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<nettime> The politics of popular culture: tawaif and thumri singer from Varanasi... (InfochangeIndia.Org)

The politics of popular culture

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra

By reconstructing the life of Rasoolan Bai, well-known tawaif and
thumri singer from Varanasi, The Other Song illustrates how romance
and physicality were obliterated from culture

Film: The Other Song
Length: 120 minutes
Director: Saba Dewan
Supported by: India Foundation for the Arts, and HIVOS

The Other Song documents the decline of tawaifs and their cultural
practices, in north India. Tawaifs were singers and dancers known for
their artistry, talent, grace and finesse. The tawaif was also a
courtesan, typically associated with a wealthy patron who invariably
had his own ârespectableâ wife and family.

The film focuses on Rasoolan Bai, well-known tawaif and thumri singer
from Varanasi. It explores a range of issues relevant to the politics
of popular culture, female sexuality, and the growth of communalism.

Rasoolan Bai was born in 1902 and grew up at a time when the tawaif
tradition was flourishing in north India. The film journeys through
Varanasi, Lucknow and Muzaffarpur searching for memories of this dying
tradition. Dewan pursues clues on Rasoolan Bai and other well-known
singers of yesteryear, meets a few surviving singers, and puts
together the pieces to build up a fairly complex historical account.

The filmmaker zeroes in on two versions of a thumri sung by Rasoolan
Bai. The first version, hardly known today (although in 1935, Rasoolan
Bai recorded it on gramophone) goes: Laagat jobanwa mein chot, phool
gendwa na maar (my breasts are wounded, donât throw flowers at me);
the second version, extremely well-known, replaces jobanwa with the
word karejwa (heart). This is no innocent replacement. As the film
indicates, it is part of an effort to âsanitiseâ culture, to
obliterate sexually explicit messages, and thus, symbolically, purify
the arts. In the process, the enigmatic figure of the tawaif is also
virtually obliterated.

This figure was hardly palatable to nationalist leaders fighting for
the motherland -- represented as pure, self-sacrificing and contained
within patriarchy. We visit a hall where tawaifs regularly performed,
converted since many decades into a temple. Still a site for music, it
is religious music now, devoid of any hint of romance or physicality.
When tawaifs offered to contribute to the nationalist movement, their
contributions were rejected, even by Gandhi. Communal leaders went
further, condemning tawaifs along with a rejection of the Urdu

Repression of the tawaif and her full-blooded thumris is part of the
wave of Hinduisation that sought to control popular culture, wipe out
plural cultural traditions and institutionalise the moral policing of
female sexuality.

In the early-20th century, Bhatkande, Paluskar and others documented
the canons of âclassicalâ music -- acting as powerful gatekeepers who
admitted Hindi and Sanskrit and kept out Urdu. They helped set the
musical standards, subtly linking these to sexual âmoralityâ and
ârespectabilityâ. Tawaifs and their music were considered immoral.
After 1947, puritans got the tawaifsâ quarters closed down. Many,
including Rasoolan Bai, were rendered homeless.

Rasoolan Bai âmarriedâ a dealer in Benarasi silk saris named Suleiman,
and they had a son called Wazir. Both Suleiman and Wazir left for
Pakistan, while Rasoolan Bai fled to Ahmedabad. Later she returned to
Uttar Pradesh, settling in Allahabad where she lived in penury,
managing a small stall near the All India Radio (AIR) building. A
photograph of her was up in the AIR hall, along with several
well-known singers. Sometimes she would be invited to sing. Once,
looking at the pictures of female singers, she remarked: âThey are all
devis; I am the last bai left!â (bai symbolises the status of a
courtesan, the non-respectability of a single woman who sings and
dances for a living -- a status the Indian cultural mandarins had, by
now, successfully repressed).

The film introduces viewers to a number of living thumri singers.
Saira Begum and her elder sister Rani Begum have an extensive
repertoire and beautiful voices, yet are barely able to survive as
professional singers. While Rani stopped performing 30 years ago,
Saira still performs but is not considered respectable enough by AIR
or Doordarshan -- though experts acknowledge the depth and finesse of
her singing. She sings at a concert or two, and teaches a few select
students. Saira âmarriedâ a wealthy businessman, but after he died she
was left penniless. She brought up her son and three daughters,
educating them and teaching them simple trades such as stitching. Two
daughters are married, the youngest engaged: she says she loves her
motherâs singing but never learnt it; nor did the others. Whatever
remains of the tawaifâs musical lineage will die out within a
generation or two.

The filmmakerâs own voice is present throughout the film -- candid,
anguished, angry, and analytical. Yet, at several points, the viewer
is left dissatisfied -- perhaps because so many issues are taken up
that they cannot be dealt with in sufficient detail or depth. Tighter
editing would have helped make the links clearer and more explicit.
All the same, this is an important film with enormous archival value.

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009

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