Thursday, March 30, 2023
HomeFeaturesIndia’s gaanewalis come alive with songs and storytelling – Begum Akhtar to...

India’s gaanewalis come alive with songs and storytelling – Begum Akhtar to Shobha Gurtu

Singers of the past were often stereotyped as prostitutes. Avanti Patel and her group are changing that and breaking down the barrier between the audience and the stage.

Text Size:

New Delhi: Begum Akhtar, one of the greatest Ghazal and semi-classical singers, was once travelling to Bhopal from Lucknow when a young boy quietly slipped a chit in her hand. That paper had a ghazal written on it. That young boy was none other than Shakeel Badayuni who grew up to be a well-known poet. Begum Akhtar composed the ghazal, and immortalised it in song — Ae Mohabbat Tere Anjam Pe Rona Aaya.

The ghazal is now part of a power-packed musical performance by Mumbai-based Avanti Patel and her group – where they combine storytelling, history and music. They call this celebration of women singers from the past O Gaanewali.

After narrating this anecdote about Begum Akhtar, the group present a soulful rendition of the ghazal. The performance is followed by similar stories and melodious songs interjected with audience interactions and conversations among the performers on stage.

From Chaa Rahi Kaali Ghata and Muddat Hui Hai Yaar Ko to the traditional Dadra and Hori, they gradually explore the work of each Gaanewali (singer). The group tells engaging stories about that particular form or artist in between songs. Some of the featured artists are Begum Akhtar, Iqbal Bano, Gauhar Jaan, and Nirmala Devi.

The performance is nothing short of a masterpiece of melody and rhythm, which blends the rich traditional sounds of Indian semi-classical music seamlessly with engaging storytelling. All its story-song-story breaks provide just the right relief that the audience relishes.

Also Read: An English professor and a musical genius: What made Pt. Rajshekhar Mansur special

Popularising the classics

A segment is dedicated to Iqbal Bano. They begin by telling the famous story of how she sang ‘Hum Dekhenge’ wearing a black saree, registering her resistance towards Pakistan’s Gen Zia ul Haq regime.

Apart from anecdotes about the artists, the group also teaches the audience about dadra, thumri, and their different forms by talking among each other, giving examples through musical demonstration.

This is the group’s way to popularise semi-classical musical forms, which were mainly sung by women.

Gaanewali aur Naachnewali (singers and dancers), as the traditional women entertainers were popularly called, have been stereotyped as women restricted to the realms of prostitution and sex work. But many of these women immensely contributed to preserving and nurturing India’s diverse musical genres including khayal, thumri, dadra, hori, jhoola, chaiti, and ghazal.

A new generation of performers 

Avanti Patel, who has been learning music since the age of five from noted Hindustani classical vocalist Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, conceptualised the show because she felt traditional forms, especially thumri, were getting lost.

“It attracted me as a student of music and I wanted to do a show with thumri as a focus point. So I submitted the concept to Harkat Studios for a grant and I got it,” Patel told ThePrint.

However, she said the real challenge was translating this concept into reality for their first virtual show in January 2022.

“After speaking with a bunch of musician friends, we managed to do it. Our first virtual show was a great success,” she said.

Patel is part of a new generation of performers who don’t see music as just music. They bring in an analytical perspective, they want to experiment with new forms.

Classical music, in its traditional form, is usually performed in a formal setting where there is an invisible barrier between the performer and audience. Enjoying it also requires a certain level of knowledge.

Through O Gaanewali, Patel and her group hope to change this. They want everyone to feel connected to the music which is why they often perform in small groups and intimate baithak settings, letting go of the boundaries of stage.

Also Read: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was Singing Buddha in Japan, Pavarotti in Paris, Islam spirit in London

Recreating an era gone by

Their stage setting tries to recreate the era when Gaanewaalis would sing. The mics are decorated with jasmine flowers and an antique gramophone is placed in the corner. Two women dressed in graceful silk saris, decked up in jewels and their hair adorned with gajras sit with their accompanying musicians. Their passas — a Mughal-era piece of jewellery that rests on the side of one’s head — and their elaborate earrings shimmer under the light. What unfolds for the next two hours is an engaging musical saga that takes you through different singing forms and seasons.

The group paid special attention to what they wore. In popular culture, Tawaifs or Gaanewaalis have mostly been shown as kathak dancers wearing tight-fitted clothes. According to Patel, there exists a category of women who wore saris, would hardly show any skin and would sit with a tanpura and sing.

“They fought hard to make their own identity, different from the women who were involved in prostitution. Though we are not morally against that, it would have been unfair to the Gaanewaalis to put them in the same category, so we decided to dress in a sari like them,” Patel said.

Patel’s guru-bahan or co-learner Rutuja Lad is the second lead singer. Patel’s old friend Akshay Jadhav plays Tabla. Also part of the group are Ahmedabad-based Sarangi player Vanraj Shastri and harmonium player Nusrat Apoorv. It was challenging to adapt to this sort of performance which required a lot more speaking and stage awareness. This is where directors Mallika Singh and Meghana Telang came in.

“For us musicians it is a habit to come on stage, play our instrument and go back. But here we also had to engage with the audience, tell stories in between our musical performances. That became quite a challenge, but we are getting used to it,” said Shastri.

For Jadhav, a seasoned Tabla player who also plays for Bollywood songs, being a part of the show is a soulful experience.

“Co-musicians and many people keep asking about when the next show of O Gaanewali is happening. For us, this is music for the soul,” he told ThePrint.

Striving for the right representation

From Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama to Vikram Sampath’s My Name is Gauhar Jaan, researching and referencing many such books and academic articles is part of the fun for Patel.

“There is also a lot of anecdotal knowledge, for example the stories that our guru Ashwini Bhide Deshpande ji shares. Her aunt was a student of Shobha Gurtu, who is a big name in thumri,” Patel said.

The songs sung in O Gaanewali go as far back as the era of Gauhar Jaan, known as India’s first ‘recording superstar’.

Historian Vikram Sampath told ThePrint that only a few people know that when recording technology came to India, it was largely women from Tawaif and Devadasi communities who recorded their songs first.

“But their stories have totally been thrown in the dustbins of history. My team and I are also working on an archive of Indian music. We have digitised a lot of these women’s original recordings and made it available to the public on SoundCloud. The O Gaanewaali project is a good initiative, with the concept of rediscovering various facets of Indian culture,” he said.

Varun Grover, Kalki Koechlin, and Kabir Bedi have attended their performances. The group is performing in Borivali, Mumbai on 8 March and in Thane, Mumbai on 11 March.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular