The unsung women artists of music

Shubha Mudgal | Updated on March 06, 2020 Published on March 05, 2020

Missing link: For centuries, male poets and songwriters in the Indian tradition have borrowed a woman’s voice   -  ISTOCK.COM

The rarest of melodies remains that of women singing about themselves and the times they live in

Could I possibly take an extract from Zehra Nigah’s Bhejo Nabi Ji Rehmatein — a heartbreakingly beautiful and brutal poem on rape — and sing it as a khayal? Much as I would like to try, and I will someday, if the generous poet permits it, in the current climate of intolerance I might find myself singing in jail. How could I possibly sing of rape, violence and hate when all of this ostensibly no longer exist in our world-class cities and across the length and breadth of our nation that is poised to become a world leader?

Besides, singing the work of a Pakistani poet would make me anti-national, wouldn’t it?

Women composers and performers must surely have repeatedly attempted to write new songs that experimented with the idea of including contemporary themes and ideas. However, this new repertoire has perhaps not found wide acceptance among listeners or performers, and until that happens any change in lyrics is unlikely.


An unimaginable amount of valuable information, however, is embedded in every song that is sung. Much of this is specific to different systems and genres of music and, therefore, related to various aspects of music such as melody, rhythm, literature, poetry, context, performing spaces and so on. But there is equally a vast amount of information about society, communities, beliefs, rituals, challenges and conflicts that can be unearthed by analysing the lyrics of each song.

As a student of music, I have been fascinated by the analysis of lyrics for decades and it is part of an ongoing process of discovery. Women and their status in society, in mythology, folklore and public perception are among the vast range of issues that song texts throw light on. My own understanding of song texts is confessedly influenced by and limited to the genres of music I am familiar with, and far from comprehensive.

Shubha Mudgal: More often than not, the women we sing about, divine or earthly, are young, beautiful, lissome and desirable. Very rarely do we sing about women as they age   -  The Hindu


What kind of women are mentioned in the songs that I have studied and sung for decades? In compositions of Hindustani classical music there are the great goddesses of Hindu mythology — Durga, Radha, Sita, Kalika, Sharada, Saraswati, Parvati and many others in their countless incarnations. There are songs that seek their blessings, extol their beauty and virtues, seek forgiveness, and the opportunity to serve. But we don’t sing only about goddesses. We also sing of mortals, of earthly love, longing, flirtatious encounters, trysts with lovers, betrayal, quarrels and heartbreak. More often than not, the women we sing about, divine or earthly, are young, beautiful, lissome and desirable. Very rarely do we sing about women as they age.

Even the mother figures in song texts do not display the infirmities of age, but remain ageless mothers ready to love and serve their divine sons. Among the 1,800-odd compositions compiled by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) in the six-volume compendium Kramik Pustak Malika, I found a single khayal composition in the Raag Chhayanat that ruefully mentioned ageing: ‘Alas, my youth has started its betrayal/ Gone is the black in my hair/ and in its stead has arrived a white shroud’.

Women as mother figures feature prominently in a large number of song texts, often in association with religious mythology. Yashoda, the foster mother of Krishna, is a popular protagonist whose fortune is extolled at length for having brought up the Lord himself; Saraswati is exhorted to bless her devotees and grant them the boon of knowledge. And not to be forgotten or ignored is the powerful Goddess Kali, who can annihilate demons and is also the mother of the universe.

Many song texts celebrate sensuality and sexuality and are often explicitly erotic: ‘The fasteners on my blouse/ have come undone’, in Raag Deshkar, is just one among hundreds of song texts that do not shy away from an uninhibited narration of sexual encounters. I am deliberately not sharing more such texts because it would be a pity if today’s overactive ‘Romeo Squads’ were to turn their lathis and punches on unsuspecting classical musicians like they do on hapless young couples.

Interestingly, a majority of song texts in traditional music were probably penned by male composers writing in the feminine voice. For centuries, male poets and songwriter-composers (vaggeyakars) in the Indian tradition have borrowed a woman’s voice. Whether it was the poets of the Bhakti movement, or of Sufi traditions across centuries, or composers of the khayal and thumri tradition of Hindustani classical music, a colossal part of song texts is believed to have been written by men taking on the voice of a woman. As a result, the depiction of women in these compositions is as men have chosen to see them. Not surprisingly, therefore, women are often depicted in positions of submission and compliance.

Would women in songs be different if they were written by women? Would and do they borrow the male voice when writing? Learning from the past, it would seem that women composers and songwriters have followed convention and conformed largely to the stereotypes found in compositions created by male composers. Women poets, though, have written of the lifting of the veil, discarding home and hearth, and rebelling against the restrictions imposed on women by society. Possibly, the more radical of these verses do not find as much favour with singers as those that are more conformist.

Would a khayal that borrowed the following text from the 12th-century poet Akka Mahadevi be acceptable to performers and listeners of classical music?



male and female,

blush when a cloth covering their shame

comes loose

When the lord of lives

lives drowned without a face

in the world, how can you be modest?

When all the world is the eye of the lord,

on looking everywhere, what can you

cover and conceal?

(Translated by AK Ramanujam;

Shubha Mudgal, a classical vocalist based in Delhi, is the author of Looking for Miss Sargam

Published on March 05, 2020

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