Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi and Feroz Dastur, who are still active on the performing stage.
Hirabai Badodekar, who was 84, was almost bedridden because of paralysis for nearly 10 years. She had retired from her concert stage even a decade earlier, for she thought, like a true artiste, that advancing age should not adversely affect the beauty and dignity of her art. Like every other great work of art, her music evoked deeply personal responses from different listeners all over the country. They represented an amazingly wide spectrum, ranging from musical giants like Ramakrishnabuva Vaze; writers, poets and philosophers of eminence of B. S. Mardhekar, N. S. Phadke and Tagore down to genuine but lay music lovers from the various strata of society. That was because she was a “complete” musician whose art catered to all tastes.
No doubt, khayal-singing was her forte. But she was equally at home in a variety of other styles like thumri, bhajans, Marathi bhavgeet and natya sangeet. What set her apart was that whatever she sang, her music mirrored her whole inward being – a rare virtue seldom found among singers.
Hirabai was lucky in being born into a family where melody ruled and rhythm had a shrine. She was even luckier in getting as great a maestro as Abdul Waheed Khan to teach her. It is well known that the Ustad and his uncle, Abdul Karim Khan, together pioneered the contemporary Kirana gharana, known for the qualities of relaxed freedom, grace of expression and expansive movement. Her elder brother, the late Sureshbabu Mane, a stalwart of the same gharana but who tragically died young, also played a crucial role in shaping her musicianly personality.
It will not be difficult to find artistes who have a far larger repertoire than Hirabai Badodekar. But her distinction was her alapi and her renderings were imbued with the verve and grace of a felt emotion. Hers was a voice that had the feel of velvet and she could move her audiences by her impassioned utterance. An artiste par excellence in presentation, it was an experience to watch her coming to “sam” with a sharp twang on the shadje string on the tanpura, while the tabla gave the beat and the sarangi the note, in miraculous unison with her voice.
Hirabai gave her first public performance in Bombay in 1921 when she was only 16. Her first participation in a major soiree at the national level was in the prestigious all India music conference at Calcutta which came 16 years later. A radio artiste right from the inception of Indian broadcasting, honours, awards and distinctions came to her in profusion from state and national levels. She was recipient of the Padma Bhushan and Sangeet Natak Academy Awards. She also had the opportunities to visit China and many African countries as a leading member of cultural delegations sponsored by the government of India from time to time.
To the manner born, Hirabai was an artiste who was determined to propagate music through teaching as well. That was how, despite hectic professional tours, she could find time to groom more than 50 disciples in the professional way. Most of them have made a name in varying degrees on the concert platform. To name a few her top disciples include her sister, Saraswati Rane, Prabha Atre, Shaila Pandit, Usha Muzumdar, Janaki Iyer and Meera Paranjape.
Another facet of Hirabai’s life and career, which may possibly be not much known outside Maharashtra, is the role that she modestly played in the social milieu. She can well be hailed as a silent reformer who brought traditional music within the reach of the common man by organising recitals in pubic halls in which she herself participated. It speaks volumes for the courage of a simple woman that she broke the age-old convention that prohibited women from giving professional concerts and performing on the dramatic stage in Maharashtra. By featuring and participating in plays with a mixed cast, she heralded a social revolution of sorts in the thirties.
It was my privilege to be known to Hirabai quite closely for more than three decades. I recall with gratitude that it was her recorded music that nurtured my sensibilities right from infancy. Her home, aptly called “Swara-Vilas”, was like a place of pilgrimage to me and I seldom missed to visit it whenever I happened to be in Pune.
It was two year ago that I last met Hirabai. Inspite of her extremely bad physical condition, she looked calm and dignified with all her faculties intact. Her dark lustrous eyes exuded peace and tranquility, with not a trace of her suffering. It was a sight that moved the visitors to tears.
Hirabai was a great artiste but still greater as a human being, who had to undergo many ups and downs and sustain many a stunning blow in her domestic life. She bore it all with fortitude and managed to shoulder heavy family responsibilities till the last. If her music was sui generis, her human qualities will find no parallel.