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Naina Devi and the nautch girl
Thumri legend Naina Devi battled a mountain of stigma to learn her art.
September is a month of many memories, but for lovers of Indian classical music its dearest association is with thumri legend Naina Devi. For the singer, who also regaled her audiences with select ghazal and dadra numbers, music was more than performance-oriented. Despite being linked to the princely state of Kapurthala by marriage, she chose to learn the art of the tawaif and keep the company of courtesan performers. That meant battling a mountain of stigma but Naina Devi had forged her own rules and lived by them.
On her 93rd birth anniversary, on September 27, a nostalgic evening of Naina Devi numbers has been organised by Pran Nevile at the capital's India International Centre. Nevile's personal association with the diva dates back to the fifties, when he first met her at a music conference in Shimla. "I have exclusive private recordings of her singing 50 years ago. Besides, I have the one and only LP record of her music and those numbers will be sung on stage by Rashmi Agarwal at the remembrance concert, " he says.
Author, researcher and music enthusiast, Nevile's fascination for the performing arts has led him to collect a vast compendium of audio-visual data on musicians of yore. He recounts how Nainaji was more than just a performer and music lover. "Her home at Kaka Nagar in South Delhi was a mecca for musicians, from every corner of India as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. She kept an open house for them all. I've met so many of the artist community through her. "
Naina Devi's hospitality also drew poets and performers of other genres. Nevile recalls meeting the Urdu poets Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi and Maqbool Mohiuddin under her roof. The evenings would begin with spontaneous recitations, with one or more urging Naina Devi to sing, and that is when she would introduce her signature piece: Kai baar taaron ko mein gin chukaa hoon/ Shabey hizr Allah ye kitni badi hai/ Idhar dhundti hoon toh udhar dhundti hoon/ Na jaaney kis ko nazar dhundti hai. (How many times have I counted the stars in the firmament only to realise how vast it is? My search has carried me hither and thither but alas, I don't know what/who it is that I search after. )
Nevile says that it was Naina Devi's stories that inspired him to write his coffee-table volume on the nautch girls of India. "Naina Devi had heard the legendary courtesans of the era, such as Jaddan Bai, actress Nargis' mother, who would perform at mehfils at her home in Calcutta, " he says. "She came from a very aristocratic Bengali family. The late Keshub Chandra Sen, the great Brahmo Samaj leader was her grandfather and she had married into the princely house of Kapurthala. She recounted those occasions so vividly that it led me to research into the subject and the volume followed thereafter, becoming the first of its kind and for which I travelled the world for illustrations. "
And what better way to keep alive such endearing memories than to sing to her memory with her own compositions? For this task, Nevile has handpicked the artist following a foolproof system. "I first assess whether the artist is a drawingroom singer or a stage performer, whether she is receptive to ideas and whether she has had a proper grounding in classical music. Then I offer her the recording of the diva and expect her to reproduce the numbers faithfully. In this way, I have spotted and promoted singers such as the noted thumri exponent Radhika Chopra, Vidya Rao, Rene Singh, to name a few. "
A Feast of Ghazals is on at the India International Centre on Sept 27.
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