Allah mian bhauji ka deta Nandlala, kangan hum le bayi ho
Allah has given our sister-in-law a Nandlala (son); I will settle for nothing less than a bracelet for a gift.

The merry jumble of cultures in this ritual song of childbirth seems improbable in our bigoted times. But in the world inhabited by Aseemun, the legendary songstress of Awadh who went by the quaint alias of Chhuhara (dried date), the seamless mingling of faiths was very real.

Archived at the Sangeet Natak Akademi for posterity, her songs, with their easy mix of folk, ritual, spiritual and pious, refuse to be pigeonholed. The voice – accompanied by the spare sounds of the dholak and harmonium – is both strong and sweet, announcing each song with “Aapka sunaait hain (I now sing to you)” in lilting Awadhi.

Lucknow-based performance artiste Askari Naqvi has very faint recollections of hearing her sing at his ancestral home in Pratapgarh in central Uttar Pradesh when he was a child. She was well close to 80 then but the magic of her voice imprinted in his mind.

“I recall my father and uncles humming her songs at home long after she left,” said Naqvi. “Thade rahiyo kadam ki chhaiya, gagariya mein ghar dhari aaon [Wait a while in the shade of the kadamb tree while I take home this pot of water] was a hugely popular song.”

Between 1930s and 1960s, Aseemun ruled the elite family salons of central Uttar Pradesh with her wide repertoire of songs. Courtesy: Baqar Aabid.

Naqvi has been touring Delhi and Lucknow with a portmanteau of Awadhi music that holds the fast-fading syncretic flavours of central Uttar Pradesh. Among them are songs once sung by Aseemun.

“Aseemun bua’s voice and music echo an old world,” said Naqvi. “They pull us back to our roots, reminding us that we are one people. This really is world music, in the true sense.”

Community of singers

Except in a small circle of connoisseurs, few know of Aseemun. She lived and died in Dhingwas, a small village in Pratapgarh, content in her small world by all accounts. There is little material available of her life. She was likely born sometime in the 1920s and ruled the elite family salons of central Uttar Pradesh between 1930s and 1960s with her wide repertoire of songs in Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Urdu and Hindi. She continued to sing thereafter too but her patron base had scattered and invitations dwindled.

Aseemun belonged to a special community of hereditary singers found in northern India – the mirasins or miriyasins. The women from the community have always been acutely conscious of the need to not be seen as public performers – and the accompanying stigma – so they have only taken on celebratory or festive singing in homes. And when they had that choice, performed for a single clan or jajman.

The word mirasi (male) or mirasin was, and is, often used pejoratively by the genteel class to dismiss an artist as a common entertainer. But, as scholars point out, the word miras means heritage in Arabic, which makes a mirasi or mirasin the upholder of an inheritance.

She belonged to a community of hereditary singers called the mirasins, whose women have taken to celebratory or festive singing in homes. Courtesy: Baqar Aabid.

Although she was steeped in her community’s traditions, one thing that separated Aseemun from the strong-voiced mirasin class was her musical education. She is said to have been trained by the genius musician from Maihar, Baba Allaudin Khan, and those who met her say she often spoke of her time with her guru, his son Ali Akbar Khan and daughter Annapurna.

Folk songs of Uttar Pradesh – forms such as kajri, chaiti, hori – often carry an easy touch of what is called semi-classical Hindustani music. You can catch a passing whiff of ragas like Pilu, Bahar, Khamaj, Desh and Kafi in them. Aseemun’s music had this and more – a clear grasp over essential classical embellishments.

“There are definitely resonances of tappa, murkis in almost every avartan (elaboration), complex chalan (movements) in various compositions, and clarity of ragas,” said Naqvi.

World of music and literature

How did Aseemun land up in the rarefied world of classical music? In his book Being the Other: The Muslim in India, journalist Saeed Naqvi talks about her arrival at his ancestral home in Mustafabad in Rae Bareli with her entourage to mark family occasions with music. He says she was sponsored for the “high-powered coaching system” at Maihar by “the local grandees” of Mustafabad.

Unlike other singers from her community, Aseemun was said to have been trained by the genius musician from Maihar, Baba Allaudin Khan. Courtesy: Baqar Aabid.

In an interview to journalist and filmmaker Taran Khan, Aseemun spoke of learning music from her mirasin mother – who bore the alias Badam (almond) – much to the disapproval of her “maulvi-type” father. At age eight, she was sent to Maihar to brush up her vocal skills.

The mirasins of Awadh inherited and performed a whole repertoire of folk and ritual songs to mark birth, marriage, and assorted festivities in the homes of the provincial elite of the qasbas. The qasbas were, historian Mushirul Hasan says, “Muslim settlements that functioned as major centres of cultural and social activities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The qasba is where life was lived, where literature, music, and poetry flourished, and the fusion of cultures took place.”

It was this vivid world that Aseemun inhabited. The best account of her life comes from a 40-minute audio interview with the late veteran communist and scholar SM Mehdi by Khan, who is his granddaughter. The interview fed Khan’s documentary on the singer, In Search of Aseemun, backed by the India Foundation for the Arts.

“When I met her she was quite lonely, frail and old, far from the musical milieu,” said Khan. “She had no children, had adopted her sister’s sons, and was in a bad financial condition. But what I remember most was the strength in her voice despite her petite frame. She had brought so many worlds together with her music.”

Journalist Saeed Naqvi (in picture) says Aseemun’s musical education was sponsored by ‘the local grandees’ of Mustafabad. Courtesy: Baqar Aabid.

In the interview recording, Mehdi recalls Aseemun’s celebratory soirees at his Mustafabad home. “In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, in the decades before the abolition of zamindari, she was to be found marking every wedding ritual in the homes of the elite – barat, dawat (feast), mehendi, ubtan, rukhsat,” says Mehdi who had brought her to Delhi to record her at the Akademi. “She also turned up to sing at sohar (childbirth), mundan, doodh chhuttaayi (weaning), janeo (thread ceremony). She had a massive repertoire of such songs and a strong classical base. But she was not keen on a concert career, this was her world and she was happy in it.”

The mirasins were not mere performers. In a sense, they led the ceremonies, their songs were participative and intimate, addressing the family or the individual at the heart of the event – dulha, dulhin, bhauji, nanad – blessing, teasing, pestering for an extravagant gift, and flattering thus: “Rang hai re hairyala bana..tere dada ka haathi tere sang hai re…dadi rani ka dola tere sang hai (These celebrations oh bridegroom, your grandfather’s elephant with you, your grandmother’s palanquin).”

Keeping the faith

Another riveting aspect to Aseemun’s music was her engagement with the music-loving Chistiya Sufi order at Salon in Rae Bareli district. The hereditary administrator of the order till the 1960s – and her pir (teacher) – was Shah Naim Ata, a well-loved and musically creative ascetic. Aseemun’s music included his prolific repertoire and bears the Awadh stamp of eclecticism. His compositions featured metaphors that simply cannot be untangled in terms of their cultural provenance.

“Allah miah ki shaan mein hum naat sunnait hain [I sing to extol Allah’s glory],” announces Aseemun, and proceeds to give us some charmingly eclectic gems in which Krishna lore traipses comfortably into songs about the Prophet: “Arab mein lala huen hain, aaj bajat badhai [Celebrations, lala is born in Arabia].” Or this: “Ranga na deo meri laal chunariya/La Ilaha ke boote taake/Illilah ki kinariya [Colour my stole red, embellished with the name of Him who is incomparable].”

Among Aseemun’s repertoire were compositions of ascetic Shah Naim Ata that featured metaphors rooted in their cultural provenance. Courtesy: Baqar Aabid.

Shah Naim Ata was a keen, indulgent mentor to singers who sang bhajans as well as naats in praise of the Prophet, his own compositions and those of others. Aseemun performed these songs both for her pir and her patrons.

There is this charming naat spotted with bewilderingly intercultural references: Bhaj rasna har dam Ali Ali, shere khuda ke mahabali…paap hare sab, dukh bisaravein, naam Mohammed naam Ali (Chant the name of Ali, the Mahabali, who ends all sorrows).

The most popular of the Shah Naim Ata compositions she sang – and is being performed by Askari Naqvi as well – is one where a pot filled with water becomes a metaphor for life’s pains and sins that only the pir can help unload. “Bhar le paani, sughar paniharin/ Abhain savera, kuan hai akela, phir na aiye hai bharan tori bari (Fill your pot while all is quiet at the well, you won’t find the opportunity again).”

Aseemun’s patrons included rich Hindus as well and she had equal mastery over the hymns she performed at Holi, Dussehra and Diwali. As she tells Khan in her twilight years: Jo koi jaisa sune, sunaven (I sing what I am asked to).

Aseemun died in Dhingwas, a small village in Pratapgarh, where she lived. By all accounts she was content in her small world till the very end.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.