Musicians from another era
The tawaifs are a forgotten chapter from the past. Yet their musical heritage continues. LEELA VENKATARAMAN talks to Amelia Maciszewshki, who is trying to revive the music of these forgotten women.
"Hindustani Sangeet ne mujpe jaadu daala." (Hindustani music has cast a spell on me).
COMING from a Polish American settled in Austin, Texas, this is not exceptional, for Indian classical music, down the ages, has drawn into its fold several aficionados from the West. The difference in the case of Amelia Macizewskhi, an ethno-musicologist, is in her special area of interest the bais and tawaifs, faded leftovers of a chapter from feudal India over which public memory has drawn a convenient curtain.
For one whose initiation into Hindustani music was through the sitar (under Prof. Suresh Misra from 1978 and later under Aashish Khan from 1990 onwards), this fascination for women artistes from the courtesan culture of the old Nawabi north, represents a changed emphasis from the pure melody-oriented raga world of instrumental music to the word/ gesture art of the tawaifs who specialised in singing thumri and adaab a form of presentation where the singer also used gestures and facial expressions to interpret the song with a play on words.
Time is known to be merciless and, in its immediacy, has little use for those belonging to the sphere of has-beens. For the bais and tawaifs who, in their time, made immeasurable contribution to music and dance, reality today is harsh. As one of them tells Amelia, "Nawab Sahib to mar gayen" (The Nawab is no more.)"
What drew Amelia to vocal music was the realisation that instrumental music is constantly aspiring to a state of the human voice.When she approached Girija Devi, the nightingale of the Benares gharana of genres like Thumri, Chaiti, Jhoola and Kajri, it was to be told that lack of voice training had adversely affected her voice box "a delicate instrument which needs correct handling". Ever since, periodic voice training under Girija Devi, during her visits to India, has been part of Amelia's music routine.
"These were empowered women, the tool of such power being their musical ability. Even now those belonging to such families are matrilineal and matriarchal even when a man stays in the household. No obscenity was attached to the bais and tawaifs. In Benares, I have known specially sponsored shows for them. They have given to Hindustani music cultural treasures, which must be preserved. Their diverse repertoire and knowledge of different genres of music, all knit into the rhythms of a lifestyle, made the singing an experience with a life all its own. Even their voice production is quite different. It cannot be found in the other mainstream musicians of the day."
But today, few have managed to make from the courts and durbars to proscenium. Those who have done so, with a degree of dignity (and there have been a few), despite the problems, are from the Gandharva caste a higher social level."
Not a professional filmmaker, Amelia has, however, taken several films of tawaif colonies. The squalor all round speaks for itself. As an ethno-musicologist, Amelia's publications centre around different aspects of these women like Tawaifs, Tourism and Tales: the Problematics of 21st Century Musical Patronage in India, Tradition, Innovation and Enterprise in Hindustani Music, and researched articles on Begum Akhtar, Siddheswari Devi, Gauhar Jan among others.
It is measure of what time and history have done to see women from the tawaif background in Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and even Delhi living in colonies associated with sex racketing and drug peddling. Amelia's films give a peep into their art and from snippets of singing by persons like Kalidasi and Shantidevi, one gets an insight into the depth of training of what, in its heyday, must have been musical ability of a high order. Among the younger generation, there seems to be a broad-based approach with less weight given to aspects like khayal singing.
"These women are survivors," says Amelia. "The younger generation has also taken to selling their musical instruments. Already they have converted a main musical tool into a craft, which can be exchanged for money. In some form, their art will survive. Look at the South Asians in the Caribbean who originally came from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Bhojpuri songs are still sung, albeit with local influences. In Surinam and Guiana too, the Indian music survives taan singing, being their vision of classical music. These archetypes defy history and adapt to local conditions in order to live on. Kalidasi's daughter Aruna sings contemporary geet and bhajans. She has a good voice."
Did Amelia come across any bitterness in these women? "Not really," she says, "for they are a resigned lot. The only bitter person I met was Mushtari Begum of Delhi." Their main grouse is that the mainstream musicians of today, many of whom had come to them to acquire training in certain areas, and the patrons of art, private and government, have forgotten their contribution and awards and titles have been denied to the best among them.
In Benares and Balwadi in Shivadaspur area, tuition classes were being held to teach these women "songs of empowerment". When the police, in the name of a raid, raped a young woman in the locality, there was a protest march.
So an awareness of being exploited is creeping in, though lack of patronage and a regular income pushes them to prostitution. "What is needed is to raise the self-esteem of these women. Majboori (compulsion) and galat kaam (wrong doing) are oft-used words, indicating that social acceptance and financial viability with enough platforms for their art to survive would bring about an immediate change in their life styles.
The one organisation working for the uplift of these women is Guria Sewi Sansthan, run by a "man with a very big heart".
Apart from organising special festivals for these artistes in Delhi and other places, for which there is tremendous gratitude, this organisation is trying hard to bring about an awareness of their problems among the public. "What they yearn for is self-respect and patronage for their art".
"Have you ever seen such women going up in the social hierarchy amongst the families you frequently visit?" I asked.
"Yes. For example Dayakumari who was literally destitute for years I saw her in bad shape in 1997 and again in 2001, if anything, she was worse off. But now, her two sons have grown up and both do work singing and other things. Now the grubby little one room apartment has another room built by the side and this time I found a toilet also newly built and one can see that the family lives in far better circumstances. But, generally, once you are in the sex/drug spiral, it is difficult to escape, unless you have an assured means of livelihood."
Amelia often sings and plays the sitar for these people and they, in turn, perform for her. The isolation of the bai and tawaif has had its adverse spin-off in Kathak where abhinaya has become a lost art. Even today, it is the odd dancer who has connections with these families who shows the highest ability for sensitive abhinaya. As for thumri singing, more often than not, it is sung like a ghazal. Singers for Kathak are mostly unaware of the "thumri andaz".
Almost eight decades ago, Pandit Bhatkhande himself, had observed that the best amongst singers considered the thumri to be an inferior strand of classical music and shied away from it.
Pity that what comes from deeply felt emotions and melodic discipline should be thus relegated to a lower status.
These women have their pride. "They do not wear their heart on the sleeve. They are so gracious and hospitable and warm. Don't forget that gracious manners are an essential part of the courtesan's culture.
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