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Of Courtesan Songs and Sanskrit Sutras

by Vidya Rao

There was always music in the house when I was growing up. My mother loved music, and though she was not a professional singer, she sang all the time in her strong, pure voice. She would listen to all the great singers who came to perform in the town where I grew up; I would go with her. Sometimes I would doze half way through those all-night events, when singer followed great singer, until the first rays of dawn, when we would all go home, sleepy and replete with all that we had heard.

There was one kind of song that particularly entranced me. Very rarely was it sung, very few people sang it, and when it was heard at all, it was always only at the end of a concert. Light, lilting songs of love and separation and yearning, their cadences stayed with me long after we went home, back to our ordinary lives. I learnt that those songs were called Thumri and I learnt that most people I met and spoke with considered them less than appropriate.  Some years later, more worldly-wise now, I understood why. Thumri had, only a few years before this, been the exclusive preserve of the courtesan singers. In a recently independent, rapidly modernising India attempting to reclaim and reinterpret its past, Thumri —erotic, associated with the courtesan singers and the feudal courts of the nineteenth century—was considered highly problematic, and certainly not something a young middle class girl should be wanting to learn! Middle class women had only very recently entered the world of music as listeners, students and performers. When they did enter this world, it was generally to study, and perform the more respectable ‘male’ forms like khayal and dhrupad. These styles are formal, more structured, less emotional and certainly less focused on the erotic. Many years later, a grown woman now, I was fortunate to find a guru who taught me Thumri. And that is what , as a professional singer, I generally perform.

Deer Park Sarasvati Photo Raymond Steiner

I began learning music when I was seven. Like all young women of the time whose parents were broadminded enough to allow them music lessons, I too began with training in khayal singing. Simultaneously, at school—the Krishnamurti Foundation-run Rishi Valley—I learnt Sanskrit chanting. I remember those morning assemblies at school when we would chant verses from the Vedas and the Upanishads, a practice that has also stayed with me over the years. The three-note structure, typical of vedic chanting brings a quietness and meditative quality into one’s being. The texts themselves are exquisite reminders of the Teachings that, by articulating in my own voice every day, I am able to bring into my life in a kind of embodied way.

But equally, Sanskrit chanting also lends a gravitas, resonance and depth to the voice. It is also, as I understand it a kind of articulated breath-work, or pranayam. So not only does this chanting create a sense of calm abiding, but it is also excellent exercise for the voice. Moreover, the structure of Sanskrit with its long compound words filled with consonant clusters poses a contrast to the elongated vowel sounds typical of Thumri. The practice of enunciating Sanskrit poses both a challenge and an opportunity to engage with a very different sound-linguistic structure, which again, I believe lends tone and texture to the voice. I still begin the morning with silent meditation followed by chanting of Sanskrit verses from both Buddhist and Hindu texts.

My growing interest in Buddhism—an interest that began in my school days– led me to teachings by several masters, and especially by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I would long to be able to offer my music to him, and to place it in the service of the dharma. Miraculously, one day, several years ago, Lama Doboom Tulku Rimpoche of New Delhi’s Tibet House asked me to chant sutras in Sanskrit on the morning of Buddha Jayanti, the day of Buddha’s birth. It was a lovely morning in May, unusually cool for that time of year. A small group of practitioners met in Delhi’s lovely Buddha Jayanti park before the statue of the Buddha which has been presented to the people of India by His Holiness. We meditated against the background of chirping birds and the laughter of children picnicking on the grass. Verses from the Buddhist texts were chanted in different languages like Pali and Japanese. I recited verses in Sanskrit. We meditated again, and then shared a welcome breakfast, before going back to our busy lives. After that auspicious day, I was fortunate to be asked to recite sutras in Sanskrit on many occasions, and several times in the presence of His Holiness too.

Then one day, again quite miraculously, I was asked by Prashant Verma, now Director of the Deer Park Institute in India to chant sutras at the inauguration of a monastery at Bir in Himachal Pradesh and in the presence of His Holiness. That was my first meeting with Dzongsar Khyentse Rimpoche, and the beginning too of what I believe is a life-long connection with Rimpoche, and with the Deer Park Institute. It was with Rimpoche’s encouragement that I undertook to record the album Dharma Nada for the Deer Park Institute.

Vidya Rao

How, one might ask, do I reconcile these two aspects of my musical life– the singing of an erotic courtesan form like Thumri, and of the austere, structured Buddhist chants. Thumri, as a form, is set squarely in the everyday world, secular, earthy, and calculated to evoke desire. On the other hand, the Buddhist sutras encode the abstract and highly philosophical teachings on bodhichitta, wisdom and method and especially, emptiness. Yet for me, it is precisely the dance of these two forms and philosophical ways of being in the world that I believe gives me a balance that allows me to live in this world. To engage with it deeply, and yet not be swamped by its bewildering experiences, to begin perhaps to understand the brilliance and vibrancy of beloved form as essentially, and equally belovedly, empty. I believe that if I had to make do with only one of these musical spaces, I would be, as the sutras say, a bird with only one wing— and I need both these wings to fly. Living and working with these two very different musical forms, I am able to play hide and seek with form and emptiness, recognising that both have their place, both are precious, and an understanding of both is essential.


A book review of Heart to Heart: Remembering Naina Devi

Legendary singer, Naina Devi was born into a Bengali Brahmo Samaj reformist family in the early years of the twentieth century. A childhood replete with music, dance, theatre and social reform gave way to the grandeur and seclusion of the life of a young queen of the Kapurthala royal family of Punjab. Despite seventeen years of silence necessitated by the norms of a royal household, she came back to music and a glorious career as a singer, arts-administrator, teacher and patron, after the tragic death of her husband.

Heart to Heart, traces Naina Devi’s incredible story as she told it to her disciple, Vidya Rao. Naina Devi’s story traces the changes in the world of Indian classical music, women singers and women in Indian society over the last century. Learning seena-ba-seena, heart to heart, in a seamless blend of music and life-lessons, Rao imbibed not just a knowledge of her chosen form, Thumri, but a sense of the very being of her teacher.

The evocative narrative weaves back and forth between historical record and memory, past and present, and between  Naina Devi’s voice and Rao’s own. It illuminates the power and beauty of music, the lives of these two women and of many others, of courage, pain, joy and love, and of the deep bond between Rao and her beloved Guru.