An ode to the gaanewalis

Gauhar Jaan

Gauhar Jaan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Indian history is rich with evidence of women performers — from Vedic times onwards. Many of them, proficient in music, dance and literature, became an integral part of the country’s cultural scene, their expertise earning them royal patronage. Referred to as ganika, tawaif, gaanewali, or baiji, they wielded much influence in royal courts. In turn, they trained young enthusiasts, who carried forward their artistic legacy, particularly their treasury of compositions.

The style of musical performance they followed was called ‘shabda-pradhan sangeet’, a format where focus was on the word. It was also called ‘Abhinayatmak Sangeet’, in tune with Natyashastra, where ‘abhinaya’ consists of four aspects — angika (body movements and gestures), vachika (words or text), aharya (costume and decor), and satvika (moods and emotions) Thus, well-known Hindustani singers such as Husna Bai, Malka Jan, Gauhar Jaan, Zohra Bai, Vidyadhari Bai, Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar were also trained in Kathak and abhinaya in their younger days.

Myriad musical forms

The music favoured by these artistes was high in poetic content — such as thumri, dadra, chaiti, kajri and ghazals, which allowed for the display of emotions during performances. Though these forms are an intrinsic part of Hindustani music, expertise in them calls for the blend of a certain temperament and training.

Thumri is often followed by dadra, with a relatively faster tempo and set to the Dadra or Kaherwa taal. There is also a variation of dadra, where the refrain is elaborated with an Urdu couplet or a poem in a Hindi dialect like Brajbhasha or Purabi woven into it.

From the show at NCPA

From the show at NCPA | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At a recent musical event titled ‘O Gaanewali’, held at NCPA in Mumbai, thumri singer Avanti Patel celebrated the music of the tawaifs. “We’ve watched movies that revolved around their life, but very few have focused on their art. I wanted to share this aspect with music lovers and learners. Along with a group of passionate musicians (vocalist Rutuja Lad, Dhyaneshwar Sonawane on the harmonium, Vanraj Shastri on the sarangi, and Akshay Jadhav on the tabla), I have been exploring the musical genre the tawaifs pursued, hoping to shed some light on how they pioneered an important movement in history by encouraging women to become professional performers.” The show was scripted by Avanti and directed by Mallika Singh and Meghana AT.

Interactive show

Recalling her earlier experience of presenting the show online, Avanti says it looked more like a film. “But for the stage we made it interactive, with the musicians talking about the musical forms they presented, for instance what is Purab Ang or Bol Banaav ki Thumri or Dadra.”

The instrumentalists spoke about the nuances of accompaniment, the ‘saath-sangat’. Sarangi, which is said to resemble the human voice due to its ability to reproduce the bhaav of a composition, has been associated with thumri and its allied forms.

Rasoolan Bai

Rasoolan Bai | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“The harmonium,” says Dhyaneshwar, disciple of Sudhir Nayak, “is like a vocalist’s companion.” Akshay explained the various styles of taals such as thekas and laggis and demonstrated how to play them on the tabla for thumri-dadra.

The show was diligent about the minutest details, such as the musicians opting for old-world costumes and jewellery, and the stage decorated with silk curtains, Persian carpet, chandeliers and gramophone, to recreate the feel of an era gone by.

Humming the popular dadra, ‘Qadar nahin jaani’, Avanti says, “This show is a way to express our gratitude to the gaanewalis, who never really got their due, yet contributed immensely to music.”

The Delhi-based reviewer writes on classical music.

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Printable version | May 29, 2022 11:41:43 am |