On a delicate note

Seasoned vocalist Vidya Rao, who has just written a book about her late guru Naina Devi, speaks about her remarkable mentor

Published - December 04, 2011 05:06 pm IST

Vidya Rao at the launch Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Vidya Rao at the launch Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

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 last week at the India International Centre, the audience made a pleasant discovery that she is a very articulate conversationalist too, who would lucidly contextualise the evolution of the form and content of Thumri and Dadra while answering questions posed by National School of Drama Director Anuradha Kapur.

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 beautiful book that offers an absorbing narrative of Naina Devi's life based on what she observed, heard and internalised while interacting with her almost daily for seven years. She has, as it were, offered guru dakshina to her guru. The book tells us nearly as much about its author as it does about her much-loved 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. After doing her graduation in Madras (now Chennai), she joined the Delhi School of Economics to do M.A. in Sociology. It was in Delhi that she became a student of Professor B. N. Datta to learn classical music. 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 after Datta passed away. And thus began the exciting musical journey that saw the emergence of Vidya Rao, the performing artiste. While she later learnt from several maestros like Mani Prasad, Shanti Hiranand and Girija Devi, 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 the age of 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. Spending long hours with her while learning and talking has obviously given Vidya a rare insight into music and life and the way they influence each other.

“Nainaji used to quote her guru, the great Thumri-Dadra singer Rasoolan Bai, who explained Thumri as ‘ sahuliyat ', thereby 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 with affection. Famous as well as unknown musicians would come to her house almost every day because they loved and respected her. And, she was an encyclopaedia of knowledge.”

Vidya is writing her next book on Thumri and it is expected to come out pretty soon. Besides performing at national and international forums, she works as Editorial Consultant with Orient Blackswan publishers.She was an unusual, rather extraordinary, person. Linked to the princely state of Kapurthala by marriage, she made a deliberate choice of learning the art of the tawaifs and sought the company of the much-maligned courtesans. Her transformation was complete because the world knew her not by the name Nilina Sen given to her by her parents, but by her chosen name Naina Devi. As Naina means eyes, it also signified that she wanted to see the world with new eyes, with a new worldview, completely at variance with the one that she had inherited.


Nilina Sen was the granddaughter of the great nationalist leader and social reformer of the 19th Century, Keshub Chandra Sen. Her sister, Sadhona, had in a sense shown her the way by rebelling against the social conventions, marrying film director Modhu Bose facing all odds, and leading a turbulent life. Extraordinarily beautiful, famously talented film actress and infectiously vivacious Sadhona Bose was in a manner of speaking a role model for Nilina — a role model both to be shunned as well as emulated.

When Nilina took another avatar as Naina Devi, she took it upon herself to come to the help of all kinds of musicians and dancers — great, famous, unknown. She also emerged as an institution builder and contributed a great deal to consolidate the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Sangeet Natak Akademi, All India Radio and Doordarshan.

Her singing may be forgotten, but her selfless service to further the cause of music and musicians can never be.

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