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Ambassadors of their art

Namita Devidayal’s debut book focuses on the great musicians of the Jaipur gharana. SAVITHA GAUTAM

In Namita’s book, two such musicians find pride of place — Ustad AllAdiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur gharana; and one of his prime disciples, Kesarbai Kerkar. Their life and music is told through the voice of Dhondutai Kulkarni.

Photos: Courtesy Dhondutai

Love for THE art: Namita with Dhondutai

Namita Devidayal wanted to tell a story: the true story of a grand musical tradition and of a woman who’s one of its heirs. That’s how she began writing her debut book, The Music Room. As much as it recreates the past f or a new audience, the book also documents the rise of the Jaipur gharana of Hindustani music.

The classical arts, be they music or dance, have stood the test of time, thanks to some of its past exponents who rose above the role of entertainers. They became ambassadors of their art. In Namita’s book, two such musicians find pride of place — Ustad Allidiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur gharana; and one of his prime disciples, Kesarbai Kerkar. Their life and music is told through the voice of Dhondutai Kulkarni, who had the privilege of learning from both these greats. Embellishing the book are some rare photographs of the musicians.

Compelling journey

Namita’s story begins in the Bombay of 1960s when her mother takes her to meet her music-teacher-to-be, Dhondutai. We are introduced to Ustad Alladiya Khan and Kesarbai whose photographs adorn the walls of her home. From there, Namita takes us on a compelling musical journey, full of events, some amusing, some stirring. But as Namita puts it, “I discovered a new world when I met Dhondutai.” And the reader too is drawn into that fascinating world of alaps, ragas and riyaaz.

What prompted Namita to tell her story? “The book has been brewing for a long time. I first started writing it a few years ago when I was living in New York and took a creative writing class at the Columbia University. I hardly thought I had a book inside me, until I showed my work to a friend who pushed me to write and insisted there was a story waiting to be told that would be of great interest to those who want access to the world of Indian classical music.”

Namita would sit at her computer every morning while her baby was at play school, and write. “It was quite effortless, really,” she says. “I think because I was never able to take the music itself to the level it deserves, I sublimated my expression, my love for music and my music teacher, into the craft I knew best: writing.”

The Music Room moves back and forth in time, and somewhere, the past meets the present. For young Namita, chatting with Dhondutai was more interesting than learning her sa re ga ma. As the book progresses, events unfold in a surreal manner. “The amazing thing about these people’s lives is that fact is stranger, and more marvellous and surreal, than fiction. The story of Ustad Alladiya Khan and how he adopted Dhondutai, a Hindu Brahmin girl, is moving. The irony is that she had to be born outside the Khan Sahibs’ family to inherit his music because the women in the family were never allowed to learn or sing. The story of the bewitching, volatile Kesarbai speaks of so many things — about women trying to find their voice in a society ridden with hypocrisy and ambivalence towards ‘singing women’. Finally, the story of Dhondutai itself is remarkable. It is the story of sacrifice, of unconditional love for an art form.”

You wonder how Dhondutai reacted when she learnt of the project. Namita replies, “Dhondutai never chased fame but, of course, she was pleased that I was writing the book. She has not read it. I wonder how she will feel once she does that. She may be surprised by some of the things she learns about me and about my take on her!”

Touching passages

She continues, “I wanted to tell a story, rather than just report facts about musicians and events. So, while all the events are true, I have taken the liberty to embellish them while maintaining their integrity.”

The book is full of touching passages about Ustad Alladiya Khan and Kesarbai. Here were two extraordinary musicians whose lives were quite a contrast. If Khan sahib was often plagued by a financial crisis, Kesarbai lived life queen size. But they had their share of regrets and, even in death, remained largely unsung. “Alladiya Khan did not die in peace. His greatest regret… was that his children had not inherited the full worth of his music… Alladiya Khan’s funeral procession was… sparse. There were barely 10 or 20 people accompanying the body to the cemetery.”


Kesarbai lost her voice after a concert and then decided to stop singing. When music left her life, so did health. When Dhondutai went to see her a few months before she died, “She was appalled at the apparition that lay before her. A woman, who once wore only the best chiffons and silks, was covered in a thin cotton sari. It fell loosely around her emaciated body.”

And these were the musicians who laid the very foundation for a prominent style of music. What’s more, there don’t seem to be any recordings of Khansabhib or, for that matter, Kesarbai. Was there no attempt to record their voices? Namita rues, “Alladiya Khan lived in the pre-recording era. So there is no trace of him other than the marvellous compositions and compound ragas that he left behind. As for Kesarbai, I am discovering that there are people who secretly recorded her and have carefully preserved her music. It may have seemed eccentric that Kesarbai never allowed any one to record her music, forcing people to surreptitiously place tape recorders under the carpet when she performed. But her reasons were compelling; she believed that her music was not cheap and she hated the idea that LPs would be sold for nothing in some store.” Today, the Jaipur gharana lives on through many promising and performing musicianx.

Across all barriers

Commenting on her relationship with her teacher, Namita says, “Music is the only language that cuts across every barrier. I think the fact that Dhondutai and I could stay connected for so many years, despite the incredibly different spaces we inhabit, has to do with music. For, when I am with Dhondutai, I enter a space that is akin to being inside a temple. It is meditative and pure and disconnected with the cacophony of my otherwise worldly existence. I think what I learned from Dhondutai was the ability to fearlessly and unconditionally give oneself up to something, regardless of the rewards.”

Of course, Dhondutai is quite distressed about the way the classical arts have been marginalised today. “She feels that there is a disdain for things connected with ‘Indian culture’ and that we mindlessly look westwards at the risk of losing out on what is so incredible within ourselves.”

As for Namita, she listens to “anything that moves me, a complex raga by Dhondutai, a gorgeous piece by Amir Khan, an abhang by Bhimsen Joshi or a Kabir bhajan by Shubha Mudgal or jazz and blues because my husband is a blues musician.”

She believes, “The Hindustani tradition will never die. Even if it morphs slightly to suit changing audiences and tastes, it is fine because tradition and culture can never be static. In fact, that is when they die.”

The Music Room; Namita Devidayal, Random House India, Rs. 450.

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