Of the four greatest singers of classical Hindustani music, Husna Bai alone belongs to the tawaif, or courtesan tradition. Despite a decline in reputation, she stuck to the roots of the structure and the elevations of this genre. Speaking of Husna Bai (together with ‘Surshree’ Kesarbai Kerkar, Girija Devi, and Kishori Amonkar), Kumud Dewan Jha, in her paper “The Alpha Songbirds: Independent and Vibrant”, writes, “As women performers, they are the path-breakers. In terms of innovation, they have spawned their own gharanas [school/tradition] within the framework of the traditional and historical gharana in which they were trained. Their performances are imbued with a genius interpretation of raga and the literary underpinnings of the compositions they sing.”

Hindustani classical music has largely been a male bastion, but these women have raised the bar. As far as Husna Bai was concerned, it was all the more amazing because she overcame social hurdles that came her way, as her work was often seen through a narrow lens because she came from the tawaif tradition. Despite being termed “baiji” she rose above the class of mere performers and created a niche for herself. She made the profession for women “highly sought after and revered artists”.

For women, it was taboo to sing in public, and when it came to a woman belonging to the courtesan tradition, like Husna Bai, it was a stigma. However, it did not deter her from singing, as she accorded the first and foremost place to music, and this helped her create a name for herself in all times to come.

Thumri was essentially a courtesan art, and it had entered the semi-classical field through new experiments at the hands of performers like Husna Bai. Just to note that Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Lucknow, was the greatest patron of this genre, and he himself composed several thumris under the pen name Akhtar Piya. With the 1857 Uprising, the scope for most courtesans had shrunk terribly, bringing about their fall, while a few continued to survive through sheer hard work and skill, remaining oblivious to the realities of the times they lived in when their profession was no longer looked at with respect, and to this class belonged our protagonist of this story, Husna Bai.

Husna Bai performed in a limited sphere, as she performed publicly only in Banaras and before her patrons in her place. This is the reason that she is not as popular as other latter-day singers from the city, such as Siddheshwari and Rasoolan Bai, who performed across several cities. This restricted Husna Bai only within the United Provinces but she was well-known for her expertise in khayal, thumri, and tappa singing.

AN Sharma compiled Husna Bai’s thumri and its sub-genres under the title Madhu Tarang in his book Bajanaama: A Study of Early Gramophone Records (published by Kathachitra Prakashan). Though much less known, the level of her skill is placed in the same league with the performers par excellence such as Vidyadhari Bai, Badi Moti Bai, Siddheshwari Devi, Gauhar Jaan, and Rasoolan Bai.

Husna Bai was born and brought up in the kotha and, over the years, was trained by Thakur Prasad Mishra and the well-known sarangi player Pt Shambhunath Mishra. She grasped a deeper understanding of tappa singing from affluent patrons of Banaras, including Chote Ramdas Ji. She received her initial training in singing and dancing from the musicians employed in the kotha, but her natural interest in the field led her to be under the tutelage of the masters of the city, and the outcome was scintillating. Her absolute command over singing led to her being established as the master, and earning the esteemed title of “Sarkar”, a term reserved for the most skilled artists.

A contemporary of the legendary litterateur of Banaras was Bhartendu Harish Chandra. Husna Bai often corresponded with him and sought his advice on poetic expression. It was at his insistence that she composed the Geet Govind (composed by the 12th-century Hindi poet Jaidev), and made several of the songs popular. For instance, we have:

Amal-Kamal-Dal-Lochan Bhav Mochan E
Tribhuvan-Bhuvan-Nidhan Jai Jai Dev Hare.

Unfortunately, there are no records that mention her name. She was well-known in local circles, including the landed gentry and royalty. Consequently, she was initiated into a new role. Husna Bai continued to adorn the high traditions of the tawaifs, who were known for their Adab, Tehzeeb, and Nafasat. There is a legend about her high tawaif etiquette.

Once, when she was performing in the hall, a wealthy landlord started to ascend the staircase with a thumping sound. As he appeared at the entrance upstairs, she stopped singing, looked at him sternly, and said, “Please go away. I can’t sing for you.”

“Why . . . why hesitate? Look at the notes I’ve brought for you,” the landlord tried to impress her with his wealth.

With a sarcastic smile, Husna Bai said, “It’s the nursery of music. If you don’t know the basic etiquette of climbing up the stairs, I’m sorry, but I think you would know little about singing and how to appreciate it. Please leave.”

Excerpted with permission from Dance to Freedom: From Ghungroos to Gunpowder, AK Gandhi, Fingerprint Publishing.