Music

Rumi Harish explores music space beyond gender

Rumi Harish.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It was a life-changing moment for Hindustani musician Rumi Harish when he met transgender activist and writer A. Revathi. She asked him what he did for a living and he told her he was a classical vocalist. When Rumi found that Revathi had heard classical music only on Doordarshan during state mournings, he spoke about Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and rendered a bandish for her.

Rumi narrates this experience during the dramatic reading of a play titled Journey from A to E and More for reFrame, an initiative that aims to disseminate artistic efforts that respond to contemporary challenges.

Interspersed with strikingly diverse lines ranging from Amir Khusro’s poems to L.R. Eswari film songs, the play explores Rumi Harish’s musical journey along with his experiences as a queer transgender man.

The online play also focuses on how years of musical training shaped Rumi’s life and principles. He makes a pertinent point about classical music — while pitch is definite, microtones are indefinite and variant. He recalls the words of eminent Hindustani musician Pt. Dinkar Kaikini, who felt that a heightened sense of awareness is necessary to recognise the microtones between two swars. Rumi construes this awareness as being sensitive and conscious, not only in music, but also in one’s choices, work and ethics.

Rumi is, after all, one of the few classical musicians who is actively involved in creating awareness about gender and sexuality. He credits R. Sunil Mohan, his friend and associate of two decades, for helping him with the playscript. A fellow trans man, Sunil has been instrumental in making Rumi write about his experiences, in addition to working with him tirelessly on crisis intervention and exploratory studies on sexual minorities.

Although Rumi learnt music from many gurus such as Pt. Yeshwanth Bua Joshi, Pt. D.S. Garud and Pt. Indhudhar Nirody, his lessons from Late Pt. Ramarao Naik left a lasting impression. Pt. Ramarao, under whom Rumi trained for 17 years, would narrate stories that critically examined hierarchies in art, deriving inspiration from people from different walks of life. Rumi recalls how Ramarao admired the rich vocal textures of street vendors who use their voices constnatly but without strain. He credits Ramarao for encouraging him to sing anywhere — from garbage segregation centres to sex workers’ settlements.

When asked to explain this approach, Rumi quotes Sunil: “While raags are built with ascending and descending swars, they are all situated next to each other on a harmonium. In a world with vertical stratification, horizontal vision and imagination is a revolution”.

Sculptor Kanakaamurthy

Sculptor Kanakaamurthy   | Photo Credit: Photo: G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR/The Hind Archives

Rumi regards his mother Kanaka Murthy as a great influence. Kanaka, who passed away recently, was a well-known sculptor of temple iconography. Despite facing hurdles as a woman temple sculptor, she won many awards including the Karnataka government’s Rajyotsava Award. Rumi remembers her as a force to be reckoned with, especially when it came to shattering gender norms. “She wore pants, rode horses, and fell in love with stones and statues!” he says.

Rumi was 47 when he opted for gender-affirming surgery (commonly known as medical transition). His entire family was against it, but Kanaka stood by him. Quoting a Allama Prabhu vachana, ‘Bayalu bayalene’, which says the pre-requisite for self-realisation is staying true to oneself, Rumi feels that ‘coming out’ for a transgender person is merely a social formality.

Memorable performance

Rumi believes caste and gender conditioning play a great role in how classical musicians are expected to perform and present themselves. By the time he was 35, he had started wearing gender-neutral clothes. Although Rumi has performed at several venues across the world from the age of 12, one performance in Bengaluru is etched in his memory. “It was in remembrance of Gangubai Hangal. I had sung the raags Purya, Khamaj and Kamod. One music ‘connoisseur’ approached me and said that my music was fantastic but it would have been better if I had worn a sari. Women musicians are expected to sing with minimal gesticulation and comport themselves in a subdued way, attired in traditional silk saris and gold jewellery.”

Rumi finds the voices of vocalists like Zohrabai Agrewali and Mallikarjun Mansur fascinating and was constantly in search of his own voice. Until his teacher Ramarao Naik told him his voice was whoever he was. The process of medical transition is difficult for transgender people; for trans men, a lot of anxiety is associated with the cracking of the voice and the subsequent change in pitch. With medical transition opening up new avenues for his voice and art, Rumi’s search resumes, for a strong trans voice uninfluenced by gender conditioning.

As Rumi’s guru, Pt. Sudhindra Bhaumik works with him to accommodate the changes in his vocal pitch. Rumi too has been experimenting with genres as well as music direction for films. He also works closely with theatre personalities and writes plays.

Rumi will be performing Journey from A to E and More online on December 11 at Reel Desires, Chennai International Queer Film Festival, organised by Goethe-Institut, Chennai with NGO partners.

The writer is a rasika of

classical music and dance and also plays the veena.


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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 3:25:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/rumi-harish-explores-music-space-beyond-gender/article37805843.ece

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