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Star of the gramophone era

By July 20, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu   –   Kunal Ray

A new novel by Neelam Saran Gour traces the life and times ofJanki Bai Ilahabadi

Neelum Saran Gour’s new novel, Requiem in Raga Janki (Penguin Random House) is based on the life of Janki Bai Ilahabadi (1880-1934). One of the first women to record on gramophone and a popular performing artiste, Janki Bai’s name might be familiar to many yet her accomplishments remain unchronicled. From days of abject poverty to heights of stardom, this novel presents the extraordinary story of a great performer and an era in music. Excerpts from an interview with the author.

You are the custodian of numerous stories of your beloved Allahabad. What lead you to Janki Bai?

I came across Janki Bai while reading up for a project on Allahabad’s history and culture. It was a brief chapter in a book but I was instantly arrested by her life and personality. Twelve years back I’d already chosen her story as one of my future subjects to be researched and written about when the time came.

But why fiction?

Fiction was my instinctive choice because there just wasn’t much detailed and definitive data about Janki Bai and so much of it comprised mutually contradictory versions. Even the sketchy introduction she wrote for her volume of poems, Deewan-e-Janki , is full of obfuscations and evasions. The confirmed facts of her life were intriguing but between a few landmark episodes there were wide spaces that invited creative conjecture and fictional envisioning. Whatever I read up about her in scanty magazine articles and the occasional book about the singers of the gramophone age highlighted the omissions in her narrative rather than what had been committed to print. This fell properly in the domain of fiction and the novel was constructed out of the footprints of a woman who broke all the standard stereotypes of stardom and rose above the constraints of a vexed personal life by virtue of her intense relationship with her art.

Janki Bai was also known as chappan churivali because she was attacked 56 times with a small knife. What happened?

Chhappan chhuri was her nickname. It referred to a famous incident in her youth when she was attacked and stabbed many times – far more than 56 – by an assailant whose motives have been attributed multiple interpretations — spurned lover, jealous rival or something much more sordid. Janki Bai herself is cagey about it and her account doesn’t square with that of her neighbours or other tawaifs who knew her, which unfold a different and far shabbier reality.

I am also curious to understand how does one (or you in this case) write about music?

Since music was such an overwhelming presence in her life, any fictional rendering of it would have to be saturated with music. Also the rich traditional lore about music and musicians that lies untapped in oral and Indian language sources was deeply attractive to me and I seized the opportunity to build it into my story. I wanted to render Janki Bai’s profound commitment to her music and the energy she drew from this. All this underlies the chapters describing her grooming in music under Hassu Khan, her reception of taalim as well as her experience of symbolic membership in a great fellowship of timeless maestros.

Could you briefly walk us through her journey of becoming a star from days of penury?

A – Janki Bai wasn’t born in a kotha, to begin with. She was the daughter of a small-time halwai . By a curious chain of events, she and her mother found themselves initiated into the life of the kotha where she received intensive musical training from the best of Hindustani classical maestros. It meant exposure to the durbars of princely states and if one was exceptionally gifted, as Janki Bai was, a rise to stardom. But stardom comes at a price and that’s the complex destination she is headed for which my novel tracks.

She was good friends with anotherstar singer, Gauhar Jaan.

Does thebook also focus on this ?

Gauhar and Janki had a sensitive professional comradeship with its rocky patches. They sang a coronation duet felicitating the King Emperor George V at the Delhi Durbar of 1911 and performed together on several other memorable occasions. Gauhar was the gushing, glamorous diva, constantly given to upstaging the homely, restrained Janki until a comic verse assault from the irrepressible Akbar Ilahabadi triggered an inevitable breach.

Janki Bai also wrote and composed music. As a woman writing in the current times, how do you view her life?

Janki Bai wrote ghazals, which she published as her Deewan-e-Janki . Some of her translated verses are included in the novel. She took her writing seriously and sought frequent guidance from Akbar Ilahabadi. Her verse is an outpouring of tormented love, angst and religious ecstasy. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about a courtesan-musician writing poetry. Many accomplished tawaifs did. Studying her work a century after it was written, I see it as the intimate creative life of a public performer. It was a life of lonely but persistent overcoming, of powerful choices which went against the grain of social conformity, and a life in which the emotional losses were peculiarly compensated by a certain spiritual grace in music. It’s a pity that Janki’s name has been reduced to a faded rumour in her own city. Her records were known only to a few select aficionados and there was a long period of eclipse and memory lapse on the part of the music world. Happily I see that era of amnesia drawing to a close and there is a definite shift. Just as vinyl records are making a comeback and turntables too are back in the exclusive market, the names of lost artistes of the gramophone age are reappearing to capture the imagination of audiences.

(Kunal Ray teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune and writes on music and other arts)

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