DEEPA GANESH

The Other Song by Saba Dewan takes you into the suppressed realm of the tawaif and the exotic thumris she nurtured and carried

The other song wasn’t quite an accident; its discovery however was. The accidental throw up of a world not forgotten, but systematically suppressed from public memory; in fact, its traces had been erased even from the world to which the ‘other song’ belonged. What is this other song? Why was it expunged and by whom? What were the reasons for such an obliteration? As Saba Dewan, the maker of the film, “The Other Song” (funded by India Foundation for The Arts), sought answers to these disconcerting questions, it opened up a complex universe of hidden traditions, forbidden memories, banished histories, of the nation-building project, and a whole lot of extraordinary women musicians who were the carriers of a grand musical legacy.

Other song

The ‘other song’ is a variant of the celebrated Bhairavi thumri sung by Rasoolan Bai, “Phul gendawa na maaro, lagat ‘jobanva’ mein chot” a more sexually explicit version. Rasoolan Bai, the highly respected thumri singer from Benaras, forms only two points of the film — the beginning and the end; however, her spirit stalks the rest of the film. The film which sets out to be Saba Dewan’s search for the lost thumri gradually unravels the many concealed layers – the tawaif as the treasure house of the thumri, her way of life, her glorious years, now pushed to the margins — and the ‘other song’ right at the bottom of it all. “It was a chance finding. One afternoon, well into my project on sexuality and art, I was discussing with Shastriji, a Sanskrit scholar and a connoisseur of music. He mentioned Rasoolan Bai’s famous thumri ‘Lagat karejawa mein chot’ and by the end of our conversation he had challenged me into finding the version which had ‘jobanava’ and not ‘karejawa’.”

After much searching and asking, Saba realised that there was something enigmatic about its absence. What was even more surprising was that none were willing to talk about this thumri – they either feigned ignorance or left her with vague clues. Amalan Dasgupta, an archivist at the Jadhavpur University, found it nearly one year after the search was launched. Unlike the popular-classic version which is replete with tans, boltaans, and complex manoeuvrings and has a rich, reflective texture, this one was more playful and youthful. “I was elated. But now I was curious to know what exactly the word joban meant.”

This wasn’t easy either; scholars told her straight that they couldn’t tell a woman – ‘karejawa is heart, jobanva is above the heart’ is how explicit they could get; the tawaifs spoke of its many meanings – youth, zenith, but shied away from saying what it exactly meant. “I had a vague idea. It was youthful, sexual prime… Soon, I realised it meant breast. Did that hold the clue to why Rasoolan Bai never sang it again?” The quest for the ‘other song’ and its hidden presence with a strong articulation of female sexuality also had answers to its suppression. Also, the song disappeared at a time when this world was in the throes of transition. Bhatkhande and Paluskar saw the urgent need to sanitise the musical realm from the unholy influence of the tawaif. Gandhiji, too agreed — he refused to take their contributions for the Freedom Movement. In the late 1956-57, the passing of SITA (Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act), sounded the death knell for this great tradition. There were raids on kotas and tawaifs were arrested – and it was heart rending to see these women, who were the nurturers of this high art being dragged into jails. “One simply couldn’t walk into Rasoolan Bai’s house. Neither could one enter Siddeshwari Devi’s house. They were leaders of their community and were great artistes.” But with the transition, they not only lost respect, but had to live with stigma. The tawaifs were sadly equated with sex workers.

Back and forth

The documentary’s narrative toggling between the immediate personal of the maker and the ‘other’ serve as counter points; but also gives rise to a confusion with one often coalescing into the other. With enormous difficulty and after years of trust building, Saba enters the world of tawaifs where glory and dignity remains only as vestiges of the past. “I would get out of my car and would be moved to see a sea of humanity waiting for me. They would shower money on me from tree tops,” recalls the mellow Saira. “There wouldn’t be no standing room on the stair case,” reminisces the self-assured Munni Begum. “People would book their tickets weeks in advance to listen to me,” says Daya Kumari, who now lives in stark poverty. “Men have thrown themselves at me, threatened to run a knife into my throat if I don’t respond to their overtures, but it’s hard to threaten me and so I survive,” says the unabashed Rani, who is now a municipal councillor. Saba gently, at these moments of opening up, pushes her question: “Do you know what jobanava means?” Answers continue to be elusive.

These women, pragmatic as they come, are trained to adapt themselves to the highs and lows of their lives. “You are expected to eat chutney and roti as well as pulav, depending on the circumstance that you live in.” But most singers have moved on. Kothas don’t exist and they don’t sing there anymore. Even the tastes of their patrons have changed. “They would rather hire orchestras and dance parties and not the thumri singing tawaif. Moreover, within the families of the tawaif, there is immense pressure to move away from this identity. Hence, most of them have not trained their daughters, but have married them off,” explains Saba. While this is true of those who belonged to the upper echelons – the ones that live in poorer conditions have become bar and orchestra dancers.

The Other Song therefore is the story of shame society instilled in a community that was vibrant — in emotion and intellect. The Other Song is also a metaphor of suppression. The Other Song is also a sad story of transformation — moving towards respectability, the way conservative society demands it.

What sticks, never to leave is the glorious Rasoolan Bai. In a bid to become respectable she gets married and is also abandoned; and in the last years of her life runs a tea stall in Allahabad. A grand life that ends in penury. In her life, one sees the ruthless baton the nation wielded.