Tuesday, January 18, 2011
The Other Song
Jan 8, 3 PM
Short film – The Other Song – 2 hours, by Saba Dewan
Venue : NGMA, Bangalore
The search for a lost song brings her (the film maker) to the twisted narrow alleyways and lanes of Kashi or Varanasi or Benaras, by the vast expanse of the holy Ganges. As she traces the song, she meets men and women of a special community of Varanasi living on the edge between light and shadow – the courtesans, the 'Tawaifs', the prostitutes.
Actually I should not be using the word prostitutes here. For their state is not one of depravity and wretchedness.
But unfortunately, a language of the west proves again and again, its inadequacy, it’s meagerness to capture and express the many nuances of this country, that are to be found only here and nowhere else.
One word that comes close is courtesan.
It is ‘close’ but not adequate yet, for courtesan is a paramour, a prostitute who associates with noblemen or men of wealth.
The women we are talking about here are superior than that.
They possess talent; they are trained in classical music; music is a family heritage among them, bequeathed from generation to generation; they are blessed with a lovely voice, they are self respecting people who choose to consort, not merely with men of wealth but men whom their heart desires.
And that explains why I chose to say ‘living on the edge between light and shadow’ instead of ‘living in shadows’ as one would expect.
As the narrative progresses, it becomes difficult to tell whether the theme central to the documentary is the Thumri music or the Tawaifs of Benaras.
“In 1935, Rasoolan Bai, the well known singer from Varanasi, recorded for the gramophone a thumri that she would never sing again – ‘lagat jobanwa ma chot, phool gendwa na maar’ (my breasts are wounded, don’t throw flowers at me). A variation of her more famous song – ‘Lagat Karejwa ma chot, phool gendwa na maar’ (my heart is wounded, don’t throw flowers at me), the 1935 recording, never to be repeated, faded from public memory and eventually got lost.”
Different people have different explanations to offer when asked about the two versions of the song.
‘lagat jobanwa ma chot, phool gendwa na maar’ and ‘Lagat Karejwa ma chot, phool gendwa na maar’.
Some say both mean the same, some are not sure about the cause of the variation.
When one man hesitates to translate ‘jobanwa’ to breasts, and tells the interviewer “I cannot talk about that to you now...”, I felt that I was far removed from this place and that the man must have been from a different time - there are places still, in this fast changing country, where people are as conservative as that!
Among the many women that the narrator/film maker speaks to, it is Saira whose life experiences the viewer gets to know more closely, and more in detail than the others.
She learned music from a master whose name she takes with fear and respect.
She was invited to perform at functions.
“She was highly respected wherever she went”, says a man. The artists accompanying her (the tabla players, harmonium and others) too refer to her and other singers most respectfully.
The film alternates between the story of the courtesan, the inquiry into the lost song, reminiscences of the women, brief performances of singing by them, and the black and white photographs of these singers in their youth. And then of course, there is the silent Ganges, flowing as if dispassionately.
The women, when they speak of the men they consorted with, speak comfortably, candidly, unabashedly and without a shade of guilt or shame.
Saira talks about the father of her children, now no more; he was a Rajput, an already married man.
Another woman talks about a prince, a ‘kunwar’ who wished to be her lover. She had kept him waiting because her heart had not swayed yet, and the next time he came, he brought muscle men with him, one of whom pointed a dagger at her throat upon which she bravely told him he would not get anything by force.
When Saira sang, every man in the gathering felt she was singing for him alone.
Saira’s daughter working on the sewing machine, with a red embroidered sari spread before her, says shyly, that she doesn’t want to learn singing. Of course she loves the way her mother sings but she is not interested in learning.
The fact of Muslim women singing songs about Krishna and the Gopis is something that registers in your mind. India had a way of assimilating its invaders by means of a ‘cultural synthesis’.
Once when Saira was invited to sing at a function where other famous accomplished artists in the music world were performing, someone made a derogatory comment asking (of Bismillah Khan, I think) why she had been invited to a respectable gathering like that? What did she have to offer? When Saira began singing, he replied to the commenter “this is what she has to offer”.
During freedom struggle, these women tried to remove obscenity from their music following Gandhi’s advocacy. They even threw their musical instruments into the Ganges.
But when they offered their contribution to freedom struggle, they were rejected by Gandhi.
As for the fate of music, when the Muslims came, Indian art forms started dying as the Muslim kings in their courts encouraged their kind of music.
There was some revival attempt too, the details of which I don’t remember.
The narrative has its moments of humour and laughter too.
In what seems to be Saira’s elder sister’s home, the sister when asked who was more famous among the two states confidently that she was more famous and once she stopped performing, her sister Saira became famous.
One particular frame shows a woman, singing a love song to the accompaniment of the harmonium and tabla. When the azan at the mosque begins, she stops at once. She changes her posture, closes her eyes and chants hymns. Soon as the prayer is over, she resumes her love song with a wink in her eye and a naughty smile as if the two of them, religion and her playful singing did not conflict with one another in any way.
One of the women had stopped singing for some reason. After this she had a strange illness for which no cure was found even after consultation with many. Once she visited a Bengali doctor at his clinic. Upon receiving a patient, he asked the neighbourhood folks to turn off the blaring loudspeakers that were playing music. When she asked the doctor not to stop the music, the doctor asked her “do you sing?” she said “I used to sing, not now” to which the doctor tells her “start singing, you have no illness, once you start singing, you will be well”.
It is a very well made film in that it makes the viewer leave behind judgment and look at ‘prostitution’ with an eye of sympathy.
Though courtesans, these people had a culture, they too occupied a position in the social order, they lived by principles. It was not business, it wasn’t flesh trade, but a way of living.
Most important, the film shows how ‘Traditional prostitution’ in Indian society was very different from ‘prostitution’ the world over. It wasn’t purely commercial, it wasn’t just for money. It was much more nuanced.
The character of ‘Vasanthasena’, a courtesan was crafted by Shudraka in his Sanskrit drama Mritchhakatika. Amrapali, the royal courtesan of Vaishali is known to have served Buddha and later to have converted to Budhhism.
The film helps you empathize with these women.
When the narrative reaches the point where the upper caste people boycott these singers as part of an initiative to cleanse the city, the viewer’s sympathies are with the Tawaifs and not with the moralists.
The frames that show the juxtaposition of the vast expanse of the Ganges by the Benares ghats produce a strange effect.
The only hitch in the film was the tone of the narrator which indicated that she was not a nuanced person.
The last lap of the film shows a white woman clad in a sari and blouse entering Saira’s house and toucing her feet.
Saira had stopped singing but upon the insistence of the foreigner woman, she starts singing again. The white woman is her pupil, attempting to revive what was lost or helping to sustain whatever remains of a very old tradition – the thumri music.
Both of them talk about how they approached the ‘radio’ and they were humiliated.
Thanks to the efforts of her white pupil, Saira went abroad and performed in Italy.
We left the auditorium smiling, laughing as the last scene showed a Saira in pants and T shirt and wearing sunglasses, a complete change of image from her usual sari and red coloured stains of beetle leaves in mouth.