Facing the music

Snehal Vadher | Updated on August 31, 2018 Published on August 31, 2018

Old remains gold: The book on a singer from the gramophone era foregrounds the decadent atmosphere of the age   -  SAGGERE RAMASWAMY

Deftly sketched characters speak in Neelum Saran Gour’s book on Janki Bai Ilahabadi, the legendary Hindustani classical singer

The lure of weaving an individual’s life onto history’s vast and complex tapestry is not something new. Some of the most inventive and compelling novels to come out of post-Independence India, such as Midnight’s Children and The God of Small Things, explore individual idiosyncrasies against the general chaos and upheaval of historical events.

The backward glance becomes especially urgent when plural realities are threatened by fundamentalism. Whether it is to reveal the cultural richness of a place or to view the present through a legendary mind, fiction continues to enrich the present through the lens of history. Recent examples include The Sleeping Dictionary and The Baptism of Tony Calangute.

Neelum Saran Gour’s Requiem in Raga Janki is based on the glorious career and tragic life of the famous Hindustani classical singer and courtesan Janki Bai Ilahabadi. Born in 1880, she rose to fame through the wide reach of gramophone records. Janki’s life makes a particularly apt subject for “faction” (explained in the book’s copyright page as “fixed both historically and chronologically…[a] fiction, based on fact”) as it challenges, questions and dissolves naïve assumptions about faith and religion. It does so using examples from the world of Hindustani classical music, and illustriously through Janki herself, who converted to Islam yet continued to sing bhajans.

The narrative takes us through a series of unfortunate incidents in Janki’s childhood — her father driven crazy and homeless by a mistress, and her mother robbed and sold to a brothel by a supposed friend.

In parallel are descriptions of her vocal training by Ustad Hassu Khan. The unnamed narrator weaves in anecdotes and stories set against the exquisitely described backdrop of the dingy alleys and opulent boudoirs of maharanis in Allahabad.

Beginning with Janki’s nickname, Chhappan Chhuri, the narrator reveals enthralling anecdotes that slip into the realm of myth, excerpted from the lives of maestros like Rajab Ali Khan, Bande Ali Khan, Baiju and an unknown courtesan from Gujarat, “who was the greater maestro, far surpassing the legendary Tansen”.

Deftly sketched and chirpy characters like the maharani of Rewa, the singer Gauhar Jaan and the impish poet Akbar Ilahabadi provide respite from the relentlessly melodramatic portrayal of the tragedies that befall Janki. Her crisis reaches tipping point as all parallels in her mind between life and art fail one by one — her marriage to a handsome admirer turns out to be a sham; an adopted son grows up to become a drug-addict and abandons his child bride, who herself perishes while nursing Janki during a bout of cholera.

The author’s attempt at creating a semblance of ‘authentic’ reality often dents the characters’ speech with jarring expressions like ‘lassie,’ ‘butthead,’ ‘my lady-whore-madam,’ and ‘magic spell-wali kept whore’, which mars the otherwise pitch-perfect prose.

Too often the props and stage sets — the paraphernalia of paan, ittar and hookah — are foregrounded and Janki’s life appears to be dragging out behind this paste-diamond façade like a soap opera.

The melodrama, even if unintentionally, allows access to a real person. It is through mundane and minor situations, and not climactic showdowns that the proud Janki brutally realises her own fallibility.


Requiem in Raga Janki Neelum Saran Gour Penguin Fiction ₹599


In a revealing instance in the book, Janki is forced to contend that life doesn’t always mirror art:

“It was her turn to feel assaulted and offended. ‘What mean you, Vakil Sahib? I was not aware my voice is in this world to assault and offend.’ ‘Ah, no,’ he said ironically. ‘It is here to sweeten our ears alone, think you, begum sahiba? Then think again and ask those whose ears it has grazed day in and day out. You do your riyaz on our hapless hearts, madam, and I don’t mean music. For you are the very mistress of malefaction when you so desire, and we the poor dumb victims of your frenzy. But the world isn’t made up of strings to strum along to your tune or drums to thump in agreement with your every behest, know you this!’”

There are some distinctly memorable atmospheres, which are the novel’s high notes — for instance, a predawn when Janki boards a jetty on the Yamuna to dispose of her Saraswati idol, having converted to Islam. These sections provide rare, imaginative insights into Janki’s inner being, where life and art are no longer separate entities to be compared but a single and organic whole: “The words came unbidden to her as though a voice spoke up in her head: ‘O Janki, the heart is a sheltered cavern that the rain may not breach.”

Putting down Requiem in Raga Janki, one wonders how Janki’s life would be narrated without giving in to the operatic rags-to-riches trajectory.

Snehal Vadher is a writer and educator

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Published on August 31, 2018
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