The Alpha songbirds

Banawari shyam more, aaj ki rain yahin rahiye’ (‘Oh! My lord Krishna, please stay with me tonight’). This is Kishori Amonkar singing the signature Chota Khayal Bandish (composition) in Sampoorna Malkauns.

‘Ganga reti pe bangle chavaye da more raja aawe lahar Jamune ki’ (‘Oh, my beloved, please make a bungalow for me to live in on the sands of the Ganges where the waves of Yamuna come to greet me’). Girija Devi’s Banaras thumri and dadras evoke visions of enchanted lands and timeless traditions. She is quintessentially Banarasi and one of the most celebrated names today.

‘Gana Saraswati’ may be an embellishment for ‘Kishori Tai’, as she is fondly called by her admirers, and Vidushi/Thumri Diva for ‘Appaji’, as Girija Devi is addressed by her growing tribe of fans, but as a musician and their mureed (keen admirer) who has grown up in the Hindustani classical tradition, my musical antennae pick up the frequencies of their moods, their music, the force of their personae and performances, and their individuality.

Arguably, they are the ‘Alpha songbirds’ of Hindustani classical music, who lead by example and epitomise a pioneering spirit in the field of music.

Together with ‘Surshree’ Kesarbai Kerkar, the renowned Jaipur-Atrauli gharana khayal exponent, and Husnabai of Banaras, the legendary thumri performer, these four artistes are the cornerstone of the structure and the elevations of Hindustani classical music. While Kesarbai Kerkar and Husnabai led their genre of music pre-Independence, Girija Devi and Kishori Amonkar have earned their place among the celebrated musicians of today.

As women performers, they are path-breakers. In terms of innovation, they have spawned their own gharanas within the framework of the traditional and historical gharana in which they were trained. Their performances are imbued with a genius’ interpretation of the raga and the literary underpinnings of the compositions they sing. Their command over their medium and their ability to transcend its technicalities to rewrite the rudiments of their genre of music has placed them above others in their profession.

They have also inspired later generations of women performers of both the khayal and thumri. Ashwini Bhide, daughter of Manik Bhide, Shruti Sadolikar and Arti Ankalikar are well-known khayal exponents trained by Kishori Amonkar. Girija Devi’s biggest contribution to the world of music is her dedicated teaching of Hindustani classical music to young aspirants at the famous ITC Sangeet Research Academy (SRA) in Kolkata for over two decades now.

Although this chapter deals with Hindustani classical music, the rich tradition of Carnatic music must find mention, if only in the work of M.S. Subbulakshmi, the renowned Carnatic vocalist. Her mother was a violinist and came from the devdasi tradition. But M.S. Subbulakshmi rose above it to become the only female musician to receive the Bharat Ratna. Her debut, at the prestigious Madras Academy of Music at the age of 13, was her ticket to stardom. The very discerning Academy bent every rule to allow this young girl to regale her audience and critics with bhajans and kritis. Highly decorated and revered and with a career spanning concerts at Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, among others, she is the quintessence of women empowerment through music. Kishori Amonkar called her the eighth sur of the seven-note octave!

Hindustani classical music has been largely a male-dominated bastion, but these women have raised the bar broken traditional moulds, and have become role models for other aspirants and exponents of the genres. Women musicians were referred to as baiji, mere entertainers who were looked down upon. The sheer determination of these women empowered them and opened the doors for singers from non-musical families to embrace music as a career.

These portraits are of true leaders in the field of Hindustani classical music. These musicians have contributed significantly to the evolution and acceptance of women as highly sought after and revered artistes. They symbolise an independent spirit in their quest for excellence in their profession. There was a stigma attached to women singing in public, and many singers, like Husna Jan, came from the courtesan tradition, which was taboo. These women have overcome many obstacles along the way to put their first, ensuring that their names go down in the annals of history immortal artistes of India.

Vidushi Girija Devi is a living legend from Banaras and a formidable presence in the semi-classical genre of thumri, dadra, chaiti, kajri and tappa; in fact, she is the torchbearer of the legacy that Banaras is renowned for: thumri and tappa. It is a legacy handed down by immortals such as Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Jaddan Bai and Badi Moti Bai. Girija Devi is also a khayal maestro.

Thumri was a courtesan art and flourished in Lucknow, Banaras and Gaya, collectively called the poorab-ang thumri. Its patrons were the Nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, himself a poet who wrote many thumris under the pen name of ‘Akhtar Piya’, and the zamindars and royalty, countrywide, who provided the financial support as well as the ambience of their mehfils in which the top performers of dhrupad, khayal, thumri and tappa rendered memorable concerts.

Leisure and pleasure defined the lifestyle of the royalty and the landed gentry prior to Independence and the semi-classical genre was the most preferred. The performers of this genre were mainly women who lived in a gossamer world, oblivious of the realities of social oppression or the social changes that swept India between 1857 and 1947.

Girija Devi was born in 1929 to parents who had moved to the heartland of music and culture, Varanasi, and her father, Ramdas Ji, was an avid music lover and played the harmonium (Mishra, 1997). Girija Devi attributes her musical initiation to her father’s keen desire to train her in Hindustani classical music with the renowned sarangi player of Banaras, Pt. Sarju Prasad Mishra, who became her guru and mentor. He recognised her sharp mind and her finely defined musical learning. The training was hard and the practice arduous. She became an accomplished and consummate performer at the age of 15 and found many platforms in Banaras to express her khayal, thumri, dadra and tappa renderings. She was groomed in advanced thumri singing by Ft. Shri Chandra Mishra, a musician and a scholar of music.

She has been performing at prestigious concerts since 1950. At one of her concerts, Dr S. Radhakrishnan was so enraptured with her performance that he asked her to continue beyond her two-hour performance (ibid.). She became the darling of the media and the discerning audience of Delhi. Girija Devi is a highly decorated musician and has received the Tadma Vibhushan’ from the Government of India and the Tansen Samman’ from the Government of Madhya Pradesh, among other awards. She has received critical acclaim for her performances in the UK, USA and many other countries. The SRA-Guru position makes her a leader in male-dominated academies and training institutions.

As an admirer of ‘Appaji’ from a younger generation, as a musician from the same genre of Banaras thumri, I salute her deep commitment to music and the preservation of our heritage for posterity. Sadly, Hindustani classical music has lost many compositions and styles of performance because many virtuoso performers were not interested in shaping and grooming young minds for a musical career.

I vividly recall my first brush with her as a 10 years old at a concert in Meerut. The seeds of thumri were sown, and I resolved then to be a thumri exponent. Her performance of Jhoola, ‘Siya sangjhook bagia me Ram lalna’ (‘Lord Rama and Sita are on a swing together in the garden’) was unforgettable. Years later, at a baithak in Delhi, I requested her to sing that Jhoola and with a smile she did!

I was in conversation with ‘Appaji’ recently and asked her what her mantra for being ‘Girija Devi’ was. Her answer touched me with its simplicity.

Man ko hamesha taiyaar rakho, kisi bhi kaam ke liye man ko sada taiyaar rakho beta, ghar me khana banana hai to poore man se banao aurjab gana gana hai to bhi man se gao.

(Keep your mind ready for all the responsibilities that a woman and a musician has to shoulder. As women we are mothers and wives having obligations at home as well as challenges in our profession. Have the determination and the willingness to manage both worlds so that you can be at peace and be happy).

‘Man razee rakhna ve yaar!’ (Always keep your heart ready for seeking my beloved!’); strains from the famous Shori Miyan tappas that she sings to perfection and which is her holy grail Her mantra projects femininity as an extension of her personality and she approaches any dialogue from a graceful feminine platform There is no need to try and be the number-one man in a man’s world she says, be the number-one woman instead! ‘Appaji’ leads a full and busy life. She has been a nurturing mother, a doting grandmother, a performer and living legend, and a teacher for those who seek the same path. She places her role of family-head as equally important and believes that women artistes must go about their daily routine with a smile, ready for whatever comes their way.

Her time for focused thinking and reflection are the early morning hours. She rolls the swars in her mind and reworks the kahan or the way of saying the lyrics, arranging and rearranging it towards perfection. ‘Train the mind and the rest will follow’, and gratitude for her motherly and affectionate guidance and margdarshan are what I took with me after a recent conversation with her.

Husna Jan or Husnabai was a renowned thumri singer of Banaras at a time when thumri was a courtesan tradition and the affluent royals, zamindars and the races were its chief patrons. Husnabai was a contemporary of Bhartendu Harish Chandra, the famous poet and a leading litterateur of Banaras, who was gaining fame at the time. Husnabai often corresponded with Bhartendu Harish Chandra, and took his advice and opinion on poetic expression. Rai Krishna Das, the famous literary historian and musicologist received many rare’photographs of Chandra from Husnabai. Her thumri and other sub-genres of thumri were published as Madhu Tarang (Sharma, 2012) Bhartendu Harish Chandra also got her to compose the Geet

Govind by Jaidev.

The Kotha tradition gave livelihood to the singing and dancing divas of yore and their art was a source of entertainment for landed gentry and royalty. Husnabai commanded a lot of respect and popularity even though she was not as famous as the latter-day singers of Banaras, such as Siddheshwari and Rasoolan Bai, who performed all over India. But Husnabai was well known in UP as an expert in khayal, thumri and tappa gayaki. Husnabai was in the same league as Vidyadhari and Badi Moti Bai, masters of the art of thumri and tappa. Much is known and written about Gauhar Jan Siddheshwari Devi and Rasoolan Bai, performers par excellence’, but few know that Husnabai was the one who redefined and revolutionised the singing tradition of Banaras in the early 1900s when she came under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi, singing patriotic songs and inspiring other courtesan singers to do the same.

The elite and the royals often sent their scions to these kothas to get a taste and a feel of the Adabjehzeeb and the Nafasat (‘the etiquette and the charming social disposition’) of which these Tawaifs, or courtesans, were the embodiment. The word ‘tawaif is the name given to singing and nautch girls in the Mughal period.

Husnabai was also referred to as ‘Sarkar’ or chieftain, as she rose to great heights during her career. Trained by Thakur Prasad Mishra and the famous sarangi player Pt. Shambhunath Mishra, her tappa gayaki made her popular with the affluent patrons of Banaras and this she mastered from the legendary Chote Ramdas Ji of Banaras.

The daughters of courtesans became courtesans. They were born into the tradition and were taught by musicians employed by their mothers. Husnabai’s family and social circumstances led her to embrace the life of a singing woman or a tawaif and she mastered the art enough to command a name and position in society. But Husnabai was also a leader. When Gandhi came through Kashi (Banaras) and Nainital during the non-cooperation movement, he appealed to the tawaif to jettison the life of prostitution and take on other careers. Husnabai galvanised a movement in which she influenced these women to earn a living by singing bhajans and patriotic songs instead, and be freed from a life of indignity. Many of them joined the charkha movement subsequently. While the followers of Gandhi began picketing outside the homes of prostitutes in Amritsar, forcing many to leave, the Kashi courtesans, led by Husnabai, continued their fight for rehabilitation. She redefined the meaning of leadership and formed the Tawaif Sabha (courtesan federation of Kashi)’ with the twin objective of supporting the national movement and reforming the lives of courtesans. Varvadhu Vivechan, the complete text of Husnabai’s presidential speech at the inauguration of the Sabha is available in Varvadhu Vivechan (Sahitya Sadan, Amritsar, 1929).

Husnabai recited the nationalistic poem:

Mandir me hai chand chamakta, masjid main hai murli ki taan Makka ho chahe Vrindavan, hole aapas main qurbaan

(The moon shines in the temple and Krishna’s flute enchants all in a mosque. Both Mecca and Vrindavan are unified to sacrifice themselves for each other.)

At a time when her only source of livelihood depended on her being a courtesan, Husnabai dared to look at the larger picture, the freedom of her fellow courtesans from a life of indignity, and their collective contribution to the freedom movement. She exhorted fellow courtesans to learn from the life of Joan of Arc and the women of Chittoregarh.3 Wear iron shackles instead of gold ornaments, she said, but veer away from a life that is not honourable. Together with her courtesan friends, she boycotted foreign goods to embrace swadeshi.

She persuaded the courtesans to begin their recitals with a nationalistic/patriotic composition. She advised them to collect these patriotic songs from Vidyadhari Bai, another famous courtesan singer of Banaras. This was Husnabai’s masterstroke! These courtesans could not leave their profession without an alternative for financial reasons. This step was a transition to an alternate livelihood, with Husnabai continuing to lobby for the restoration of dignity and respect for these musicians.

Husnabai had a Hindu lover, Husnawale Das. For her, humanity transcended religion, and when he died, she had a dharmashala and a mandir constructed in his memory. They were called the Radha-Krishna temple and the Krishna dharmashala.

Legend has it that Husnabai once turned down the attentions of a zamindar who arrived at her kotha to hear her sine His footsteps on the staircase made a thumping sound that offended Husna’s refined sensibilities and she refused to sing. If a person did not have basic etiquette, how could he appreciate her music? He turned back with the wads of money he had brought for her. Husnabai died in 1935.

Padma Vibhushan Kishori Amonkar and ‘Surshree’ Kesarbai Kerkar are the two ends of the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana spectrum, arguably the most influential gharana of khayal gayaki along with the Kirana gharana.

Kesarbai inherited the formidable Ustad Alladiya Khan legacy. Her music was not for the masses but for the elite and the affluent kingdoms who were her patrons. Kishori Amonkar has a special place in the hearts of music lovers in the country and around the world with her inimitable style. Kishori Tai, as she is lovingly called, is a living legend and a maestro. Her ‘Romantic classicism’, as described by Padmashri Gajendra Narayan Singh, renowned music historian and musicologist, sets her apart from her contemporaries and later-day Jaipur-Atrauli performers (Sharma, 1999).

Young Kishori was trained by her illustrious mother Mogubai Kurdikar in the Ustad Alladiya Khan and Ustad Haider Khan tradition of this gharana. Her mother, whom she called ‘Maee’, Marathi for mother, became her mentor, her axis and her centre of gravity. She learnt the traditional compositions of her gharana and believes in being true to the bandish or the composition; but her approach to a raga and her firm belief that music and its performance is greater than a gharana has taken her to great heights in Khayal Gayaki. For her, ‘Gana Gharane se oopar hai’ (‘the song is greater than the gharana’), says her disciple Nandini Bedekar. Gharana parampara (heritage of the gharana tradition) is the key ingredient, but what makes music memorable is how we relate to it emotionally. This very emotionality imbues Kishori Tai’s music with subtlety and lends it an indescribable delicacy. Who can forget her rendition of raga Basanti Kedar, Bageshwari, Jaunpuri, Sampoorna Malkauns and Yaman? In fact, the commonly sung chota khayal bandish in Yaman, ‘Ae ri aali piya bina’, when performed by Kishori Amonkar, transcends time and space as she soars into a metaphysical world where the common becomes celestial. Her ability to rise above the ordinary and the mundane gives her an edge and secures her an unbeatable stature in the annals of Hindustani music. Her famous composition in raga Bhoop—’Sahela re aa mil gayen, sapt suran ke bhed sunayen’—takes the ordinary and the mundane to the heavenly and metaphysical.

If you thought that khayal is her only forte, think again as you immerse yourself in her Bhairavi thumri ‘Koyaliya na bol daar, tarsat jiyara hamaaf (‘hey Cuckoo, don’t sing on the branches of the tree as it makes my heart miss my beloved’). Every note is enveloped in the pathos and the pangs of separation. She manages to live her bandishes.

Kishori Amonkar is often labelled as temperamental, difficult and moody. But this comes from her obsession with being a perfectionist who will not compromise her pursuit of excellence. She is a sadhak (one who devotes oneself to practice); she is a tapaswini (one who goes into deep meditation). She is the eternal Meera and she sings for her Krishna. Her art is an expression of her meditations of music; her music is an expression of her myriad moods.

Nandini Bedekar reveals how Kishori Amonkar has redefined khayal singing. Once, while practicing raga Bageshwari, she felt a deep sadness when it was over. Perhaps this was the influence of the raga on her mind? This revelation is what led to her singular ability to depict the varying moods that a raga induces. As an intelligent performer she began approaching the raga and deciphering its emotive content. The rest followed. ‘Get into the feeling and the bhav of that raga’, she says to her disciples. ‘Go beyond the medium and its technicalities.’ She says, ‘I can see the raga right in front of me, I can see its shape and dimensions. As I age, 1 am able to see new nuances in each raga, the bhav of the raga is greater than any gharana or any performer.’ Kishori Amonkar’s emotional approach to her raga and her rendering of it is her own discovery as an artiste that makes her a true leader who spawned an entire school of the Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists who have inherited her legacy.

Rabindranath Tagore gave her the title of Surshree (one who is the queen of notes), and the world knows her as the legendary Goa-born Kesarbai Kerkar, the most celebrated khayal singer and perhaps the first woman who commanded a higher price than her male contemporaries like Pt. Onkar Nath Thakur and Pt. Vinayak Buwa Patwardhan, who hailed her as the most accomplished khayal singer ever.

Kesarbai reached this pinnacle through an assiduous and dedicated regimen or riyaz. She remained a student of music till she reached the age of 54, continuing to learn from her Ustad and mentor Ustad Alladiya Khan, the great Jaipur gharana exponent, till his death in 1946. She learnt from seven illustrious gurus, including Ustad Alladiya Khan. Such was her desire for perfection that she sang only one raga, ‘Miyan hi malhar’, originally invented by Tansen for 10 years till she mastered it with the legendary Senia Gharana’s Ustad Barkatullah Khan.

Kesarbai was sought after by the rich, mostly royal patrons, and had amassed a great deal of wealth. Encountering Alladiya Khan was the game-changer. He taught her from the age of 21 and did not let her perform solo on public platforms till he died in 1946, when Kesarbai was already in her fifties. This long tutelage gave her the formidable talecm and later the number one position when she started doing public concerts after his death and went on to become the most famous and consummate performer post-Independence.

Padmashri Gajendra Narayan Singh recalls a conversation he had with Kumar Gandharv, the legendary vocalist who used to listen to Kesarbai at the mehjrls of the royals and the zamindars. Since commoners were not permitted in these mehfils. Kumar Gandharv donned the garb of a waiter, serving tea and snacks and during breaks, sitting quietly in a corner to listen to her sing. Gajendra Narayan Singh recalls a performance in Calcutta in 1962 at which the finest musicians of the country were present, among them Bismillah Khan, V.G. Jog, Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan. Kesarbai sang raga Lalit at seven in the morning for about three hours. She was 70 then, but graceful and dignified. That same day she announced her retirement from stage, wisely saying that a singer should retire at one’s peak rather than continue to sing in a feeble voice. The beauty of her voice was that it had the same ’roundedness’—a pre-requisite of classical music—from the lower to the highest octave and never quivered. Years of learning and dedicated practice made her perfect.

Kesarbai not only etched her music in the hearts of millions but left her great legacy to Dhondu Tai Kulkarni, her disciple and another great singer of the Jaipur gharana. Unlike some gurus who are reluctant to teach their art to students lest they become more famous than they, Kesarbai used to say, ‘I will teach only those who have the capability to be one up on me also!’

The Alpha songbirds
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