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Born to sing

'Music happened when I was in Ma's womb': Savita Devi


CLASS ACT: Siddheshwari Devi takes centre stage and is accompanied on the tanpura by Savita Devi.

Thumri singer Savita Devi's life was shaped by her Tiger Mom, the legendary Siddheshwari Devi.

Having sung to a packed house the previous evening, Savita Devi looks visibly tired. "Poocho (Ask). I won't be able to talk much because my throat is tired, but it's always good to see how well my mother's Purab-ang gayaki continues to be appreciated, " she says, pointing to the bouquets of flowers piled up in the living room of her Gurgaon home. Just then the phone rings. It's one of her accompanists. Start practising, she tells her. "Beta, kuch kajri tayyar kar lena. Kal ka programme theek ho gaya, ab agle ki tayari shuru karein (My child, yesterday's programme may have been a success, but now we've to look to our next). "

As the 70-year-old singer goes back in time, she forgets her fatigue "Music happened when I was in Ma's womb, " she says. Since her mother, the great Siddheshwari Devi, had to travel for her performances, Savita was sent to boarding school when she was six. However, her mother ensured that Pt Krishna Prasad, the elder brother of Sitara Devi, taught her dhrupad, tarana and chaiti gayaki. "He was very strict and would often sit with a chhari (stick) in hand, and, like a monkey, I would start off with whatever I'd learnt, " she laughs. It was rigorous, but the training held her in good stead. Soon after, when the girls of the Central Hindu Girls School in Benares performed at the meeting of the Mahila Congress, Savita was awarded a gold medal for her singing. Her mother gave that medal to her music teacher as guru dakshina.

Her mother may have wanted her to sing, but her father, Pandit Narayan, "a strict army man", had other plans. He wanted Savita to become a doctor. "But, when, on my first day in medical class, I saw the cheer-phad (dissection ) of a frog, I felt sick, and without telling my parents, withdrew my name, " she says. Savita decided to take up Sanskrit but this didn't work either. "Once when I hadn't mugged up one of the exercises, the teacher asked me to leave the class. It was so insulting, and I cried with embarrassment, " she says. Finally, she enrolled for the sitar class "and in two months' time I got a distinction".

Just watching Siddheshwari Devi perform "was an education", she says. "The Purab-ang gayaki is a language of emotions. I'd seen my mother make so many thumris, bandishes, kajris, chaitis and dadras just baithe-baithe (sitting). Once, when the great kathak guru Shambhu Maharaj came over for a visit, he and my mother sat down for a small baithak. My mother sang one line from the thumri Kaun gali gaye Shyam...in many different gayakis, and he enacted them in different ways. It was amazing, a treat for a youngster like me. "

Siddheshwari Devi was "very strict". Savita was not allowed to leave the home in anything but a sari. But like any other teenager, she experimented with lipstick, nail polish and flowers in her hair. "All this after I left home for college and taken off before walking into the house, " she laughs.

While Savita Devi went on to become a proficient sitar player, her training in classical vocal music continued unabated. She gave her first solo performance at the Hindi Maha Sabha in Delhi in 1973. "A number of senior artistes were there, as was my mother, whose appreciation was the biggest medal I ever got, " she says. "Some newspaper music critics were a little unkind. Actually, children of big artistes are often judged too harshly. Critics may appreciate you, but that 'but' always comes in to spoil matters. "
Having specialised in thumri, dadra, chaiti, kajri and tappa of the Benares gharana, Savita Devi continues researching the thumri style and composing bandishes. "When I make these, I make them for Lord Shiva and Lord Krishna in bhakti and shringaar bhaav, " she says. "Of course, we already have a goldmine of the ones my mother and her predecessors have left us. In fact, some old dadras like Mohe panghat pe, Dhundo dhundo re saajna and Nadi naare ja jaao have even found their way into films. "

In 1978, she set up the Siddheshwari Devi Academy of Indian Music to carry on the Purab-ang thumri tradition. "People talk about reality shows ruining the essence of music. This is true because some talented singers become content with just their 15 minutes of fame, but even if a fraction among them get inspired to study music further, my mother's life would be worth it. "

Her life has had its knocks - she lost a son in a car accident in 1986 and has recently been through knee-replacement surgery - but she continues to live it to the full. "Doctors have asked me to keep my weight in check, " she smiles popping some chivda into her mouth. "One cannot escape tragedies in life, but one has to carry on living positively and being true to your art. That should be the ultimate goal in life, " and she breaks off into one of her mother's bandishes, Sanjh bhai ghar aao Nandlala.

Savita Devi will present a vocal recital at the India International Centre, Delhi on July 25th at 6. 30 pm.

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