Do you still sing?

All my adult life, I have been asked this question. It inevitably makes me feel apologetic or guilty, because I know the answer should be a resounding musical yes. It should be an answer that contains all the amazing knowledge that was carefully handed to me like pearls and rubies – the secret two-note taan, the rare compositions; that voice training that can send notes soaring high above the skyline.

My musical journey started when a mother extricated a reluctant ten year old from her comfort zone and sent her to the reclusive and remarkable Dhondutai. She was the only student of the formidable Kesarbai, whose voice and manners could merge robust masculine with seductive feminine energies to create music that has rarely been heard before or after. Dhondutai was not that. But she was an extraordinarily gentle and patient teacher who tolerated the fidgety brat that sat in front of her three days a week for only one reason: she saw in me the qualities that she felt, if nurtured, would carry forth the Jaipur gharana legacy.

“To be a true musician, you have to be amir or fakir,” she often said. Because, in either case, you have freedom. Through her, I started finding musical metaphors in everything around – the whirring drone of the fan; the recurrent cry of a street vendor; in festivals, in colour, in the scent of sandalwood that snaked out of her dollshouse of gods and goddesses.

Even when she made tea, she would combine two different strains in a very particular ratio, and compare them to the compound combination ragas, a specialty of the Jaipur gharana. “Like the tea, they should come together so seamlessly, that you should not be able to tell when one raga finishes and the other starts…” she said.

Namita Devidayal and Dhondutai Kulkarni.

And so, I grew up at the feet of my third grandmother in this alternate plane where music became breath. I learned Raga Bhoop for more than two years and only when the foundation was unshakable, I was guided further down the road – to the light and lilting Tilak Kamod, the sombre morning notes of Lalit, a plaintive composition in Jaijaiwanti, a majestic Basanti Kedar, and so many more. Some I stayed with; some were only to be able to accompany my teacher in a concert, where I learned how to fill the notes in between and to sustain holding a tanpura without allowing my foot to fall asleep. Indian music is about so much more than music. It is about patience and humility and an understanding that there can be something so immense that one life is scarcely enough.

I went away to college in America. Although I had a degree from Princeton, I came back to Borivli, to Dhondutai. Like a migratory crane that follows its own bird wisdom. I wanted to become a professional singer. I spent a year in serious training, ignoring the muffled sniggers of friends and my baffled but indulgent parents. I got up early in the morning to train my voice, building each note as gradually as the rising sun. I started paying close attention to the nuances that come when a singer matures, modulating voice and tone, enabling expression and pause.

But I started faltering. I could not keep up the rigour that this art form requires of its practitioners. One night of partying would reflect in my voice. My friends had jobs and boyfriends. I started realising that I did not have the guts to pursue a seemingly pointless passion in a world where success is measured in terms of how much money you make and how well you are known. I was too scared to carry on. So, I continued to go visit my beloved teacher, but I fell into my second love – writing. I stopped singing.

A few years ago, I was at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in South Bombay to visit my old friend Suvarnalata Rao. Gleaming musical instruments lined the wall like ancestral portraits. She asked me that dreaded question:

Do you still sing?

I replied, “Not really… well, yes, some times, but only for myself.”

“Why do you say it like that? Do you think singing for oneself is any lesser than singing for an audience? In fact, if you think about it, it gives you much more freedom!”

I stared at her in wonder. Suddenly, something started lifting, a weight that prevented me from engaging with a space that had once been like breathing. I realised that we have come to define everything in a performative sense, needing external validation, almost becoming a selfie version of ourselves – the opposite of the inner world you enter when you start a Bhairavi or make that quiet cup of tea.

I now sing. Not often. Not very well. Not to prove anything, or carry on any legacy. But with joy. Like bird song. Like the devotee who hums prayers alone in a temple. Like breath.

This first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.