Ranjani Hebbar: A Gifted Vocalist

V Ramnarayan

A cruel fate silenced the enchanting voice of Carnatic vocalist Ranjani Hebbar forever when she passed away at a very young age earlier this year.

Ranjani had every attribute demanded of a top class artiste—a nuanced understanding of raga bhava, control over rhythm, and a seamless ability to modulate her sweet, blemishless voice.

The last time I heard Ranjani live was at a thematic chamber concert in October last year. She was eminently qualified to do justice to the title of the concert Mysore Durbar, hailing as she did from Udupi—home of the famous Krishna temple—with its proximity to the royal palace of Mysore, a major centre of music. It was hardly

surprising given her background that her performance that evening of the varied compositions of the likes of Purandaradasa, Yoganarasimha, Vasudevachar, Sadasiva Rao, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar and Basavanna was both authentic and intensely emotive.

Kedaragowla is a raga that is as Carnatic as they come, and Ranjani extracted its essence in her pure voice miraculously filled with the weight of tradition, but what took first time listeners by surprise was her brilliant handling of Hindustani ragas like Marubihag and Jhinjhoti. It was no surprise however to her regular fans familiar with her mastery of ragas of northern origin.

For Ranjani, like other musicians of her generation in South Kanara, grew up listening as much to Hindustani as Carnatic music, thanks to the powerful impact of the greats of the Dharwar region, from Bhimsen Joshi down to Jayateerth Mevundi.

A very traditional south Indian raga, one of those Ranjani purveyed in the Mysore concert, is her namesake, an asymmetric, pentatonic arrangement with very beautiful turns of phrase. To my ears at least, the raga Ranjani had rarely before sounded so poignant. I meant to ask the singer if it was her favorite raga, but forgot in the euphoria

she induced with the magnificent conclusion of the concert in a garland of ragas she wove together.

Some friends and admirers have described Ranjani as unlucky in her career, someone who did not receive the right breaks at the right time, despite all-round excellence rarely seen in a young musician.. I remember asking vidwan TM Krishna a couple of years ago why he chose to feature Ranjani Hebbar in a concert series he organized to promote young talent, when she was already in a higher league. His reply both depressed me and gave me a warm feeling. “For such a good young talent, I find that she has very few concert opportunities,” he said, “I thought I would cheer her up.” I began to follow Ranjani’s career with greater interest.

Disappointed to learn that she was still placed in the 12 noon slot—the lowest in the hierarchy of daily concerts during the December season at the Music Academy—and convinced she belonged in the senior category, I made my way to the hall on the appointed hour. I could not believe my eyes when I entered the auditorium and found a

young man singing in her place. I had missed the newspaper announcement about the change in program. Little did any of us know that we would never hear her again in a concert.

We all know that growing up in Udupi, Ranjani benefited from the nurturing home environment created by her parents Vasantalakshmi and Aravinda Hebbar and the mentoring of her first guru Madhoor Balasubramaniam. Her ringing voice easily traversed two and a half octaves in perfect sruti, and with her facile grasp, she built up an

excellent repertoire, impressing the visiting musicians at the sabha her parents run. That leading vocalist S Sowmya took her under her wing and after her move to Chennai, also enrolled her with the late Chingleput Ranganathan for specialized training is now part of history. When her Mysore flair met their Madras orthodoxy, the result was an original blend all her own, a new sound unheard in the circuit.

Her lovely voice, her nuanced rendering of a complex art through uncluttered expression, her firm views on tradition and creativity which she found no need to publicly articulate—all these qualities made Ranjani Hebbar a very special musician, a very special person. They earned her the love and admiration of a devoted group of fans

in Chennai. Many of them were present in the Raga Sudha hall recently when the organizers of the SAFE annual music series played a 45-minute recording of her singing. There was hardly a dry eye in the auditorium when Ranjani’s voice took us back to happier times. Rarely has Carnatic music lost such a brilliant talent so young.

Article by V Ramanarayan


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