Interview Seasoned vocalist Vidya Rao speaks about her late mentor Naina Devi
She uses words as if she is caressing the notes of a thumri or a dadra, the musical forms she has chosen to express herself. A proficient practitioner of the delicate art of singing Thumri and Dadra, Vidya Rao is also a writer, who mesmerises the reader with her rare sensitivity, great feel for words and unusual skill to weave a multi-hued tapestry with breathtakingly complex designs. When her book on the late Naina Devi, Heart to Heart: Remembering Nainaji (Harper Collins) was released , the audience made a pleasant discovery that she is a very articulate conversationalist too.
Naina Devi was Vidya's guru from 1986 till her death in 1993. She was one of those few individuals who were primarily responsible for promoting music and dance in post-Independence Delhi. Vidya has written a book that offers an absorbing narrative of Naina Devi's life based on what she observed, heard and internalised while interacting with her for seven years. She has offered guru dakshina to her guru.
Journey to her teacher
Vidya began to learn music in her childhood that was spent in Hyderabad. “Although I never consciously thought of becoming a professional singer, I was always very serious about music,” she says. She joined the Centre for Women's Development Studies as a researcher and worked there for five years. It was singer Shubha Mudgal who suggested, rather cajoled her to learn from Naina Devi. And thus began the exciting musical journey that saw the emergence of Vidya Rao the performing artiste. While she later learnt from several maestros it was Naina Devi with whom she spent the maximum time. and, in the course of her conversations, learnt both about music and life.
Naina Devi's was an extraordinary life. At 17, she was married to Ripjit Singh, youngest son of the Maharaja of Kapurthala. Widowed at 32, she distributed 300 acres of agricultural land among landless peasants, gave away her exquisite clothes and jewellery, moved to Delhi to lead a life of austerity, and started singing as Naina Devi so as to protect the dignity of her in-laws.
“Nainaji used to quote her guru, the great Thumri-Dadra singer Rasoolan Bai, who explained Thumri as ‘ sahuliyat ', meaning that it should be natural or sahaj . The same applies to life,” Vidya reminisces. She recalls how easily and generously Naina Devi imparted knowledge while constantly encouraging the disciple. “She was one of the most gracious persons I have ever met. She kept an open house where everybody was welcomed. And, she was an encyclopaedia. of knowledge.”