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 Dadasaheb Phalke awards passed away recently 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 Patel 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. Moghubaiji 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 aunty was so full of life. I still remember the concerts we used to have on the ground floor hall of Girnar,” says Naik, adding that unlike most traditional gurus, who can be reluctant givers in terms of knowledge, Susheelarani had so much to offer. “So much so that it was a breakneck speed and I had to keep up with it. But there was no race. We were not pushed to sing in a higher pitch if we could not. Her idea was to sing comfortably and not strain the voice. She was the one who insisted that I learn purab ang thumris from another guru. Subsequently, I also started learning Hindustani classical music from another guru, and she supported it. She never ever stunted my growth, which was her biggest quality as a guru,” she says.
And Susheelarani never held back. She gave Nayak and the students those rare compositions — the bandishes and bhajans of Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, some of which have been closely guarded by its custodians. “She always believed that music is to be taught, performed and enjoyed; it is not to be hoarded,” says Nayak. Patel passed away at home, not far from one of her favourite photographs — that of the-then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru trying to adjust her pallu. “It’s a weirdly sweet moment captured and put up at Girnar,” says Rao.