Shanno Khurana was 18 and newly married, when she first walked into the recording studio of All India Radio in Lahore in 1945. This was undivided India and the music division of AIR was helmed by the legendary Jivanlal Mattoo.

Mattoo, a student of the great Abdul Wahid Khan, had an unerring instinct for fresh talent – just two years before he had discovered a young Punjabi voice that belonged to one Mohammed Rafi. He had heard Khurana at a competition earlier that year and invited her to sing at AIR: “Radio pe gaogi?”

Khurana recalls confidently waltzing through Raga Multani at the recording studio and pocketing a “huge fee” – Rs 25. She was walking out in cloud of giddy euphoria when Mattoo stopped her. “Achha beta, maloom hai ki Todi ke aur Multani ke rishabh mein kya farak hai?” he said, asking her if she knew the difference between the second note of the two Hindustani classical ragas, Todi and Multani. It was a technical question that tested the depth of Khurana’s musical learning.

“It struck me with a shock, I knew nothing,” she recalled with a laugh.

In November, a month short of 90, Khurana walked into the Delhi station of AIR once more to record for the national programme of music. She sang two mixed ragas that are a staple of her Rampur Sahaswan gharana – Shivmat Bhairav and Jaij Bilawal – and a thumri in Mishra Khamaj.

Endearingly, the decades have made her a self-effacing version of her sassy 18-year-old self. “Theek hi ho gaya hoga bhagwan ki kripa se. I was a bit worried,” she said, thanking god that everything had gone off without a hitch.

Khurana is possibly the oldest woman artiste actively performing Hindustani classical music today. Most other singers in her league are in their mid to late eighties. In Carnatic music, there is the frail Parassala Ponnammal who lives in Kerala and still sings at 92. The musician who defied all tyrannies of age was Abdul Rashid Khan who sang and toured energetically until he passed away last year, aged 107.

But it would be unfair to define Khurana’s place in the modern history of Hindustani music only in terms of musical longevity. She is a lot more than a nonagenarian with an unflagging voice.

Singing like a feminist

At her elegant home in Delhi’s Defence Colony, dressed in her trademark silk and pearls, she was restless about not doing more with the vast fund of knowledge she has gathered over seven decades. “Bones, my bones,” she complained. “I have cut down on my performances but there is so much left to do.”

A few months ago, she was in Mumbai singing at the Alladiya Khan Festival and before that in Kanpur at the Swar Sadhana festival. Age has made many things difficult, though singing is not one of them. She can sing for two hours at a concert if she finds a great audience.

“Twenty people who can appreciate my music – that is all I need,” she said. “I don’t care for those people who land up in jamavars and diamonds and have no clue what music is about.”

Khurana is a rare classical artiste – a thinker and scholar who consciously honed her skills with multiple gharanas and masters, picking up a treasure trove of ragas along the way and even rarer bandishes or flourishes. She has gone above and beyond the cerebral khayal. She took a deep dive into Rajasthan’s rich folk music traditions for her PhD and mastered the tappa, a form so complex that often not even consummate vocalists attempt it.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, Khurana took classical and folk music to the popular stage by composing and directing operas such as Heer Ranjha and Chitralekha. Her Jahanara used a record 60 ragas in its songs.

Even those who are not connoisseurs of music should know Shanno Khurana simply because she is a pioneering woman musician of the 20th century, who shaped the social and cultural history of Hindustani classical music despite all the gendered restrictions from her time.

In India, music was not a modern career option for women from non-musical homes until artistes like Khurana took the stage. It was thanks to her and other courageous women like her that a relentless struggle against gender bias and cultural stigma bore fruit. Above all, these women fought hard personal battles to balance their roles as homemakers and artistes.

Khurana would laugh if you used words like feminist or activist to describe her but she was both, and a radical one at that. In 1983, she started a music festival, Bhairav se Sohni, dedicated exclusively to women musicians. Both the main and accompanying artistes were women.

The festival, which she organised for 13 years, was her response to a familiar dynamic – women artistes, especially instrumentalists and percussionists, were simply not getting the kind of financial and organisational support their male counterparts were.

“In theory, music had opened up to women from all kind of backgrounds by the 1980s,” she said. “But in practice, there were few stages available to them. I felt that these women deserved to be recognised.”

At Bhairav Se Sohni, Khurana offered a welcome stage for unknown and uncelebrated women artistes, as is documented in an article from 1983 in the feminist journal Manushi. At a time when women drummers were an oddity, the festival always hosted a tal vadya or drum ensemble featuring artistes like Sukanya Ramgopal on the ghatam, S Padma on the mridangam, P Santhakumari on the thavil, and Aban Mistry and Shobha Kudesia playing the tabla. “The woman thavil player, I found out earned Rs 25 an hour at a Chennai temple and no one cared to call her for concerts,” Khurana recalled. “After the festival all of them, including Sukanya, became popular names.”

Innovative genius

Apart from her strong sense of social consciousness, there are still more reasons to celebrate Khurana. Naman Ahuja, professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is Khurana’s grandson and believes that her music has always borne the stamp of true greatness.

“She is always conditioned by aesthetics,” he said. “It is like, ‘I have done Darbari for seven minutes and I don’t want to intensify the sorrow any longer, so I choose to stop.’ Even if a raga has many possibilities, they don’t have to be exhausted. She has that rare judgement.”

Equally importantly, Khurana is an innovator with her feet firmly grounded in the canons of traditional music. “A lot of people have invented this benchmark of authenticity for musicians,” Ahuja added. “But all through the history of Indian music it has been clear that every great artiste – Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Kumar Gandharva – has been a radical inventor, not just an upholder of tradition.”

To understand Khurana’s journey as a musician one must travel back to 1927. She was born to a Punjabi railway family in Jodhpur. Girls from affluent homes did not learn music, but Khurana recalls staying riveted to the radio, listening to the magical voices of Roshan Ara Begum, Hirabai Badodekar and Narayanrao Vyas.

Since Khurana was not allowed to learn herself, she would listen in as her brother took classes in music with Raghunath Rao Musalgaonkar, a Gwalior gharana singer who was trying to make a career in Jodhpur. Finally, when she turned 12, Khurana’s father was moved by her passion, and let her learn from Musalgaonkar.

Six years later, Khurana was performing on the radio and appeared to have a promising career in music before her. Out of nowhere, Partition turned their world upside down. Her home in Delhi, where she had moved with her doctor husband, became a shelter for 30 refugee relatives from Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“There I was, a baby in one arm and a houseful of people to care for, trying to find a small corner to sit and practice with my tanpura,” she said. “It was a really difficult time but I couldn’t just give up.”

It was AIR that came to her rescue. Allowing her to run her home and have a career going as well, radio provided tremendous support for women artistes.

“Akhtari would sing at Studio 1, there was Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Devi,” Khurana said.

A few years later, she took another rare and brave step for a performing artiste: encouraged by musicologist Thakur Jaidev Singh, she went into academics, joining the Khairagarh University for her masters. She became the first woman to earn a doctorate in music from Khairagarh and the second anywhere in India (Sumati Mutatkar was the first).

Khurana continued to work on her music, learning from legends of the Agra gharana such as VR Athavale and SN Ratanjankar, who taught her rare or aprachalit ragas. But her most abiding discipleship was under Mushtaq Hussain Khan of Rampur Sahaswan gharana, who taught her until his death.

“He had been a Rampur court musician for 40 years, not used to women singers like me,” Khurana recalled. “He wasn’t sure I was serious about music, so for three months he refused to teach me a thing. I would sit and wait for hours and then weep myself to sleep. Then one fine day he said, ‘Ab lo’ – here – and started teaching. It was tough. I was an established artiste but he would insist that I repeat taans as he told beads. But that learning was invaluable.”

Once past the initial gruffness, Hussain turned out to be a generous and eclectic teacher. He insisted that she learn everything, even the art of singing a ghazal, a no-no for women from her conservative Punjabi home in Jodhpur. “I told him ghazal is considered ‘ishq ki baat’ or the music of romance, and not for respectable women and he scoffed: ‘It can be ishq with Allah, no? And keep your jholi of music full, never let it want anything.’”

Ahuja pointed out that few appreciate the wisdom and foresight with which Khurana shaped her musical progression: “She was already in her thirties, an established singer when she decided to imbibe the Rampur Sahaswan style because she found in it a match for her creative leanings. She was consciously electing a tradition with a thought out process. How many artistes have done that?”

Tappa, with its exacting pace and demanding format, became one of Khurana’s biggest strengths, thanks to her rigorous training under Khan. “Khansaheb trained her to sing each note in a particular groove in the throat,” said Ahuja. “That rapid jump from one note to another, while retaining its clarity, she mastered wonderfully.”


Unrecognised star

Yet Shanno Khurana never really became the star of the concert circuit. She is acutely aware of the fact that she didn’t market herself enough. “I was forever being told by organisers sangeet to rag rag mein basta hai, or music runs in the veins,” she said. “That you have to inherit musical talent, that if you were not a storied or gharanedar singer you were somehow not good enough. Rubbish, it is sheer hard work, blood, sweat and tears.” The anger in her voice is palpable.

According to Ahuja, Khurana’s struggles were the same as those of women in every profession. “Women, by and large, don’t market themselves,” he said. “And she was a modern, thinking singer who could do that even less. But I would say that she had the privilege of being selective, and that her music remained un-compromised is a gift for all us.”