The enchanting voice of Carnatic vocalist Ranjani Hebbar has been silenced forever. She succumbed to cancer at barely 30 years of age.
Like her many admirers, I had been puzzled by Ranjani’s slow ascent in the music world even though she possessed every asset her art demands. What gave hope still was the thought that her best was yet to come. That hope has now been so brutally dashed.
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, Yoganarasimham, 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 piercingly 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. Not so her regular fans familiar with her mastery of ragas of northern origin.
For Ranjani, like other musicians of her generation in that part of Karnataka known as 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.
One of the ragasRanjani purveyed in the Mysore concert, a very traditional south Indian one, was 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 favourite raga, but forgot in the euphoria she induced with the magnificent conclusion of the concert in a garland of ragas she wove together. My young musician friend Swaroop, mesmerized by Ranjani’s voice, waxed lyrical about the way “she cajoled a spectacular variety of sangatis, using jumps, drifts and curves.” He also said “she was unafraid to tread new waters… within the broad boundaries of the raga.”
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 tend to agree; I am also convinced she was unfairly treated by those who make and mould careers. 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 programme. Little did any of us know that we would never hear her again in a concert.
Growing up in Udupi, Ranjani benefited from the nurturing home environment created by her parents Vasantalakshmi and Aravinda Hebbar who ran Ragadhana, a sabha that hosted every prominent Carnatic musician over the last two decades. Showing a precocious ability to identify ragas even as a child, she soon started winning every prize possible in inter-school music competitions, with lessons from her parents and 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. She impressed visiting musicians with her poise and control, and it was only a matter of time before she came under the kindly gaze of one of them. 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 specialised 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.
Ranjani Hebbar had a considerable following in Chennai. A small group of her devoted fans—Narasimhan, Abhinay, Venkateswaran, Kannan and Vijay—who rarely miss her concerts, believe she is the equal of any of the reigning stalwarts of today. They blame a bias in favour of local talent for her relative lack of opportunity. Promising vocalist Vasudha Ravi found inspiration in Ranjani’s music, “complete in all aspects”, and her incredible equanimity. “Always mature and calm, she never tried to push herself forward.”
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. Rarely has Carnatic music lost such a brilliant talent so young.