WHEN MUSIC LEAVES A PAPER TRAIL

The late arrival of video technology meant that a generation of Indian dancers lost out on the ersatz immortality the recording industry offered. But music was luckier. It was not an easy task, for the world of Indian music was close-knit and secretive. The large recording horn was a threatening presence; many singers believed that singing into it and recording their music would make them lose their voices. The legendary Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, a lion of a man, is known to have fled a recording session at AIR Delhi, accusing the strong smell of paint in the studio for his paranoia.
The early 20th century was a time of upheaval for the arts. As music moved from courts and temples to other seemingly secular, institutional spaces, it sought to attain the respectability that it was increasingly being denied. In a changing society where morality was being scrutinised, female musicians had the additional cross of gender to bear. Their biographies and memoirs are more than the sum of their lives; they are valuable social documents that are a reminder of the times women lived in.
In being records of whole communities, they preserve those histories that may have fallen by the wayside for lack of citation. V Sriram’s The Devadasi and the Saint is a 2007 biography of Bangalore Nagarathnamma, a prominent 20th century singer. She was born to a devadasi near Mysore and grew up in poverty. By dint of sheer talent, she grew up to be an accomplished dancer and singer, working at the court of Mysore, after which she stuck out on her own and lived in Bengaluru and Chennai. Nagarathnamma is known for reprinting the erudite 18th century Telugu courtesan Muddupalani’s work Radhika Santwanam (Appeasing Radhika). She did so to refute an earlier translation of Radhika Santwanam, which denounced the work and termed Muddupalani a prostitute. History was being rewritten even then, and Nagarathnamma was enraged to find that details of Muddupalani’s ancestry had been obliterated from her works; a litterateur went so far as to mistake the latter’s Telugu translation of the Tirruppavai as one made by a male poet.
It was also a bewildering time for musicians. The secular space of music clubs and academies was making music a respectable middle-class pursuit, simultaneously alienating it from its origins in traditional communities of performers. Like Bharatanatyam, which was becoming the symbol of “national culture”, music had turned into an agent of classical culture, with links to the divine, ethereal and spiritual. From a societal ill, it had become an accomplishment that bettered the marriage prospects of girls from “decent” homes. M.S. Subbulakshmi, one of the earliest to have crossed the North-South chasm, was born to a veena player in Madurai. T.J.S. George, who authored her biography, MS: A Life in Music, chronicles Subbulakshmi’s careful transition from her place in society by birth as someone from the devadasi community, to becoming a compelling symbol of innocent Brahmin femininity in her nine-yard madisar, the traditional attire of Tamil Brahmin women. Her husband T. Sadasivam played a key role in shaping her image. His choice of roles for Subbulakshmi in films like Meera, where she played the poet-saint, and sang all the songs, was deliberate and studied. He ensured her rise to the status of a national icon, not just a musical one, but an icon of delicate womanhood with an ethereal voice. Her strong ties to devotional music across languages and genres seemed to make her divine by association.
In many ways, the biographical attempt resembles the painted portrait. In her documentary The Other Song, Delhi-based filmmaker Saba Dewan uses a single line from a thumri that has since attempted to make amends with the present. Rasoolanbai was famous for singing phool gendawa na maro lagat karejwa mein chot (my heart is wounded, don’t throw flowers at me), a Bhairavi thumri. Just once, at a recording in 1935, she sung a slightly modified version; lagat jobanwa mein chot (my breasts are wounded). Tracing this change in lyrics, Dewan investigates the remnants of a tradition of music and dance amongst the ganewalis of Benaras. They call themselves ganewalis because they no longer dance. The circumstances of their lives mirror the trajectory of Rasoolan’s sanitised thumri; the next generation turns to tailoring and other vocations that don’t involve disrepute and offer banal ways out of poverty.
There also emerge tales of many more lyrics that must be lost to carve out more acceptable, and respectable spaces for the performances of the ganewalis. “All the others have become devis, I am the only bai left”, so Rasoolanbai is said to have once remarked as she entered an AIR portrait gallery. It is hard to ignore the tragic irony in her words.
Meanwhile, Namita Devidayal’s book, The Music Room, is a verbalisation of an oral historical narrative her music teacher wove for her over decades of music lessons. Her writing shows us that musicians are sometimes their own enemies when they seek the path to fame. Kesarbai Kerkar, like many other musicians, refused to be recorded for a long time after she found her music being sold on the pavement. Her student and Devidayal’s guru, Dhondutai Kulkarni, came from a Brahmin family and felt burdened by the need to mark out a “respectable” place as a musician. When a man flung a string of jasmine at her and requested a thumri at a private performance in Delhi, she was aghast and resolved never to sing thumris again. Kesarbai also resolutely kept her daughter away from music and sent her to medical school. Her life as a professional singing woman had brought her fame and riches, but it was a loaded existence, one she was unwilling to pass on to her children.
And then there is Malka Pukhraj, who penned her autobiography in Urdu. The original manuscript remains unpublished because her relatives feared the revelations she might have made in her book. An edited version, which was later translated into English —Song Sung True by Saleem Kidwai, is a matter-of-fact account of her birth, her education in dance and music in Jammu and Delhi and the years she spent as a privileged court musician at the Jammu court.
Malka’s role as a public performer really shows itself in its absence. She speaks of the devastated accompanists whose families were supported by her performing career. Malka, in her place as the performing woman, is part of a whole economy of performance where her family, accompanists and patrons are spokes in a symbiotic wheel of livelihood and patronage.
The Malka Pukhraj on YouTube, who hides behind her sunglasses as she sings her iconic Abhi to main jawaan hoon in an empty studio, is but a fragment of the woman who once spilled her heart across the pages of a book.

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