The name Susheelarani Patel may not evoke many memories, including with those who consider anything other than classical music an absolute din. So when Patel, a classical singer and winner of the Sangeet Natak Academy and Dada Sahab Phalke awards passed away last week in Girnar, her plush Bandra bungalow in Mumbai, not many took notice. Despite government recognition, no death notices and eulogies surfaced and the social network remained silent. Even the bloggers didn’t seem to show any buzz of concern this time. If she existed, in flesh and blood, and was worthy of the honours she received, one wonders why she didn’t feature among the popular classical musicians of the country or why her passing went unnoticed.
When we decide to scratch through the thicket of ambiguity, a YouTube video, only comprising an audio file, comes to the rescue. It has Susheelarani crooning Lagat nazar tori chhalaiya along with singer Mukesh, in her husband and film critic Baburao Patel’s film, Gwalan. It’s a nasal voice, like many others of the time, but is still full-throated, with every murki and every khatka — even in this simple folk ditty — speaking volumes of her classical training. The voice flows and complex note patterns are delivered with precision. What’s interesting is the way her voice twirls and finds itself criss-crossing paths with the rhythm.
Some sleuthing digs up something more. Legendary musician Moghubai Kurdikar taught two significant artistes, among others, in her lifetime. Her daughter and the doyen of Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, Kishori Amonkar was one, while Susheelarani Patil was the other. While Amonkar went on to become one of the most iconic classical female vocalists of our times, Patel, who trained for 20 years with Kurdikar, was lost in oblivion. Draupadi and Gwalan were the only two films she sang for, apart from a few classical concerts.
“I think she learnt from one of the finest musicians. Moghubai ji was iconic in every sense of the word. But the guru also had a daughter to concentrate upon,” says Radhika Nayak, Susheelarani’s student and in-charge of her trust, somewhat hinting upon the lineage system in Hindustani classical set-up, the one where giving best of those abstract aesthetics to the artiste’s own child and not other students has been a known fact for years. There was another reason too.
Her husband, the editor of Filmindia — one of the more scathing film magazines — was extremely possessive of her. “She mostly lived in his shadow. In fact, I think he was a little too envious of her. She was so beautiful that if she continued in acting, playback singing or performed regularly in the classical circuit, things would have been different today,” says Ravi Rao, Susheelarani’s Hyderabad-based nephew.
It was only in 1982, after Patel died, that Susheelarani began a proper career. She was 62. “At that age, even the best artistes begin to falter. But Susheela continued…