With Veena Sahasrabuddhe’s demise, Hindustani classical music has lost one of the finest stalwarts of the Gwalior Gharana. She was ailing from a rare neurological condition.

Veena Sahasrabuddhe was born in Kanpur on September 14, 1948 as the last of three siblings. She had an older brother Kashinath Bodas and an older sister who died prematurely. Her parents hailed from Sangli in Maharashtra.

Steeped in tradition

Her father Shankar Shripad Bodas was a contemporary of Omkarnath Thakur and Vinayakrao Patwardhan, and one of the earliest students of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar who founded the famous Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. Bodas was specially deputed by Paluskar to move to Kanpur from Mumbai and spread music. Bodas and Shanta migrated to Kanpur in 1926, founded a Sangit Samaj and began teaching students, inviting other performers and propagating music. The Paluskar tradition was essentially in the Gwalior Gharana style and temperament of singing. Kanpur was an industrial town without any notable cultural life, particularly classical music. Until then, Uttar Pradesh had other places such as Banaras and Allahabad where music thrived.

Veena’s mother Shanta was also a singer and taught music in local schools in Kanpur. Veena grew up in this musical atmosphere at home. In addition to training from her father, she also trained with her brother Kashinath.

Image courtesy: Veejay Sai
Image courtesy: Veejay Sai

Veena’s father and brother sent her to train further with Balwant Rai Bhatt, a student of Omkarnath Thakur and later Vasant Thakar , the son and student of Anand Rao Thakar. Both Omkarnath and Anand Rao were students of Paluskar and in that sense Veena was training within the framework of the Paluskar school and style of vocalism. She was, one can say, pickled into that system and became an able inheritor of the Gwalior legacy. Veena began performing at a very early age in Kanpur.

Veena graduated in vocal music, Sanskrit and English literature in 1968 from the Kanpur University. The same year she was married to Hari Sahasrabuddhe. While Hari was not a performing musician, he was a great rasika. As a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, one of Hari’s first engineering projects was to create an amplifier. As Veena’s life partner, Hari had his own role to play, as a rasika with a critical ear.

Meanwhile, Veena was making waves as a performer. She also began teaching students who came to her. She taught at IIT in Kanpur and several other places. She also kept her regular education going. She got a Sangeet Alankar, equivalent to a Master’s degree in vocal music, from the Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya Mandal in 1969 and a master’s degree in Sanskrit from Kanpur University a decade later in 1979.

The soaring Gwalior vocalist

Veena and Hari Sahasrabuddhe decided to migrate to Pune in 1984. At the time of their leaving Kanpur, Veena had already trained almost 50 students in music. Her teaching methodology was to help her in her later years. Listen to this short clipping from later years, where she speaks of subtle differences between Ragas of the same scale. Her experience as a teacher comes through when you listen to how effortlessly she changes the Ragas Puriya, Sohini and Marwa that are from one scale.

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The year Veena and Hari Sahasrabuddhe migrated, she was invited to sing in the prestigious Sawai Gandharva Music Festival organised by Pt Bhimsen Joshi, in the memory of his Guru. The festival in Pune was one of the landmark festivals on the Hindustani classical calendar and Pt Joshi maintained high standards of programming. Only those whose music thoroughly convinced him were presented to the discerning audiences of Pune, the heartland of Hindustani classical music. Veena’s concert in December 1984 revealed her musical virtuosity. She was hailed as one of the superstars on the scene. Her powerful voice projection and singing pronounced the salient features of the Gwalior gayaki like no other female vocalist of that time.

Listen to a clipping of her rendering Raag Chayanat.

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Along with her performance career, she also continued her music education under another stalwart of the Gwalior tradition, Pt Gajananrao Joshi. A versatile musician who could also play the Hindustani violin with equal mastery, “Gajananbuva” as he was fondly addressed, was a strict Guru who trained some of the top class vocalists, such as Ullhas Kashalkar. Veena trained under his guidance for some time. Gajananbuva’s training enhanced her music further. The finer aspects of a bandish, the emotional quality of a raga and the strict adherence to classicism were some of her signatures.

Listen to her rendering of Raag Tilak Kamod.

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In 1988, she was conferred the honorary doctorate of Sangeet Praveen by the Vidyalaya. Veena Sahasrabuddhe had a successful performing career. She and her brother Kashinath were also highly influenced by the music of Kumar Gandharva. Experimenting in composing Kashinath tuned the famous Kabir Bhajan Ghat Ghat Mein Panchi which became a regular in Veena’s concerts. Listen to it here.

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While most classical vocal concerts of the Gwalior Gharana kept lighter semi-classical pieces like Tappa towards the end of their concerts, Veena would sing songs of Kabir. In this way, she was a trendsetter among the female vocalists of the 1980s.

Veena also tuned a lot of Khayal bandishes and bhajans. From 2002 to 2004, Veena served as the adjunct professor in the Humanities department at IIT-Mumbai and conducted a series of music appreciation courses on campus. Veena had two children, a son, Lakshman, and a daughter, Durga. Neither of them took to music. But she trained a number of students – Surashree Ullhas Joshi trained for 14 years under her, while Savani Shinde and Aparna Gurav have made a good name for themselves among young generation of concert musicians. Jayanti, who studied music for five years under Veena’s guidance, became her daughter-in-law.

Several other students, including Ranjani Ramachandran, who went ahead to pursue music at ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata, and Mowna Ramachandra of Bangalore continue to spread the music they learnt from Veena.

Veena gave her last concert on December 2, 2012. She was detected with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare degenerative neurological condition that affects one in a thousand people. This disease has no known cure. In 2013, Veena was awarded the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award for her contribution to Hindustani vocal music.

Image courtesy: Veejay Sai
Image courtesy: Veejay Sai

The sight of her being taken on a wheelchair to the glittering ceremony in the Rashtrapati Bhavan to receive the award from President Pranab Mukherjee touched many hearts. A gentle giant of music was slowly fading in front of everyone and no one could do anything about it. As she shrank by the day, her husband and her students looked after her. The end came on June 29 at night.

With the demise of Veena Sahasrabuddhe, the Hindustani classical world has lost one of the most authentic exponents of the Gwalior gayaki.

Veejay Sai is a writer , editor and a culture critic