Do Musicians Die

People get noticed when they exit from life and not when they step into it. Some get noticed more, though, and some less. Birth is anonymous, – the child gets a name later, and gets used to it much later still, – and it matters only to the parents and their families. Yes, it may also matter to the midwife or the nursing home, literally as a good fortune! Otherwise only in stupid biographies does the birth of a person is heralded with drum and trumpet or the denizens of heaven showering flowers from the sky.

But the death of a person is noticed for the way he has lived, for his achievements and for the impact he had on the life around. His memory stays and sometimes we relate to it more and more. Many memories about him converge and dialogue with each other, so much so the person who is dead is resurrected into life again and again. We talk about footprints that they leave behind on the sands of time, – the footprints which do not allow erasure, unlike what the poetic imagery allows. That is why we talk of the deathlessness of the dead.

Where does the musician stand in the possible realm of immortality? We are all sure of the immortal status of M.S. Subbalakshmi, or Amir Khan, of Kesarbai Kerkar or G. N. Balasubramaniyam, of Bhimsen Joshi or Ravishanker. Their music has conferred upon them what Nature has not. Those who have heard them swear that their music would never die. But take Abdul Karim Khan. Even those who have not heard him in person would vouch for his immortality. His fame has frozen into a legend and lives on. Is it a romantic embrace of the past? Or is it a case of implicitly trusting those who have heard him? But not everyone becomes an immortal thus. There seems more to greatness than easy credulity. But we can extend this exercise and go back still to find such deathless purveyors of music like Mia Tansen. None has heard him to believe that he is deathless. We only have read about him, as have many generations before done. But the aura around him has not dimmed. Even if the miracles of his music were untrue or infected with hyperbole, his greatness is undeniable because such miracles are not attached to many other names.

In the context of today when science has enabled us to record voice and preserve it for posterity, we have to redefine the notion of memory and immortality of music. But what ensures its deathlessness is not the preserved memory but its enduring resonance with posterity and its shifting tastes and standards of judgement. A mere preserved memory can at best be a datum of the past, a curiosity. It has the advantage of being a datum on which to base our judgement. It may also be the peg to which our fancy gets tethered, holding back its extravagant flight. But music has its way of preserving itself even without the enabling or bridling instrument of science. It has done so as a tradition or as creation of a tradition. The gharana or bani has done that to announce its uniqueness. It has nurtured a style, given it a flag and passed it on to posterity. There were, of course, some exceptional people who were big enough to spill over the frame and had the genius to transcend it.

But music tends to create its own universe and thrives in it. It does so both as achievement and as promise of greater achievement. It need not always be a universe of a world-conqueror, but can be of the one that deserves to win the applause of the world. It is the universe of possibility, of expectation or of promise cut short by an undeserved misfortune. Here a sense of achievement is accompanied by a sense that fulfilment is denied, a mood to be grateful to heavens is disturbed by a mournful reproach against Fate:

“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport”

This is the universe Ranjani created and left behind. And she has left it behind in haste. Those of us who knew her knew that she was an achiever, an achiever in music. Her parents saw her potential while she was yet a child and invested a great deal of passionate commitment, love and hope in her career. It was not just a matter of parental duty that they discharged. Most people do their duty of educating their children and become happy or unhappy with the result. But for her parents, Aravinda Hebbar and Vasanthalaxmi, making a musician out of Ranjani was a life’s mission. In doing so they were finding a fulfilment. Their love for music and love for their daughter struck a single advaitic chord. They taught her music and saw to it that she was given the best of training, in Udupi and in Chennai. They also supervised her learning and practice sessions and in the process they too learned. They knew and acknowledged that the best of teachers is also the humblest of students. There is no teaching without learning and the best of teachings abolishes and distinction between learning and teaching. ‘Latangi’ was so suffused with music that any visitor, save the most impervious ones, was touched by it. It became a sort ‘gurukula’ where many aspirants came to slake their thirst for Carnatic music. Ranjani’s education in music had such a pronounced ripple-effect that ‘Latangi’ became the nerve-centre of teaching and learning music, listening to and appreciation of music, or discussion on and writing about music. ‘Raagadhana’ Raagadhanashree, chamber-music, lecture-demonstrations on music and all spiralled out of this mood and resolve. It brought together many connoisseurs and enthusiasts for a larger cause of promoting music culture in Udupi and its environs. If Aravinda Hebbar and his wife were the face of such an idea and institution, the impulse for it coincided with the growth of Ranjani as a musician.

We have known how Ranjani was once seen as something of a prodigy. Music seemed to go to her as readily as she would hasten to embrace music. Many a discerning listener had wondered how well and felicitously could this slip of a girl expound a complex and nuanced raga like Harikambhoji. But genius is more about perspiration than inspiration. Talent is nothing unless we nurture it. Ranjani honed her skills with great perseverance and humility. Her long training with Vidwan Madhoor Balasubramaniyam Vidushi S. Sowmya and Vidwan Chengalpet Ranganathan as well as the investment in hard work had made Ranjani the accomplished singer that she became so early in her musical journey.

But learning music can also be a conscious act of moving out of one’s groove. It is not defiance of a defined tradition as some traditionalists think. Instead, it can be a true exploration of wider territory, accessing the excitement of other traditions. Ranjani’s tryst with Hindustani music was not so much the result of her search for as from the search of Narayana Pandit, a disciple of the redoubtable Pandit Kumar Gandharva. Narayana Pandit is a meditative character, happy with his dialogues with music and ragas, or revisiting his days he spent with his teacher and other masters of the art. But he chanced to listen to Ranjani and nearly shouted ‘Eureka!’ He said he had heard the most authentic musical voice yet, and wanted to teach her. This association is one of the most remarkable relations one can possibly see in music. Narayana Pandit became ‘Ajja’ to Ranjani and a part of the Hebbar household. He did not wean Rajani away from Carnatic music; instead politely intervened in her music to lend it a greater sensitivity, refinement and introspective orientation. There are people who are jealous champions of their tradition: Carnatic musicians who find no merit is Hindustani music, and Hindustani musicians finding Carnatic music hard to appreciate. The listeners too are sometimes divided thus. But a true musician transcends this divide. One need not master both the traditions but can go into their soul or spirit which remains the same for both. Sometimes we hear about synthesising the two or grafting the one with the other. One wonders if it is feasible or desirable, unless one wishes to have them both disfigured. But mutual, silent, borrowing from one another is another matter. It is possible and necessary; it has always taken place and has enriched both. But at another level, one can appreciate their particular beauties and see how best they can beautify one another. It is an act of sensitive spontaneity and of innate resonance with aesthetic experience. Ranjani, and Narayana Pandit and the ‘Latangi’ household not only realised it but experienced it in full measure. It is not a coincidence that the Hebbars got a daughter-in-law in Srimathi, an accomplished Hindustani vocalist. This is a part of the ‘Ranjani-effect’.

The ‘Ranjani-effect’ on her parents and household, on ‘Latangi’ as a gravitating centre of music and musical culture has been remarkable. I will not go so far as to declare that she was the ‘cause’ of this effect. Causation is too often bound to scientific thinking and looks for definitive relationships. Life is far too complex and rich to be captured by causal precision. But Ranjani-effect was really felt at ‘Latangi’ and what it has accomplished, and has been accomplishing. It has made the cultural world of Udupi richer.

Now, Ranjani is no more; but the ‘Ranjani-effect’ lives on at ‘Latangi’ and with those who enabled her grow and who grew with her. When poet Keats wrote in his ‘Ode to the Nightingale’,

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down;”

Dr. B. Surendra Rao,
Retd. Prof. Of History, Mangalore University

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