A fortnight ago, this column carried an article on a women’s music conference held in Calcutta in 1954. The article seems to have intrigued and excited several readers because a programme focusing mainly on women performers was a novelty in that period. Some felt that this was the first occasion that a women’s music conference was being held, and there were others who pointed out that there may have been precedents to this.
Similarly, the mention of a female tabla player took many by surprise as this too was relatively unheard of in those days. But was she the first female tabla player to have performed in public?
Frankly, it would be hazardous to claim first position for anything in the Indian context given the fact that our long history always reveals a similar occurence in the past. For instance, innumerable miniature paintings depict women percussionists playing instruments that resemble the dholak and the pakhawaj, indicates that these instruments were played also by women.
Similarly, in the context of women’s music conferences, one such conference was organised at the Jinnah Memorial Hall in Bombay under the aegis of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya way back in 1929. Contemporary newspaper reports do not mention the inclusion of any performances in this conference, but discussions were held on issues pertaining to the inclusion of music training in academic schools and universities, thus suitably demonstrating that steps towards propagating music education among women from middle- and upper-class homes were being considered even in the early twentieth century.
In fact, Kaikhushro Navrojee Kabrajee, the founder of the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali, a music club established at Bombay in 1870, also exhorted Parsi men to encourage women in their families to take to learning Hindustani music. Admittedly, all of these efforts were influenced heavily by patriarchal propensities with the result that women’s music education was considered a favourable change in order to maintain a happy marital home and prevent men from engaging with hereditary women performers.
Objectively, however, these steps went a long way in encouraging women from middle- and upper-classes to take to learning music and performing. This was a major change since previously, women from “respectable” homes were not permitted by their families to take to learning music and dance. Women performers until then came solely from hereditary courtesan and devadasi families, a class that was socially stigmatised, and this was therefore an area forbidden to those belonging to elite families.
The All-India Women’s Music Conference that we revisited in the previous article featured women who came from privileged social strata, a change that could have taken place only because of the gradual progress that was being made in this direction over many decades, the general socio-political environment that had drawn women into the national movement for independence, and the idealism that fired the imagination of a newly independent nation.
The fact that many performers in this conference were academically qualified and had even been awarded degrees by the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya or other institutions clearly demonstrates this trajectory. The inclusion of women performers from “respectable” families in conferences like the one held in Calcutta, went a step further in encouraging such families to permit women members to take to performing professionally. It is only because of these efforts that we now have a host of first-generation women performers not belonging to hereditary courtesan or devadasi families.
Significantly, though, it must be noted that the position of hereditary women performers was constantly on the decline due to the moralistic perspective that social reformers and those from middle- and upper-classes put forth in no uncertain terms.
Before we revisit another music conference, I would also like to inform readers that I received a message from Archan Kumar De, the son of vocalist Geetasree Uma Dey, letting me know that his mother was featured in the second session of the All-India Women’s Conference mentioned earlier and that her audio tracks are available on Youtube. Here is a link to her rendition of Bairagi (also called Bairagi Bhairav), a raag prescribed for the morning:
We now move to yet another music conference in our fifth episode of a series, which attempts at reimagining music performed in such festivals many decades ago. A festival that continues to be organised in Mumbai every year, the Swami Haridas Sammelan was started in the 1950s and was considered an important festival in the country’s calendar of music events. Spread over several days, the festival drew artistes from different parts of the country and included Hindustani music, various dance forms, bhajan and ghazal recitals, poetry recitation and a film awards session.
Over the next few episodes, we will revisit the festival held in 1962. While the entire festival began on April 7 and lasted until April 20, 1962, the music programmes were scheduled from April 12 to April 20, 1962. A host of vocalists and instrumentalists performed on this occasion. In today’s episode, we will listen to tracks featuring two vocalists from among these musicians.
Unfortunately, the schedule we have access to does not mention the exact sequence of artists on each day of the festival, which is why it is difficult to reimagine the raags that they could have presented. We will, therefore, go as per the consolidated list provided in the schedule, which is reproduced with this article.
We begin with a track by eminent vocalist Omkarnath Thakur. He sings two compositions in the raag Darbari Kanada. The first composition is set to vilambit or slow Ektaal, a cycle of 12 matras, and the second to drut or fast Teentaal, a cycle of 16 matras. Listeners will note that the narrative theme of the first composition has a Sufi import, and the faster composition has a romantic flavour with a sense of abandon.
This challenges the notion of some researchers that Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and his disciples like Omkarnath Thakur only sang compositions pertaining to Hindu deities and that they had decided to stay away from repertoire, which had any element of romance or eroticism. Clearly, the public stance of musicians may not have necessarily affected their performance practice as it often happens today too, and it is for this reason that both need to be taken into consideration while analysing their lives and work.
We end with a track featuring the Jaipur-Atrauli iconic vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar. She sings a composition set to Teentaal in Basant Bahar, a raag prescribed for the spring season. Starting in vilambit, she accelerates the same composition to the medium tempo.
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.
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