The print media-certainly the English media-did itself proud by taking the maximum possible notice of the passing away, in the last few weeks, of five of India’s most distinguished leaders in the fields of literature, music and drama. Kamala Das, the rebel Malayalam writer, Tanvir Habib, the great theatre legend who, in the words of The Times of India (June 9) “blended poetry and culture”, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the celebrated sarod player who was hailed by no less a figure than Yehudi Menuhin as “the greatest musician in the world” and Afternoon Despatch & Courier hailed as “a man who took Indian classical music beyond the boundaries of his country”, DK Pattammal who was described in The Hindu as one whose voice “touched the skies”, and Gangubai Hangal, who as the media acknowledged, “mesmerised millions” with her melodious voice.
Death, as the poet James Shirley wrote “lays its icy hands on kings”. We accept it humbly, knowing that time, stern huntsman, cannot be baulked. Yet the loss hurts those who grew reading or watching or listening to these great stalwarts who, in their time, made life bearable by their contribution. Kamala Das was an outright rebel whose works stirred up passion. She wrote both in English and in Malayalam and her advocacy of women’s rights and liberation will be remembered for generations. Tributes to her came from many quarters and the media supported those sentiments.
Frontline (July17) described Ustad Ali Khan as “perhaps the most gifted of all the instrumentalists to have graced the Hindustani music scene in the past hundred years”, adding that “after all the panegyrics die down and people pay attention to the music and music alone, they will understand what a magnificent musician Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was”. Bonsy Desai writing of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in Afternoon Despatch & Courier (July 11) said that if Michael Jackson was “the King of Music, Khan Saheb was the Emperor”. Which indeed he was. One suspects that the reason why the Indian media did not give adequate coverage to his passing-away was because he had made the United States his home and partly because, one suspects, a younger generation of reporters and editors had never heard him play.
DK Pattammal got high coverage in The Hindu, and understandably so. In a way, she was a prototype of M Subbulakshmi who made it to great music heights, just as Rukmini Devi Arundale did in the field of dance. Both were Brahmins by birth. In their time, dance and music were forbidden fields for Brahmin girls to enter. They were the exclusive preserve of devadasis. Rukmini Devi was the first to cross the Laxman rekha. Pattammal followed suit. And as Vatsala Vedantam wrote in The Hindu (July 24): “In the public domain of Carnatic classical music, she changed the relationship between women and music for ever.” Pattammal was traditionalist and never strove for effect. But, according to another writer, Gowri Ramanarayan, DKP “could create the same heightened emotion with her signature kriti, the magnificent Soundara rajam (brindavana saranga).
Gangubai Hangal too had a problem to face: caste. Her father, Chikkuru Nadiger, was an agriculturist and her mother, Ambabai, a vocalist of Carnatic music. For women of her generation (she died at the age of 96 at Hubli, on July 21), she certainly taught courage in choosing music as her career. Known for her deep and powerful voice, she first studied under Krishnacharya and Dattopant Desai before becoming a disciple of Sawai Gandharva, to become a legend in her lifetime. Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan has been quoted as saying: “She (Gangubai) carried with her an aura of the old world charm and the great legacy of Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan and Sawai Gandharva (Pandit Rambhau Kundgolkar).” Gangubai was a singer of the Kirana gharana.
Habib Tanvir received high accolade in Mainstream (June 25). He was born Habib Ahmed Khan, but because he wrote poems at an early age under the name ‘Tanvir’, that struck to him throughout his later years. He was a Leftist. Among Tanvir’s seminal works are Agra Bazaar, Charandas Chor and Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya. He also produced Mitti Ki Gadi, a translation of Shudraka’s Mrichchakatikam. Using six actors from Chhattishgarh, he produced the play not on conventional lines but on folk stage lines. Incidentally, a new book is out on MS Subbulakshmi and her daughter Radha, which India Today (July 20) in its review describes as “a wonderful visual book”.
How little we know of all our celebrities in this day and age when newspaper readers seem enamoured only of the Third Page and the Free Press Journal’s Glam Page! One wonders how many of the younger generation had heard of Pattammal, let alone Habib Tanvir. And when we are about it how many are aware of two other distinguished names whose birth centenary falls this year? Both Durgabai Deshmukh’s and Aruna Asaf Ali’s birth centenary should be celebrated for their contribution to India’s freedom struggle. Mainstream (July 18) even carried an old article on Aruna by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru. Aruna played an important part in the Quit India movement and subsequently in the Naval Mutiny of 1946. As for Durgabai, who had married late in life, she had been described by The Hindu as one who “revolutionised the concept of social work, building on the diverse foundations laid by statespersons like Ramabai Ranade, Mahatma Gandhi and Kakasaheb Kalekar”. Yet another celebrity, though not so well known as others, also passed away in June this year. She is Lakshmi Krishnamurti, only daughter of the famous Tamil Congressmen of the thirties and forties, S Satyamurti. The Emergency disturbed her and in her own way she fought it and her home in Chennai became a centre of anti-Emergency activists. She subsequently became one of the founder-members of the Janata Party and later a publisher as well. India has reason to be proud of her even if a younger generation has hardly heard of her or even of her more illustrious father.