In my last column, which discussed the Interpretation Centres that were set up in Varanasi after 2014 ostensibly to highlight the life and work of eminent artists from the city, I had mentioned that there are no detailed reports available for the activities undertaken by these hubs set up by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. As a result, we are not able to evaluate their work or to judge if their activities were truly in sync with the original mandate.
In today’s column, I would like to focus on an Interpretation Centre that was established in Varanasi at the Shri Harishchandra Balika Intermediate College in memory of the renowned Banaras gharana exponent Siddheshwari Devi by the Varanasi Regional Centre of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Fortunately, there is some information available about this centre. But oddly, some of the activities run here seem to have little to do with Siddheshwari Devi or her music.
According to the information provided by the IGNCA, the wide-ranging activities of the Interpretation Centre were to include events focusing on the life and work of Siddheshwari Devi and also those that encouraged young creative talent and featured performers from the vocalist’s tradition. It is difficult to ascertain whether the centre has indeed conducted such activities on a regular basis and whether the quality of all such programmes met with expectations that would naturally be raised in the context of anything related to the memory of an artist of such eminence as Siddheshwari Devi.
The centre’s reports show a lecture and some performances relevant to this music were held during the inaugural function in October 2016. But activities in later months were more wide-ranging. For instance, an event organised by the centre in November 2016 included a mehndi competition that involved participants decorating their hands with henna and inscribing the words “matdata jagrukta” (voters’ awareness) to create awareness about their rights as voters. Singing competitions were held in the same month. In December 2016, students participated in solo and group dance competitions and visited a cultural festival held at the Banaras Hindu University.
February 2017 saw the children participate in a cleanliness and tree planting campaign. A cultural programme was held in the same month, but it was not associated with the life and work of Siddheshwari Devi.
In March 2017, students participated in a cleanliness campaign and attended a discussion held to mark the death anniversary of freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru as Martyr’s Day. The birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, Dalit leader and chief architect of the Constitution of India, was observed in April 2017.
While it is important to create an awareness among students about other national figures and about the significance of elections and clean environment, it seems odd that many of the activities organised by the Centre that was established to acquaint students with the musical legacy of Siddheshwari Devi appear to have little to do with her work. This has obviously shifted the focus from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stated purpose behind establishing the Interpretation Centres.
While we continue to draw inspiration from Siddheshwari Devi and other greats, it is relevant to inquire about the work conducted by the centres.
We end this episode with a recording of an All India Radio concert featuring Siddheshwari Devi. According to the text describing this track, this recording was made in the 1960s. Vocal support is provided by her daughter Shanta Devi, and the well-known sarangi and tabla accompanists are Sabri Khan and Chatur Lal, respectively.
The concert begins with a thumri based on raag Khamaj. Set to the 14-matra Deepchandi, the pace changes towards the end and moves to the laggi section where the tabla player explores variations on a structure based on the eight-matra Kaherva. The dadra that follows set to the six-matra Dadra taal is based on the raag Gara.
The next composition is a tappa in the raag Khamaj and is set to the 16-matra Addha taal. This recital, held in the presence of an audience, concludes with a dadra. It is based on the raags Kafi and Sindhura and is set to Kaherva.
One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.