Pyaari Bai, Radio Singer

“I thought I should tell her to shut up but then remembered your desperation to sing again.” The author’s call with a renowned musician reveals a continued disregard for marginalised professions

In the past few years, a small but significant number of prominent middle-class women musicians have questioned the invisibilising of tawaif performers. They have consciously tried to break the wall of respectability that separates courtesan musicians of the past from contemporary women singers. While the majority have focussed their efforts on including in their repertoire old thumri and dadra bandishes rendered in a ‘voice’ associated with earlier courtesan singers, some others, like Vidya Rao, have also been researching and writing about thumri and dadra as shaped and sung by tawaifs. Another prominent vocalist, Shubha Mudgal, has been associated with performance art-based projects aimed at unearthing, retrieving and foregrounding the contributions made by tawaifs to the evolution of Hindustani music. 

Their interventions as musicians have immensely enriched the ongoing feminist interrogations in academia, law and visual arts of different aspects of the tawaif and devdasi traditions. I was, therefore, naturally interested in attending a concert by the woman vocalist whose adoption of the tawaif performance mode was creating such a buzz in the cultural and feminist circles of Delhi. 

Jam-packed with audience and media, the concert was held in a small open-air amphitheatre and designed along the lines of a mehfil, with the singer and her accompanist musicians seated at floor level in the centre. Her evening’s repertoire consisted of a string of cover versions of well-known thumris, dadras, seasonal songs and ghazals recorded by celebrity courtesan singers of the past, interspersed with a one-way interaction with the audience that combined snatches of musical history and a few jokes laced with some antiseptic flirtation. A nice enough idea, except that the singer’s tendency to twist her mouth and twitch her eyebrows in a rather alarming manner, combined with frenetic arm-flailing, seemed less a tribute and more a caricature of the subtle abhinaya that accompanied the singing of erstwhile mehfil performers. Worse, I found myself wishing that her lacklustre and often off-key singing was more in tune with her dazzling attire and jewellery. 

The audience, however, comprising known faces from the progressive, feminist and art circles of Delhi, clearly did not share my disappointment. The attempt, even if ham-handed, by an English-speaking, non-tawaifs woman musician to conjure the tawaif’s phantom on the sanitised respectability of the concert stage was being celebrated by them as so subversive that it overshadowed the mediocre music-making of the event. Torn between sympathy for the politics behind the performance, and the dismay over the dismal quality of singing and the clumsiness of the act, I decided to reserve my opinion and attend a few more concerts by her before arriving at any conclusive judgement. 

Before I had the opportunity to see her in performance again, however, I received this call. Having heard about my research on tawaifs, she wanted to meet me as soon as possible to discuss an urgent matter that might be of mutual interest. I told her that I was not in Delhi and would be out for quite some time. We could discuss the matter over the telephone, I suggested, and after some hesitation she agreed. 

She wanted my help in introducing her to retired tawaifs who would be receptive to sharing with her rare bandishes in their repertoire. This project, she said, would go a long way towards documenting and archiving tawaifs’ forgotten compositions, which we could lose forever with the demise of their last remaining practitioners. 

I had instantly warmed up to the request. ‘What exactly do you plan to do with the bandishes that you collect from retired tawaifs?’ I asked, glancing at you and Pyaari khala, deep in conversation about a newspaper report on local civic despairs. 

‘Well, since I am a musician, I plan to perform the bandishes in different fora to ensure the widest possible audience for these forgotten songs,’ she replied, sounding somewhat impatient. 

I am not sure whether it was her reply or the tone of her voice that made me uncomfortable. But, as I looked at you, head bent, reading aloud a joke to Pyaari khala, I brushed aside my unease and asked, ‘Will the tawaifs get paid for sharing their songs with you? Many are in dire financial straits and payment, even if small, would come most handy.’ 

‘Hmm. Well actually that might not be possible,’ the vocalist sounded guarded. Then, picking her words carefully, she added, ‘You must understand that projects like this one are not commercially viable. We are working on a shoestring budget. There is no money to pay the women. But as partners in a project that aims to highlight tawaif music, they will benefit in other ways.’

‘I am sure they will,’ I said encouragingly. ‘Have you considered inviting former tawaifs to perform their own songs? It would be a wonderful opportunity for them to reclaim their musical identity.’

‘But aren’t they too old to perform?’ came the reply, sharp and fast. 

‘Many are, but there are quite a large number around who can still sing,’ I assured her in my most persuasive tones. In the background, I could hear you reding aloud a ghazal from the newspaper’s poetry section. 

‘Oh! I have no doubt that they can sing.’ The voice at the other end sounded patronising. ‘But they must be now out of practice for so long. I don’t want them to cut a sorry picture in front of a musically informed audience.’

I was astounded by her arrogance. That someone whose performance I had found so musically wanting should be dismissive about musicians she had not even heard was galling. 

But worse was to follow: ‘What we can plan for, though, is to invite some of these women to the performance. They could sit on the stage with me, perhaps even join in the singing occasionally. What do you think?’

I thought I should tell her to shut up but then remembered your desperation to sing again. Against all hope, I made a last-ditch effort, ‘I suppose you will be able to generate funds for their travel and stay? And perhaps once you have heard them perform, you might consider giving them space in your performance to sing some of their own songs?’

‘Some money to cover basic travel expenses might be possible. But much as I would love for them to sing, you must understand that people come to hear and see me in performance. I am not sure if the audience or the sponsors will be enthusiastic if we push solo singing by others in a programme billed in my name. You know how it is.’

I didn’t know how it was, but our conversation had clearly come to an end. I told her I would share her proposal with the former tawaifs I knew, and let her know their reaction. Once again, she pressed upon me the immense political significance of her proposed project and expressed hope that I would be able to convince former tawaifs to ‘come on board.’ 

Excerpted with permission from Tawaifnama by Saba Dewan, published by Westland/Context, July 2019

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