Janki Bai of Allahabad was a star of her time. A contemporary of Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta, she was one of the earliest recording artists of India, and it is thanks to gramophone technology that we can still hear what she sounded like when she sang the thumris and ghazals she was so well loved for.

The broad details of Janki Bai’s life are known – that she was from Benaras, the daughter of Shiv Balak, a wrestler and Manki, that her mother, who was sold into a kotha in Allahabad, made sure Janki was trained in vocal music by Ustad Hassu Khan, that Janki became an accomplished and eventually successful singer, that she wrote ghazals that were published in a collection titled Diwan-e-Janki, that she sang at the Delhi Durbar in 1911 with Gauhar Jaan, that she amassed a great deal of property and wealth, and that she had a marriage that eventually failed.

But perhaps the single most repeated detail of Janki’s life is that she was nicknamed “chappan churi” – she of the fifty-six knives, after a horrific attack on her life that she survived when she was very young.

A long overdue story

To a student of courtesan culture, in which the Indian sub-continent has been seeped for hundreds of years, perhaps it is this last fact that is the most frustrating. Here was a woman who lived a full and fascinating life, who by all accounts reached the pinnacle of worldly success that was possible for a woman in her position and context at the time in which she lived. And yet, when she is remembered at all, it is for what was done to her when she had not yet lived most of this life,.

This detail perfectly encapsulates how stories about courtesans in general are now told in India – the reduction of a long, complex and diverse set of histories into one neat little idea. One interesting way to respond to this reduction is by doing exactly what Neelum Saran Gour has done in a remarkable novel titled Requiem in Raga Janki – by paying careful attention to the richness and texture of one life.

Gour breathes life into her reimagination of Janki’s journeys by inhabiting the voice of a unnamed narrator (presumably a fellow tawaif) who, in her own words, is “pushing ninety” and promises to “tell you what I know of her and also what I guess and imagine.”

This guessing and imagination is essential to a retelling of this kind, for even our chronicles of the best known courtesans’ lives are marked with elisions and erasures. For hundreds of years, courtesans have been represented largely by other people, and these representations have been shaped by the agendas and biases of those telling the stories, whether it is a Mughal morality tale or an iconic Bombay film. The result is that although stories of courtesans proliferate, they are animated less by the courtesans’ lived realities and more by ideas projected onto their lives and persons.

Fiction is best placed to play with, and powerfully challenge, these flattened representations, which is why it is bewildering that Gour’s novel is the first major Indian novel in English that deals with the subject head on.

Restoring the protagonist

Fortunately, Requiem in Raga Janki lives up to this challenge superbly. Gour’s knowledge of her subject is formidable, but her writing is very rarely overtaken by the breadth of her research, whether it is the history of Allahabad, or an exhaustive history of Hindustani music and the many forgotten women who shaped it for so long. With all the noble intentions in the world, a novel only works if it keeps the reader wanting to turn the page, and Gour’s skill as a fiction writer keeps the reader’s appetite whetted.

In Gour’s hands, Janki becomes more than an idea, a courtesan needing to be rescued from obscurity or obfuscation – she becomes the protagonist she always was. The subjects of her musical training, her relationships with her family and her milieu, her conversion to Islam and her navigating both her freedoms and her loves are depicted with remarkable empathy and wisdom. In the process, Gour also chronicles a particularly significant chapter in Indian history – the coming of gramophone technology to the sub-continent, and the way it transformed how music was performed and experienced.

Gour’s device of telling Janki’s story through a conversational, feisty narrator works in her favour, because this way, the guesswork that is necessary to the telling of this story becomes easy to communicate. There are many versions, for example, of the attack that left scars on Janki forever, and Gour’s narrator tells us of all of them. This is the biggest triumph of Gour’s novel – Janki’s story is never caged by one version, but breathes and flowers in its many possibilities, and therefore comes alive in a way that a subject like Janki deserves.

Requiem in Raga Janki: A Novel, Neelam Saran Gour, Penguin Random House India.