Feminist scholar Tejaswini Niranjana (head of the Centre for Indian Languages in Higher Education, TISS Mumbai, and Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore) says she doesn’t want to write another academic book. Fittingly, her ambitious new project, titled ‘Performing Modernity: Musicophilia in Bombay/Mumbai’, will be published online. She has been energetically digging through archival material dating back to the 1860s as well as charging around Bombay on foot. The Ladies Finger interviewed her at her home in Bangalore, where she told us about the women who migrated to Bombay and became pioneering Hindustani music performers.
Can you tell us why you got interested in Bombay and music, perhaps situate this interest within the rest of your work?
The story started in the Caribbean. I went there in the early 90s, before the new globalization, and that journey actually meant something else altogether. But, eventually I would be asking questions that allowed me to reflect on my own location. Everyone says, you wrote a book about the Caribbean and I say, no, it’s a book that allows you to think about South Asia in a different way. Through that project I began a personal engagement with musical practice and I started learning Hindustani music.
It happened at a late stage in life and came about only because of very personal circumstances. In 2003, my sister was quite ill and had started learning Carnatic music and we decided we’d share the labour, so to speak. Just for fun, to have something to talk about, to fight about and compete over. All of this came together when I started thinking about Dharwad in northern Karnataka and I brought my Caribbean questions back home. A lot of those questions had to do with women, migration and, of course, music. Clearly these were the key ideas that influenced my work.
While I started obsessing about Gangubai Hangal at that point and eventually got to interview her before she passed away — that was a placeholder for something I couldn’t quite understand. The Dharwad project became about nationalism in Karnataka and the whole language question. It is partly suspended and something I might go back to at a later stage. But the kind of issues I was dealing with relating to music and women didn’t quite find a complete articulation in that project. Again, it was Gangubai that brought me to Bombay. Bombay is an existentially important location for me, it’s a place I’ve been very closely connected to, ever since I did my MA there in the late 1970s.
Sitting and listening to Gangubai’s interview, which I was transcribing before I wrote my work on Dharwad — I suddenly came across a line in which she says, as a performer we had to travel a lot, and I asked, where. She said, mostly to Bombay, Bombay was a very important place to go when I was a young musician studying with Sawai Gandharva. She said simply that the economics of it were important, even though she didn’t use that term. She would get Rs 25 to do a concert in Hubli and Rs 125 to perform in Bombay. I think she was talking about the 40s at this point.
That sparked off an interest in me. I began thinking about the Bombay space, in which Hindustani music is so naturalized now because of the number of Maharashtrians singing this kind of music. This is something you learn very early on as a feminist and someone who thinks critically about spaces, you can’t treat anything as naturalized — you have to see how you can historicise it. To understand that, I began delving into the whole Bombay music scene. I began to wonder whether I could go back and collaborate with Surabhi Sharma, with whom I had done Jahaji Music: India in the Caribbean. We share a lot of interests — definitely in women and music.
What time span does the Bombay project cover?
It’s from the 1860s to the present. What I’ve done so far is written on the period up to 1950, almost just after independence. I’ve done that through archival work, secondary material, looking at a lot of biographies, looking at multilingual material — Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati. And a lot of English stuff too.
I’ve done some ethnographic work. I’ve done some interviews with old singers, some of whom are in their 80s and have been able to talk about their memories of a much earlier time. I’ve also interviewed students of music, collectors, organizers and others. So that covers the periods from the 50s up to now. To others this whole period might seem like a consolidation of a Hinduised, nationalised tradition around Hindustani music, but I contest that view.
The kernel of your project, then, is Bombay?
I’m trying to understand how Bombay becomes such an important space without which Hindustani music would not have survived in the way it did. Of course, it wasn’t called Hindustani music in those days. Bombay becomes a crucial location for performance, for pedagogy, recording and consumption. A particular kind of frenzy — which I call musicophilia — actually grips people in Bombay, in the late 19th century and now it has continued to this day. This musicophilia, in many ways, shapes the nature of modernity in Bombay and this what my project is about. A very important way of thinking about this is to do a sonic cartography — a musical cartography — and we are trying to do this in Surabhi’s film that is being made as part of the project. We’re looking at a musical precinct — Girgaum — in what was called the “native town” in the 19th century.
You’ve mentioned women, migration and music as key themes you are interested in. How do they figure in this project?
The tawaifs who came to Bombay are not very well documented. You have examples of tawaifs who became quite wealthy, many of them Muslims and some of them Hindus who took Muslim names and had their kothas. Moharram was a big festival in Bombay, even for non-Shias, and becomes a model for the later Ganesh Utsav processions. The day after Mohurram — the men would come out in all their finery and the tawaifs would host musical concerts in their diwankhanas. It’s all very fascinating, but unless one writes fiction about them there’s very little historical evidence we can draw upon.
There is this place opposite Congress House next to Kennedy Bridge, and this is very much the Opera House area. Right opposite Congress House is a kotha and there is a board outside saying Bombay Sangeet Kalakar Mandal, I couldn’t read the date because the board is dirty. And I immediately said — from intuition — that this building has to be associated with the kotha. So Surabhi and I tried to go in there and we were fobbed off by some very tough-looking men. But, we could see women draped on various balconies. So we asked, is this where mujra happens and they said yes. We then asked, where does it happen, we thought it would like a hall. They said, “It happens in every room”. Then I found out about a Nepali courtesan called Gangabai who lived in that building in the 1940s and who hosted Aamir Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. She was a big figure, hosting these musicians.
Already by the late 19th century, a whole community formed that included both men and women. But the tawaif women were in some sense more invisible — unlike the men they were not performing on the concert stage. There were a few that did that. But, the women who did go out and perform were the Goan students of the Muslim Ustads. By the 1890s you have a large number of women coming in from Goa. By 1890, Khadim Hussain Khan and his two brothers come from Moradabad and establish their own Bhendibazaar Gharana, and train up to 60 Goan singers, all women. These were women from devadasi backgrounds, and these ‘naikins’ and their kalavant families move en masse to Girgaum.
They move there because other Goans have already come there. They found patrons amongst the Gujarati seths, the Bhatias in particular. So the women would often be in some form of monogamy, they would be associated with one patron. Kesarbai Kerkar, Mogubai Kurdikar are the most famous examples — they would sometimes rise to prominence within those households and get power. But they got these patrons to pay for their lessons with the ustads.
Many of them came encouraged by the success of those they heard about from Bombay, who had become performers. You can then see that the next generation has a Gujarati father and Goan mother — which people like Kishori Amonkar have. There are many, many examples like that. I hadn’t quite realised the extent to which Goan naikins came to Bombay and established themselves as singers. So when you’re looking at the public performance space in the early 20th century or even later, you are really looking at Muslim ustads and Goan naikins.
They performed on radio as well, until 1947, when the new Information and Broadcasting ministry decides that it will ban people with “unsavoury” backgrounds from singing. But until that point, if you look at the program listings of All India Radio and earlier BBC and you will see the names of the various bais who are called there to perform.
So, this is what I discovered. They come in droves, they obviously really establish themselves. So 60 trained singers are performing, can you imagine how many more actually attempted to do that.
It’s not until the very late 30s and the 40s that so-called middle-class respectable women start learning music. Until that point, it’s a very different situation. Also, as I realized, not only were they paid for performances, some of these rich merchants would also give them a lot of jewellery in appreciation. These are migrant women who begin to acquire property in the Girgaum area, even though they had to buy it in their brothers’ names. They begin to pay property taxes. They rattle the middle class neighborhood. The historian Anjali Arondekar has documented a case where upright men of the neighborhood go to complain to the collector saying, how dare these women pay property tax and own property and the collector tells them, I’ve seen you in their house so don’t tell me anything, they belong here just like you belong here. An amazing sort of transition from a somewhat destitute background in Goa to coming into Bombay — this is what Bombay opens up as a space of opportunity.
Are there any particular performers you got obsessed with?
There is an amazing story of a woman called Bablibai Patkar who was over six feet tall and ate two chickens a day. Whenever she performed every ustad would get scared and run because she was known as the most fantastic performer there was. I’ve found just four lines about her and I really want to know more.
The other very interesting woman is Anjanibai Malpekar, who was a very beautiful singer, who studied with Nazir Khan of the Bhendibazar Gharana and she eventually gave up singing. She was also Raja Ravi Verma’s Lady in the Moon Light (1899), she was a model for that.
Kesarbai Kerkar is also an interesting figure in a very different way. People have written about her, but there is still something to unravel.
In what ways has she been written about?
There is one book written about her by Namita Devidayal called The Music Room, which documents her life. But I think we still need to explore questions of subjectivity and the connection to music. Because there’s an emergence into modernity with that generation, or even for Kesarbai’s student Dhondutai Kulkarni’s generation, or even with the person who wrote the book in the present. I wasn’t sure that came across. A lot of people like it and it’s good that it has made some of these issues popular. But I’m grappling with something else and I don’t necessarily find the answers in this book. It doesn’t capture why some Bhatia patron should pay so much money and have Kesarbai become this famous singer. What is this connection to music? Why should people be so obsessed with it?
There are a lot of books, in both Marathi and English, written on Hindustani music. Five pages on Kesarbai, five on Bhimsen Joshi etc. This is a very well-worn tradition, bordering on hagiography and, of course, you can’t verify all those facts. I think that is okay though, because a lot of the material we have is anecdotal and anecdote also builds up a thickness, so I also like collecting them. So with Bablibai Patkar who ate two chickens and rushed around terrorizing all the ustads, I said, I have to study this woman!