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Strains Of A Bias

SUNIL SETHI regrets a simplistic attempt to introduce gender politics in the Indian classical tradition

Conversations with Women Musicians
By C.S. Lakshmi
Kali for Women
Price: Rs 400

Oral history, the idea of recording people’s life stories in a taped dialogue, as a source of primary evidence is a method of comparatively recent provenance, though much in prevalence in America. It carries the inherent advantages and disadvantages of the interview format. The effort is to catch the speaker’s ‘‘voice’’, in all its nuances from personal recollection to general observation or opinion, but its measure of success is entirely dependent on the speaker’s level of articulation and also on how much the interviewee is willing to reveal of herself. Musicians, one would have thought, would be hard nuts to crack — words, after all, are not their chosen metier. And in the case of women musicians, the task is more difficult still, because many Indian women who performed professionally till the mid-20th century were descended from the devadasi-tawaif tradition. Their personal histories and working lives were swiftly concealed in the tightly-spun cocoon of social respectability. Whipping out a tape recorder for an extended heart-to-heart would hardly seem the most efficient way of getting at the truth. Tamil writer and researcher C.S. Lakshmi’s effort suffers from some of these built-in problems.

And it suffers from one more: although at the outset of her long, rambling and not particularly well argued or lucid introduction Lakshmi says she sought to interview women musicians not to place them in a ‘‘ghetto of the feminine’’ but to place them ‘‘as women sharing a historical context... in a patriarchal society’’, it turns out that the 18 women musicians interviewed don’t quite fit her feminist scheme.

Each is as different as chalk from cheese, each a distinctive, original voice, each engaged in her own struggle in an entirely individual way. The way these women view their music, their guns, their professional growth, their families, indeed their accompanists and patrons (who were mostly men) is quite different from one another. The late violinist Philomena Thumboochetty, ghatam player Sukanya Ramgopal and others are not the only ones to repudiate Lakshmi’s query, whether their teachers taught boys and girls in different ways.

Gangubai Hangal, whose performance is distinguished by her remarkable voice and who has never made a secret of the fact that she hails from the devadasi tradition, sounds rather bewildered when Lakshmi asks her if her guru asked her to develop a particular, albeit ladylike and cultured, singing voice. ‘‘My guru said, you sing the way your voice goes.’’ And Gangubai seems amazed when Lakshmi asks if it were true that well-known tabla players such as Allah Rakha Khan refused to accompany women singers. ‘‘Who says that?’’ retorts Gangubai. ‘‘With me Allah Rakha has played... Thirakwa Khan Saheb has played. Not playing with women! I never knew this.’’

Whereupon Lakshmi is forced to admit that such discrimination existed among Carnatic performers. Such interlocutions in several of the interviews suggest that Lakshmi may be forcing the issue of gender discrimination where none existed and where differences may simply be over, say, which performer obtained better concerts (therefore better fees) for accompanists. Gharaneydaar musicians, then as now, were professional about such matters, yet it is odd that money — which after all is a musician’s main source of livelihood — is rarely mentioned. In an interview she gave to a newspaper not long ago Gangubai Hangal was delightfully candid on the subject. ‘‘At the end of the day I must tell you,’’ she told the profile-writer, ‘‘that I sing to fill my stomach.’’ Indeed, it’s true that she worked as heroically in service of her musical gift as to support her own and her ‘‘husband’s’’ family.

It was the established patriarchies of caste and class as much as gender that created the devadasi-tawaif tradition. To separate one from the other would be absurd, like falling for the Bollywood myth of the reluctant courtesan. Exploitation between musician and patron was mutual and upheld by the love of music. On occasion the class divide was bridged in unexpected ways. A counterpoint to Gangubai Hangal’s story is that of Naina Devi, the thumri singer and distinguished music producer of All India Radio. Born Nilina Sen, granddaughter of the Bengali reformer Keshub Chandra Sen, she was married into a princely family of Punjab.

Widowed young, her love of music flowered, and her quest for perfecting the light classical forms of thumri and dadra led her to court the courtesans! In her interview she confessed that she was flattered when a tawaifs’ conference invited her after hearing her voice on radio. But C.S. Lakshmi is right to point out that Nilina Sen had to leave her upper-class antecedents before metamorphosing as Naina Devi.

Unfortunately few of the interviews here are as revealing, in the resonance of their life and work, as that of Gangubai Hangal or Naina Devi. Some of the musicians, such as violinist Philomena Thumboochetty, the first Indian to be admitted to the Paris conservatoire, failed to live up to their early promise; others, such as the Sikkil sisters, both flautists, who married the same person to be able to perform together, or Kaleeshabi Mahaboob Subhani and Sukanya Ramgopal, rare among women for playing the nadaswaram and ghatam respectively, find it hard to give sufficient expression in words to their life or art.

Some of country’s top women musicians, D.K. Pattamal, Kishori Amonkar and Girija Devi, were either unwilling to talk or unavailable. But the author has valiantly decided to plough a long furrow: she wishes to expand the range of interviews to include women dancers, artists and folk artists in further volumes. Although her introduction contains some useful nuggets of research and information, it is heavy going. The range of ideas expressed in it are insufficiently supported by the uneven interviews. And some of the writing is jargon, tiresome and indigestible. ‘‘Recalling my dialogues with the women,’’ writes C.S. Lakshmi, ‘‘it occurred to me that, in actuality, the erasure of boundaries does not actually mean an absence of specificity, as much as an expansion of it or of multiplicity.’’ This kind of writing is unlikely to encourage her readership.

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