Tuesday, June 19, 2012
MUSIC ANJANA RAJAN tracks down some women sitar exponents to find why they are a rare breed
Think of India's best known sitar players and two great names are likely to be uppermost in the average listener's mind - Pandit Ravi Shankar, who at 90-plus is still a huge draw for audiences across the world, and the late Ustad Vilayat Khan, whose death in 2004 left a void in the music field. There are others, like Pandit Parikh and Vilayat Khan's son Shujaat Hussain Khan, besides the supremely gifted Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, whose death at 54 cut short a brilliant career. But in this list of luminaries it would be hard to find names of women sitarists, though women vocalists abound. Veteran vocalist Madhup Mudgal points out, "Annapurna Devi (surbahar, also known as bass sitar) is way ahead of all others. And there was Sarvajeet Kaur but she died a few years ago." Pandit Tejpal Singh, among the seniormost and thinking musicians residing in the Capital, says the matter is certainly "worth thinking about". He says, "I keep hearing various musicians, but what is the reason we don't see many women sitarists, although there are a great many wonderful women vocalists, I don't know. The sitar is a very graceful instrument for women; suits them. Saraswati (Goddess of music) is shown holding a stringed instrument. Annapurna Devi plays the surbahar but she did not play much publicly." He notes, "Jaya Biswas has made the rank. Then I remember Kalyani Roy was really good." Noted sitar exponent Jagdeep Singh Bedi who teaches at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya feels an instrument compounds the problems a woman vocalist might face in trying to maintain a career. "Some become lecturers in universities. But a job sort of dulls your enthusiasm (to perform)," he muses. Here some women sitarists discuss their careers and why they are rarities in the field:
Among the leading disciples of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Vidushi Jaya Biswas is outspoken to a fault. One wonders if this trait has played its part in keeping the national awards away from the Kolkata-based sitarist, in a world where diplomacy and image are all-important. "Instrument playing is a very difficult thing," she says. "A singer has many more opportunities. You can (for example) do playback singing. When parents find a girl has talent and want to train her, everyone opts for vocal." The instrument is costly too, she notes.
Enumerating difficulties like right and left hand coordination and painful fingers caused by executing meend (gliding notes), the veteran then comes to the crux of her argument: While the female voice is always a "rage", and good women singers needn't struggle for a market, the gender of the player makes no difference to the sound of the sitar. A woman sitarist, otherwise on equal footing with her male counterparts, "finds it very difficult to get ahead in a male dominated world," with the majority of organisers and percussion accompanists being men. "Male sitarists can lobby for programmes without losing anything. A female musician can approach an organiser once or twice," she feels, because she runs the risk of "being taken advantage of". While others in the classical music world rarely go on record with complaints of this nature, she states categorically, "Nowadays the music world has become as dirty as the film world." She relates, "During the 1960s and up to the '70s I used to get letters directly from all organisers (of major music festivals across the country). Then the trend changed. The male musicians would throw themselves at the feet of the organisers." With pliant artistes willing to negotiate rates, "it suited their (organisers') budget." Saying she began to get less invitations to perform from the 1980s, the veteran insists Kolkata's music scene, including its major institutions and festivals, is in the hands of just a few.
(PHOTO Courtesy Sangeet Natak Akademi)
Alif Laila, trained in Dhaka under the late Ustad Mir Qasem Khan, nephew of the legendary Ustad Allauddin Khan, combines her love for the sitar with a passion for painting. Based in the U.S. since 1988, she has also trained under the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and is currently under the guidance of Kushal Das. To Alif the gender imbalance is due mainly "to South Asian cultural and social setbacks where it was considered inappropriate for a woman from a respectable background to perform in public. The young female was trained in singing and dancing only to be able to do so until her marriage." She feels, "classical instruments were considered 'only for men'."
She points out that the much older veena, from South India, has far more female practitioners whereas "the sitar is one of the most recent of the classical instruments." Also, says Alif, "The time, energy and commitment needed to be a sitar artiste is a major clash with the family responsibilities that a woman faces in a conventional marriage."
Though encouraged by her family, Alif recalls, "Just when Ustadji (Mir Qasem Khan) began to prepare me for public performances, I got married and had to join my husband in Kuwait, which was right after I graduated from the College of Fine Arts in 1981." More challenges came with two children and no household help. "The craving for more musical guidance and growth was a constant desire within." Moving to the U.S., she had to work full-time, but took "every opportunity available to learn from many visiting performing maestros." Alif admits, "My commitment to my family and the sitar were often in conflict."
Additionally, she had to be accompanied by a trusted companion when going to her own or others' concerts, rehearsals after dark, etc. "All these factors definitely slowed down the pace of my musical career but fortunately did not affect my creative aspirations." With her children grown, Alif "decided to break the conventional notions of a female touring performer," though she faced criticism.
Teaching on a one-to-one basis, she remarks, "In general there are younger male students who continue with performing aspirations. On the other hand, there are more married women, who had long periods of gap due to family and career that embrace the sitar back into their lives."
Kalyani Roy, well known sitar exponent and painter, exudes bonhomie over the phone from her Kolkata residence. "When I was just eight years old I started learning the sitar and my first guru was N.C. Ganguly. Next I was under P. Sen Gupta. He was a great artiste," she recounts. "Then I went to pujaniya Khan Saheb, when I was sweet 16 or 17. From then till his death I got all taleem and love from him. I respect my guru very much." Known as the only performing woman sitar disciple of Vilayat Khan, she is proud of having remained with the gharana of Inayat Khan.
Saying that she never faced difficulty being a woman and was supported in her endeavour by her family, she says, "I have gone around the world and India and you will be glad to know that I still perform. My career came about on its own. No one guided me."
With several LPs to her credit, the veteran, who gave her first public concert in 1945, feels it is not just women but that the trend of sitar itself is less compared to other popular instruments like the electronic synthesizer. "The sadhana and depth and love required by the sitar and sarod.we put our whole life into the sitar. So we don't find such dedication today."
She states, "I am sorry to say I have never got any government award. Lekin ham kisi se request nahin karte. Jo ham ko milna thaa, milna chaahiye, woh ham ko nahi milaa - milega toh zaroor legaa (I don't request anyone for honours, but I have not got my due. Should it be offered I will certainly accept.)"
Still performing on radio and television, she was honoured by Kolkata's Sangeet Ashram in February this year, while in March, she was awarded the Manik Pal Memorial award by the organisation Dhwani.
Ahmedabad-based Manju Nandan Mehta, a disciple of her elder brother Pandit Shashimohan Bhatt as well as Pandit Damodarlal Kabra and Pandit Ravi Shankar, is a world-travelled musician (though in comparison to her younger brother, Mohan veena maestro Vishwamohan Bhatt, she does need a little more introduction). Taking an upbeat view, she says, "In the other instruments - violin, sarangi, sarod, etc. - there are few women musicians. As for the sitar, still, compared to these, there are more women in the field. Things change over time. These days, people give more importance to vocal music. Learning to handle an instrument takes about 12 years. It takes two-three years just to learn to handle the strings. I have about 50 girls learning under me. In fact I also presented about 25 girl students before Pandit Ravi Shankar."
She adds, "There are few good gurus today. When people see an inspiring figure like my guru Pandit Ravi Shankar they come to learn. And he is not much seen nowadays (in India). Take (a performer like) Zakir Hussain. Even those who don't know about the tabla will go to learn it. The government should look into this. I have started a course at Gujarat University."
Friday, June 8, 2012
Read about Alif Laila and recent activities in the Baltimore Post-Examiner: