The rise of the female Indian classical musician

The rise of the female Indian classical musician

Until the early part of the century, virtually all Indian female vocalists were from the courtesan tradition, and thus, held a less esteemed position in society (Neuman, 1980). Despite being just as gifted and talented as their male counterparts, they were never considered part of ‘respectable society,’ and never regarded with the same reverence or position as they hold today. What was it that finally let these women break free from the ‘courtesan’ stigma associated with female performers?

When we think of Hindustani classical music today, we think of one of India’s richest cultural heritages, world renowned for upholding the unique, Indian traditions of artistic expression. Finding the likes of musical giants such as Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Gangubai Hangal and Kishori Amonkar reigning classical music stages—both nationally and on a global scale is nothing unusual. Although both male and female musicians helped Indian classical music reach its zenith, it wasn’t until the late 1940s that female artistes were able to earn the respect and name they rightfully deserved. In a society where male dominance has constantly been nurtured, the world of Indian classical music was no different. Until the early part of the century, virtually all Indian female vocalists were from the courtesan tradition, and thus, held a less esteemed position in society (Neuman, 1980). Despite being just as gifted and talented as their male counterparts, they were never considered part of ‘respectable society,’ and never regarded with the same reverence or position as they hold today. What was it that finally let these women break free from the ‘courtesan’ stigma associated with female performers?

A photograph of a female musician from the early 1900’s, from Gobind Ram & Oodey Ram / By Gobind Ram & Oodey Ram [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The evolution of female musicians

During the Mughal era, Indian classical music evolved and thrived to become one of the most sought after forms of arts, patronised by kings, maharajah’s and wealthy noblemen. Courtesans, or female performers were a central locus of this elite court culture, well known for their mastery of the arts: be it music, dance, poetry or even theatre. Considered the ultimate authority on etiquette and social graces, even the children of noblemen were often sent to them to be taught the nuances of arts and letters (Courtney, n.d.). From the 16th century onwards, India experienced a rise in the courtesan culture and performing arts had, to some extent, become the ‘exclusive domain of the courtesans in the early days’ (Rao, 2006). They lived under the patronage of the kings or noblemen and were fairly economically independent (Tula & Pande, 2014). However, as they were usually unmarried and supported by their patrons, they were morally stigmatised—their independence stood out in great contrast to ‘respectable’ women of that time.

Indian singer and dancer, Gauhar Jaan (1873–1930) / [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Female vocalists from the courtesan stock rose to fame by singing thumri (a light form of classical music) and performing kathak (a North Indian dance form). Despite being known as a light, attractive form of music, thumri was sometimes believed to lack musical ‘depth’ and was considered a form that was easy to sing, requiring very little special training (Rao, n.d.). Although they were also trained in the more ‘serious’ forms such as khayal and dhrupad, they were confined to performing the lighter forms as those were perceived as more ‘entertaining’ and befitting of their role as courtesans.
They may have been extensively trained and may have had extraordinary skills, but they were never considered to be ‘trained singers’ or ‘vocalists’. They were perceived as ‘entertainers’, at best.
According to Neuman (1980), only when a courtesan was as a disciple of an esteemed Ustad or a Guru (from a reputable gharana), was she able to establish her name as a vocalist by profession. On the contrary, if she had no Guru or Ustad, her identity was restricted to being that of an ‘entertainer’— someone who sang and/or danced, an identity that was subordinate to that of a vocalist or a trained singer.

Leading Indian classical vocalist Kishori Amonkar at the Bengal Classical Music Festival / Mizanur Rahman Khokon © Bengal Foundation

The ‘courtesan’ stigma

As part of their ensemble, courtesans often employed the use of sarangi—one of the most common musical instruments of the 19th century. It was widespread practice to find courtesans performing with two sarangi players, some of whom were ‘commonly the teachers of singers as well as their accompanists’ (Tawayafs, n.d.). According to Feldman & Gordon (2006), sarangi players were indispensable as co-producers of the courtesan’s performance. Through the 18th and early 20th century these sarangi players – a courtesan’s accompanists – were the only tutors these songstresses had (Sarangi, 2008). They learnt music from them and had an unspoken understanding that each Ustad/Pandit would only mentor one courtesan at a time. Tutoring courtesans placed sarangi players in the lower wrung in the social hierarchy of musicians as again, as these women were never perceived to be serious music practitioners.
As the sarangi began to be identified with the mehfils associated with the courtesan tradition, musicians denounced it as a lowly instrument (Mishra, 2016). Such was the stigma associated with courtesans and their accompanists that Ustad Yunus Hussain Khan, the eleventh descendent of the Agra gharana, had reportedly stated that singers from his family would not use the sarangi for its association with dancers or courtesans (Wade, 1984). This itself was a clear and blatant sign of the extent to which female musicians were marked with the stamp of disrespectability.
Musicians that begun their careers as sarangi players would have to disown their past if they wanted to pursue a career as a classical music vocalist (Sarangi, 2008). In Wade’s (1984) book, the author writes of an anecdotal story shared by Agra gharana’s Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan. Khan recalls witnessing a jalsa, or musical gathering, where sarangi players weren’t allowed to sing with the tanpura. The custom was such that no instrumentalist was allowed to sing until and unless they abandoned their instruments and dedicated their life just to singing. On one occasion, a sarangi player began to sing when the jalsa’s convenor stopped him midway, immediately informing him that he could only sing if he gave up the sarangi for good. Interestingly, he did. Singing was considered to be the highest forms of art and a sacred branch of knowledge—to respect these values musicians had to respect and follow traditional beliefs. And at time the prevalent belief was that sarangi players, as tutors of courtesans, were of a low musical rank, unworthy and unfit for a profession as sacred as being a Hindustani classical vocalist.
Other talented sarangi players that gave up the instrument to sing included Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Abdul Karim Khan and Amir Khan (Qureshi, 2007).
What’s interesting to note is that despite the female musician and courtesan’s role in Indian history, there is little visibility of ‘courtesans in academic discourse, evincing little interest as a subject for critical historical study'(Tula & Pande, 2014). They shaped the history of Indian classical music politically and culturally, but as a condemned section of society, there’s barely any acknowledgment of their contribution.

18th century onwards

Around the end of the 1800s, South Asia began to be reorganised under the British Raj. Older forms of musical patronage by noblemen and princes had almost disappeared around the 1930s. Court patronage was being terminated as princely states began to be abolished. The death of courtly benefaction meant that the new patrons of music itself was changing. While music was previously enjoyed by high class elites, by the time it was the 20th century, people hailing from the urban middle class began to take an interest as well. The source of patronage for classical music was no longer restricted to princely states—the rise of this new middle class (comprising doctors, teachers, lawyers and few merchants and landlords) meant that there was a market for classical music that went beyond courts (Arnold & Nettl, 2000). Musical activity began to shift to urban cities such as Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras.
Well known female classical music singers of this era were all courtesans and artisans, craftpersons, instrumental accompanists as well as ‘gharanedar Ustads’ had become an integral part of the courtesan’s art, to the point where they even depended on courtesan performances. As female artists began to perform for the wider public, they set up mehfils (concert performances) of the Ustads in their homes. Interestingly, the nazrana earned by the Ustad’s was greatly welcomed and apprecieated as they weren’t always well-paid by their patrons or the court. Courtesans had, thereby, successfully built an economic network at the centre of which they stood (Needham, 2013).

The gramophone era (early 1900s)

As the first technological advancement in Hindustani music, gramophones gave female artists the opportunity to make their mark in respectable society. The rise in the demand for recorded music allowed the singing prowess of courtesans to finally be given the space for recognition. Unlike male performers, courtesans of the time had no issues with sharing their musical prowess with the world. Sound engineers too, did not care about the social taboos that plagued female singers, and were keener on profiting from the popularity and fame that courtesans enjoyed. It was the female performers that adapted and embraced the technology, playing an integral role in democratising music and allowing it to be made available for larger audiences (“Genre of Classical Indian Music”, n.d.) The gramophone technology is what ‘rescued’ courtesans from the gendered community they were part of (Tula & Pande, 2014).
Trailblazing musicians such as Gauhar Jaan, a courtesan also known as 20th century India’s greatest performing artiste, was one of the first musicians to adapt the raga to the 3-minute format needed to make a recording disc, defying superstition. When India entered the gramophone era, she was the first musician to embrace the technology and have her songs recorded. Interestingly, the very first musical recording released in India was a khayal composition sung by Gauhar Jaan in the year 1902.
In the early years of the gramophone era, Janki Bai Allahabadi, also recorded her music in several different styles. Also known as ‘chappan churi’ because of 56 scars that were supposedly made on her face by a jilted lover, courtesan Janki Bai was one of the most sought after and highly respected Hindustani vocalists of her time (Pioneering Musicians, n.d.). At a time when stalwarts of Indian classical music shunned and refused to record using gramophones, she recorded music taught to her by Ustads, thereby helping preserve musical traditions of at least three generations. She mastered the art of 3-minute recordings, recording more than 600 songs in 10 languages (Chaudhuri, 2017).

Tagore’s influence

Rabindranath Tagore’s influence on the Bengal Renaissance is one that is worthy of mention when tracing the evolution of female Indian classical musicians. In 1902, Tagore established an experimental school at Santiniketan with five students and teachers, with an aim to blend western and traditional eastern education systems. The school focused on the overall development of a student’s personality, with courses offered in humanities, social sciences, fine arts, performing arts and rural reconstruction. From the mid-1920s, Tagore began to formalise Santiniketan’s dance genre, introducing folk as well as Indian classical dance styles into the curriculum. As a revolutionary, Tagore encouraged an indulgence in art forms ranging from singing to dance to social science. People didn’t question Tagore’s liberal views, instead, they were more welcoming and accepting of his ideologies, making it easier for women to pursue the arts. Once the female students of Santiniketan grew up, they may have let go of their passion for dance, but their love for singing remained in most cases. Especially when it came to affluent homes, the societal pressure and taboo on female singers was lessened and women were able to pursue their interest in music more freely than before.

Indian independence and All India Radio (AIR)

Until the independence in 1947, although female musicians and courtesans rose to fame, they did not get the respect they deserved. After the independence, however, there was an obvious paradigm shift. The late 19th century witnessed a rise in natya sangeet, or musical dramas in Maharashtra and surrounding states. Mainly using Indian classical singing forms in them, it became common practice for women to learn to play the harmonium at home. With more women learning and practising music, the stigma associated with the art form lifted away. The most substantial change, however, came when All India Radio station declared that both female and male musicians would be allowed to sing for the national channel and all female musicians would be bestowed with the term ‘Devi’ or ‘Begum’ to rightfully honour their contributions. Women who were once unable to sing on stage were now given the chance to perform on a large, national platform. This was previously unheard of.
It was All India Radio that acted as one of the greatest patrons and musical arbiter that helped disseminate classical music. The radio station presented a new authority structure for musical value that slowly replaced orthodox connoisseurship (Qureshi, 2007).
Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, well known ghazal, dadra, and thumri musician freely sang on the radio, finally securing her place in the realm of music. She was then known as ‘Begum’ Akhtar. Given the title of Mallika-e-Ghazal, or the ‘queen of ghazals’, Begum Akhtar was one of the first female singers to give public concerts, breaking away from singing in private gatherings (Chatterjee, 2009). She went on to be awarded with the Padma Shri and later the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India. Soon other women musicians followed her lead, singing on the radio, finally having their voices heard on a platform that was considered respectable by all.
Another legendary musician was Girija Devi, the queen of thumri, who made her public debut in 1949 on All India Radio at a time when it was traditionally believed that no upper class woman should perform publicly. Defying opposition from her family, Devi went on to become the stalwart of thumri as well as the Banares-style dadra, holi, chaiti and jhoola, being awarded the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan as well as the Padma Vibhushan.
While the AIR declaration elevated the status of women, the rise in the number of commercial concerts and music conferences around that time called for more female performers. Previously, it was just the nawabs, rajas or the noblemen who patronised musicians. Once music became a part of mainstream culture, music conferences became common place. If people refused to allow women on stage their businesses wouldn’t run. As a result women began to perform on stage, and no one cared which family they came from.
However, while male musicians rose to fame with titles such as ‘Ustad’ and ‘Pandit’ reserved for them, there was none for women. While ‘Pandits’ and ‘Ustads’ were titles that developed over time, bestowed on a musician through peer groups, there really wasn’t any hard and fast rule to decide how and when to bestow these titles on musicians. When All India Radio introduced their gradation system, they decided that singers with an ‘A’ grade would be called Ustads or Pandits. Female artists did not get a title for a long time, it was during the late 20th century that they were given the ‘Vidushi’ title.
With Tagore’s influence as well as All India Radio’s decision to have female musicians sing on the radio, a new era in Hindustani classical music was welcomed. The tradition of striving to give equal rights to women in the Indian music industry has been kept alive over the years, with several female singers emerging from this realm. Classical musicians such as MS Subbulakshmi, a Carnatic music legend went on to become the first Indian to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award in 1974, while Annuparna Devi, the only female expert of the bass sitar won international fame and recognition around the world. Legends such as Girija Devi, Kishori Amonkar, Kesarbai Kerkar, as well as Parveen Sultana have carved a name for themselves in the world of classical music, achieving national and international acclaim in a world that has sadly been known as patriarchal. Female performers have finally found their rightful place in the realm of Hindustani classical music.

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OHI- Alaknanda Patel

N Anita Amreen is a writer who began her creative career with a five year stint as a journalist, with her work appearing in national dailies such as Dhaka Tribune and Daily Sun. Presently, she works as Manager for the publishing wing of Bengal Foundation.

Until the early part of the century, virtually all Indian female vocalists were from the courtesan tradition, and thus, held a less esteemed position in society (Neuman, 1980). Despite being just as gifted and talented as their male counterparts, they were never considered part of ‘respectable society,’ and never regarded with the same reverence or…

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