Loved by the gods
I can still vividly recall the first time I heard Ranjani Hebbar.
It was during the December Season about 8 years ago. I had finished a quick lunch at the canteen of the Mylapore Fine Arts Club and was scanning the Program Guide to see what might be a good program to attend. But I didn’t have to check the Guide at all. I heard a sweet singing voice. Curious as to who might be the owner of the voice, I stepped into the auditorium. I stood transfixed for a moment and then sat down to hear Ranjani Hebbar.
I remember she sang Hindolam that day. I had not seen her name before so this may have been her first December Season in Chennai. I wouldn’t say she was perfect; she faltered during the swarams but recovered gracefully and completed the song with aplomb. By the end of the one-hour concert, I knew that Ranjani would soon be a force to be reckoned with in the music world and resolved to follow her musical career closely to see if my hunch would come true.
At that point in her career, she was still seen primarily during the December Season only. For the next few years, she had just four concerts during the Season. Her sponsors at this time were Kapali Fine Arts, Shanthi Arts Foundation & Endowments (SAFE), and Sri Sadguru Sangeetha Sabha of Pammal and similar smaller organizations. I grieved that such a fine singer did not get the recognition that she deserved.
Her concerts during this time were legendary. I remember she once sang a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi in the raga Sallapam, stumping the audience who couldn’t identify the raga until she named it. It showed her ability to internalize rarely heard ragas and present them in an appealing fashion.
She soon won the Kalki Krishnamurthy award. After this, she got wider recognition with concerts under the banners of Nada Inbam and Nadopasana.
I remember how Mr D. L. Narasimhan, a connoisseur of music, once stopped me and asked how I could have missed Ranjani’s extraordinary concert performance during Gokulashtami where she had presented an impeccable rendition of “Koniyadina Na Pai” in Kambhodi. When I explained I was out of town that day, he said he would give me a copy of the concert as I must hear that concert. Instead of waiting for me to go to his home to collect the recording, he drove up to my house and gave me the CD. I have never heard such praise about any other musician in the last ten years. It also goes to show the fanatical devotion of Ranjani’s admirers.
I remember her concerts at Srinivasa Sastri Hall. In one, she sang Sri Muthuswamy Deekshithar’s “Soundararajam Asraye” in Brindavani. A number of rasikas spontaneously shouted “Aha, aha” during the alapana, showing their appreciation. In other concerts, she elaborated ragas such as Bhavapriya and Kokilaravam to the delight of her fans. I also recall her debut performance at the Music Academy where she sang an incomparable Sankarabharanam.
In early 2009, when my brother “Cleveland” V. V. Sundaram asked me to recommend one artist from two names – Ranjani was one of the two — for the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana, I suggested Ranjani and asked him to listen to the recording of “Soundararajam Asraye”. After listening for barely 5 minutes, he said there was no contest at all and at once called up Ranjani inviting her to perform in Cleveland.
We saw Ranjani become a regular performer at the Music Academy and also give several off-Season concerts in Chennai. She was becoming better known and sabha secretaries were happy that they now had a stellar artist whom they could feature in their programs.
I was looking forward to listening to Ranjani in December 2012. One after another, her concerts were cancelled. The only explanation was that she had undergone surgery and was recuperating. Only in early June 2013, I heard the shocking news that she was seriously ill. A week later came the sad news that Ranjani had passed away. Like all others who had known and admired her, I was stunned.An old proverb says: Those whom the Gods love, die young. Surely Ranjani was so loved by Gods that she was taken away from us in the prime of her youth.
We have lost a great musician who would have become a sensation in a few years’ time. But Ranjani’s voice is not stilled. We have recordings of at least some of her concerts so that we can listen to her music. And as a friend and musician put it, she will be reborn soon to continue her talent. And in a dozen years’ time, when we hear that clear sweet voice again, we will know that a new Ranjani is amongst us, born to fulfill the promise that Ranjani Hebbar wasn’t fated to fulfill in her lifetime.
Article by V. Chellappa