Intimate universe

Print edition : December 30, 2011

An interview with singer Vidya Rao on her book about her guru and legendary musician Naina Devi.

AN intimate universe unravelled through the passionate notes of thumri, inseparable from the cadence of lived life: this is what best describes well-known singer Vidya Rao's recently released book on her guru, the legendary musician Naina Devi (1917-1993). At the core of Heart to Heart: Remembering Nainaji (published by HarperCollins) is a crucial question: as art practitioners, how do women choose to express both the tradition they inherit and what they inscribe into their own voices.

Trained under Girja Shankar Chakravarty, Mushtaq Husain Khan and Rasoolan Bai, Naina Devi adopted and fostered the art of thumri singing at a time when few women from respectable families dared take up this art form. Thumri, one of the three major forms of Hindustani classical music, gives equal importance to musical structure and poetic text, vocal techniques and emotive content. It was traditionally performed by courtesan singers for the entertainment of elite patrons. Naina Devi, considered among the most significant names in Hindustani classical music, was also known for her contribution to institution-building, systematising the teaching and learning of the arts in independent India, and her patronage of other artists.

For Vidya Rao, currently a disciple of Shanti Hiranand and Girija Devi, her years of learning with Naina Devi (1986-1993) coincided with extensive research on the performing arts as well as a strong commitment to the women's movement. All these concerns came together in the search for an appropriate voice with which to write Heart to Heart.

In a conversation with this writer, Vidya Rao, who also works part-time as an editorial consultant with Orient Blackswan publishers, spoke about the fascinating process of eschewing an all-knowing, definitive tone for an open-ended narrative that exemplified the essence of a luminous relationship between guru and shishya and simultaneously acknowledged their distinct voices in a journey set against a larger historical backdrop. Excerpts:

It was an extraordinary life spanning almost a century, from Nilina Sen of Calcutta [Kolkata] to Nilina Ripjit Singh of the royal family of Kapurthala to a new identity of Naina Devi.

Hers was an extraordinary life. Few people live in so many different spaces, overcoming so many obstacles, without bitterness or arrogance.

The time I spent with her a little over a very close eight years she spoke often of these many aspects of her life. There was her childhood in Calcutta as Nilina Sen, the granddaughter of a significant Brahmo Samaj leader, Keshub Chandra Sen, in a cultured household. Nainaji would narrate how as a five-year-old she would clamber on to the piano stool and have a maid push the pedals that were too far down for her feet, while she played!

Her story of how she met her first guru, Girja Shankar Chakravarty, during one of the all-night mehfils (soiree) regularly organised by her elder brother Sunit at home moved me greatly. Women were not allowed to be present, but an exception was made for the five-year-old. As Girja babu wound up at dawn with a Bhairavi thumri, he teasingly asked the wide-awake Nilina what she had liked the most. She replied, Your Bhairavi. He asked her to sing it and she did. Girja babu was charmed; [he] picked her up and said, This girl will learn from me. Interestingly, Girja babu also taught a lot of the traditional singers or baijis (courtesans) who were performers.

Unconsciously, perhaps, Nilina had embarked on a journey of music persuading her uncle to take her, secretly, to the Burra Bazaar area to meet the star performer Angurbala, or persuading her parents to let her watch a naach (dance) performance by a galaxy of tawaifs (courtesans) at a grand reception in strict purdah, in the company of the Begum of Rampur.

She often spoke of how women of middle-class families were allowed to learn music but not to be present at mehfils or perform, except as amateurs. Again, while traditional women singers were strongly disapproved of because of social reform ideas and notions of constructing a perfect Indian musical form and ideal of Indian womanhood, many men used to visit them.

Did her musical journey increase in intensity?

Nilina's journey came to an abrupt halt with her rather sudden marriage to Ripjit Singh of the Kapurthala royal family, who fell in love with her after hearing her sing during a chance visit to the city and the Sen household. She was 17 and spent the next 17 years moving amidst royalty. She did not learn music and certainly didn't sing. Nainaji used to talk about this phase a little less or maybe I heard it less, being more interested in other things. Sudden widowhood in 1949 and a life of solitary mourning with four children ultimately made her seek out a new life. She started by singing for All India Radio under the name of Naina Devi.

Why did she change her name?

It was to spare her marital family the embarrassment of having a bahu who sang professionally, in public. But, equally, she mentioned that had she sung as Nilina Ripjit Singh she would not have been taken seriously. At that time and even in my time, if you were not from a family traditionally associated with music you were considered an amateur, singing merely for one's own pleasure. In 1954, Nainaji shifted to Delhi. Flooded with Partition refugees, the capital of newly independent India was engaged with questions of nation-building. Amidst such ferment, courtesy a chance meeting with Sumitra Charat Ram, Nainaji took over as administrative director of the College of Music and Dance [later Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra].

How did life change for Naina Devi?

She began a new life or new lives: as an arts administrator; as a student learning from Mushtaq Husain Khan Sahib of the Rampur gharana and later Rasoolan Bai; and as an acclaimed performer.

Nainaji convinced legendary figures such as the senior Dagar bandhu, Mushtaq Husain Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan, Siddheswari Devi and Shambhu Maharaj to be part of the college faculty and live on the premises. She used to mention how at the crack of dawn Shambhu Maharaj would call her saying, Bandish yaad aa gayi, aa ke suno [I just remembered the musical composition; come and listen]. That is exactly what she would do with me too during the time I learnt from her!

It was a way of being, of living in so many spaces simultaneously, without boundaries: her world in Delhi; the world of her gurus and Sufi pir in Bareilly; the Calcutta of Keshub Chandra Sen's family, the world of her beloved sister Sadhona. Much of this had resonances in my own life.

Was the idea of living through many spaces intriguing?

Yes, but familiar too. This was my own experience of life. What was important for me was the gendered voice in expressive traditions: how women choose to express both the tradition they inherit and what they inscribe into their own voices. Nainaji shared both music and her life story very spontaneously. Writing this wasn't easy. I couldn't ever interview her. Sometimes I would ask about something and not get much response. The moment and its spontaneity had gone. What became important to me, though not very consciously at the time, was to find the right voice to write. I knew that what I did not want was to write Nainaji's definitive biography; as her student I did not have that objectivity. So what form was I to use? The positive thing was that I could look at her life in a way that perhaps not many people are privileged to have done.

It's interesting that when Nainaji picked up the threads of music she chose the thumri form.

She often told me it happened because in the silent years of her marriage, the music she heard, hidden behind a screen, was the mujra of tawaifs to mark life-cycle and other celebrations. If Nainaji liked the music she would ask the singer to come and meet her afterwards and sing for her. Sometimes Nainaji would write down the words. She would tell me often, I stored them away somewhere in my memory. I don't know why I did it, why I called her. There was no chance of my singing.

Did you ever ask her why she did it?

I tried a few times, but there was a closing up on her part. I realised this was not the way to do it. For me it became a way of dropping a kind of arrogance to know exactly why she did or said anything. It was not possible, or even desirable for me to aspire to a kind of omniscience or even objectivity. I felt that I should be content with my guru saying what she wanted to say and take it forward from there in my own way. That was sufficient. Sometimes writing has to take the structure of music, where much is left unsaid. To recognise that means to express something that is tentative, not consciously sealed off.

When a teacher teaches you something, you repeat it, but it shifts in your repeating. When you grow more experienced you respond to it rather than repeat it. To me the process of writing the book became a part of the way of responding in the learning of music or learning to live.

Naina Devi, born Nilina Sen, had an eventful and colourful life.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

What was the texture of this learning relationship?

There was a quality of the tactile. I remember the way she would touch her harmonium and say, So many great people have played this harmonium, such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Begum Akhtar. Their touch was still there for her to connect with.

Strangely, my first meeting with Nainaji in the late 1970s, much before I started learning from her, involved a harmonium! She was visiting Chennai, where I lived. Having agreed to an impromptu baithak [soiree], Naina Devi needed a harmonium. Her granddaughter, who was my neighbour, asked me if I would mind lending it. It was an honour for me; there was this feeling that the harmonium would carry the blessing of Nainaji's touch. Later, I recognised that touch in my own fingers. I never ever dreamt that I would learn from her one day.

Do you remember the day you went to ask her if you could learn from her?

It was a late afternoon in 1986. I was quite scared she would refuse. But instead she was most gracious and agreed instantly. Taking out her harmonium, she began my very first lesson with her, saying Ye bandish hai More naina.' [This is the musical composition, More naina] So I sang it after her. She said, Haan bilkul, tum gaogi, thumri gaogi [Yes, definitely, you will sing thumri].

Nainaji was very friendly. She laughed a lot. She taught unstintingly, which was unusual for those times. Sometimes, she would start teaching and remember a story, which led to something else, which reminded her of a bandish, which made her remember another story. I would go home with three and a half bandishes and several stories. You could say I had not had a proper class or think of it as a class of another kind. Nainaji may not have uttered a connection between the bandish and the story. It was for me to make that connection.

For instance, she often told me the story of the silver ring her guru Rasoolan Bai had given her to wear. Once, during a performance, the ring snapped into two and fell off. Nainaji said she knew for sure that Rasoolan Bai, who had been ailing, had passed away. Later, she found half the ring in her sari, but the other half had vanished. Yeh aadha chandi ka chhalla chhod gayi mere liye [she left half of her silver ring for me], Nainaji would say. I had to think about what that might mean just as I had to practise the music.

How did you comprehend these stories?

Sometimes, you receive half' your guru's learning, either because of your ability or needs, or because what your guru considers worth teaching, or because your guru chooses to do so out of great compassion. It is that missing half that gives you the space and courage to become yourself. This ties up with another issue. Traditionally, women were allowed to teach but were not considered gurus or inscribed in the history of a lineage. They did not tie the formal ganda, or cord, around a student's wrist.

Nainaji maintained that tradition and never performed gandabandhan. I realised that maybe women gurus (and their students) are actually fortunate, for the ganda they give their students is invisible, it doesn't tie them down. One could reinterpret this excluding' of women as powerful a woman's strength is to be part of a wider network capable of liberating one into a much larger world of musical families rather than restricting them to a lineage.

VIDYA RAO IN conversation about Naina Devi. Her years of learning with Naina Devi coincided with extensive research on the performing arts.-AJAY JAIMAN

In the 1980s, I was deeply into the apparently politically incorrect form of thumri and simultaneously involved in the women's movement. It seemed to me that in my interactions with Nainaji I was discovering deeper ways of turning oppressive contexts around. Living in two very different spaces, I think I was understanding both music and women in a very different way.

How did Naina Devi speak of this apparently politically incorrect form of thumri?

Post-Independence there was a tendency to say that if at all thumri, primarily considered erotic, was performed, it had to be sanitised of the entertaining aspect and given a spiritual garb. A clear-cut religiosity crept in with the lyrics being interpreted as referring to atma-parmatma [the human soul and the divine soul]. If asked, Nainaji too would have interpreted thumri thus. But when she was teaching me, my experience was totally different.

In what manner?

As I understand it, the whole point of thumri is to defy classification, move between extremes: now something which appears close to classical; then the same thing with an inflection to give it a bazaar cadence. The quality of thumri's very structure is never to permit certainties; it's quicksilver, fluid moments collapsing boundaries.

Thumri is a sensuous form, not merely because it's about love but because it brings the materiality of different spaces and different times into the form. In its characteristic quality of never permitting certainties it is spiritual and so beautifully playful, like the chunri ki gat of veiling and unveiling in Kathak, as if to say the world both is and isn't; things are both true and not true. Thumri is about the dissolving moment, sensuous and spiritual, but we have to push that understanding, that paradox.

Did Naina Devi ruminate on success, love, performance and life?

She often spoke of love, and people rarely do that. They either sentimentalise it or make a joke of it. All she said was, You have to love. Many people interpreted it as romantic love. But speaking of love, a door opens and it might open out to a greater love. A Sufi poem puts it aptly: In love, I am ripped apart, scattered through the world. In the practice of music, the self is shattered in a way that it is dispersed through many selves. There is this paradox of being totally dispersed even not there at all and totally centred. As with many things in the book, Nainaji didn't articulate this; it was my experience of thumri, of learning and singing thumri, indeed of living.

Is that how the book should be read?

It is only after I finished writing the book that I realised it is actually about a relationship, between Nainaji and myself; it is about her journey and mine, but also about relationships across space and time, some explored more, some less, everywhere a little open-ended. The only thing that I can say with great surety is that hers was an extraordinary life; that she, and I, loves thumri, and that I love her dearly. This is the only aspect of the book which is not open-ended.

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