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FICTION: THE SONG OF FIFTY-SIX KNIVES

July 15, 2018

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Janki Bai Allahabadi with her musicians | Creative Commons
Janki Bai Allahabadi with her musicians | Creative Commons

Novelist and professor Neelum Saran Gour’s fictional biography, Requiem in Raga Janki, about Allahabad’s famous singer Janki Bai Allahabadi is an impressive effort. Although a creative endeavour as opposed to a strictly academic one, the text reflects a remarkably thorough knowledge of the complex theory and history of Eastern music. This serves to enhance the story of an extraordinary woman who, decades before Lata Mangeshkar, made her indelible mark on the history of entertainment in the subcontinent.

A poetess as well as singer, Janki Bai was referred to as “Chhappan Chhurri” [56 Knives]. Although the name conjures up images of a fearsome bandit queen such as Phoolan Devi wielding equally formidable weapons, the reality of the matter is more prosaic and very unsettling. The daughter of Shiv Balak, a vendor of sweets from Benares [Varanasi], Janki was viciously attacked in her childhood by a deranged soldier. The stabbing was, fortunately, not fatal, but it left her permanently disfigured and earned her the abovementioned name. If truth be told, she herself romanticised the attack in her later years in order to add to her personal mystique.

Fate tends to compensate one for loss in mysterious ways and Janki’s family discovered that she was not simply a gifted but a truly exceptional singer. Her enterprising mother found her a tutor and moved the girl to Allahabad where Janki became the musical apprentice of a wise and exacting teacher, Hassu Khan. Eventually she became rich because of her talent and was able to buy several properties for herself, one of which was the kotha [abode of dancing girls] at which she had risen to fame.

A tribute to an exceptional doyenne of Eastern classical music

Though Gour’s plot is never hard to follow, the novel is by no means an easy read, especially since the author goes into considerable depth when commenting on the complexities of Eastern music and poetry. As many readers will undoubtedly appreciate, classical ragas or musical patterns constitute the basis of subcontinental music. What is less well-known is that Indian classical music is highly organised, almost to the point of being regimented. Traditionally, specific ragas could only be played at specific times of day (and occasionally season) for which they were designated. Thus Bhairavi is considered a morning raga, Aiman is played in the evening, Bhim Pallasi in the afternoon, Malhar during the rainy season and so on.

Concurrent to her recounting of Janki’s story, Gour takes readers on a magical journey through the history of, and the legends surrounding, classical music. The author notes how Emperor Akbar’s famed court minstrel Tansen could command several ragas and yet set himself ablaze while playing Deepak, the raga of fire; how Shah Jahan — while under the influence of music — was duped into signing something with which he did not agree; how a singer tossed her nose-ring into a well and then sang Malhar until it rained so much that the well filled up and the nose-ring could be retrieved.

Part of Gour’s undeniable talent lies in how she successfully immerses the reader into the theory of music to a point where it becomes virtually impossible for one not to empathise with Hassu Khan and Janki Bai. It can be argued, however, that Janki is easy to empathise with, regardless of whether the novelist elicits our sympathy for her or not. Janki is by and large a likeable and kind-hearted character, all too human in her failings as well as her strengths. The various episodes of her life as recounted by the novelist make for far smoother, easier reading than the history of music that insinuates itself into every chapter. Some episodes are particularly delightful, especially Janki’s meeting with the elegant Maharani of Rewa who greets the singer while cuddling a white kitten. Much to Janki’s fascination, the kitten turns out to be a white tiger cub!

Female characters are generally more entertaining and better sketched than male ones in the book — Janki’s meeting with Calcutta’s fabled singer Gauhar Jaan is beautifully described. So too is their performance at the Delhi Durbar in the early 1900s. While colonial dominance and pomp is aptly underscored, Gour is no apologist for the British and she vividly describes Janki’s utter revulsion at the Jallianwala massacre, noting that “the Jallianwala Bagh thunderclap unstrung Janki utterly.”

Although very much at peace with her talent, Janki Bai was not a typical woman of her time. In spite of her mother’s vociferous protests, she converted to Islam, not simply for cultural or marital convenience, but because she was genuinely drawn to the religion. One of the most beautiful scenes in the text is when Janki formally relinquishes her ties to Hinduism by submerging one of her beloved religious icons in the waters of the Ganges. However, her marriage to a Muslim lawyer, Abdul Haq, soured after a while — being something of a rigid chauvinist, he was more to blame for this than Janki herself. No stranger to tragedy, she lost an adopted daughter to cholera and an adopted son to the evils of drug addiction. Yet, in spite of these misfortunes she generally maintained a sense of grace and dignity throughout her life and Gour takes pains to underscore that in spite of her fame and wealth, Janki Bai remained a generous, God-fearing and warm-hearted woman.

The novel succeeds in portraying the salient features of Indian culture at the turn of the last century and also hints at the international influence of inventions such as the gramophone on the burgeoning popularity of Indian music. Gour’s erudition and passion for her subject matter pervade every chapter and the more patient reader will find a perusal of the novel to be a rewarding and intellectually enriching experience.

The only major criticism I feel necessary to make is that a substantial portion of the text is in Roman Urdu and Hindi. Though there is a glossary at the end of the text, for readers unable to grasp such linguistic shifts without the immediate help of notes, having to constantly refer to the glossary would prove tedious, to say the least. In spite of this reservation, Requiem in Raga Janki is a fitting literary tribute to an intriguing woman who devoted her life to one of the most vital and complex branches of culture in the Indian subcontinent.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Requiem in Raga Janki
By Neelum Saran Gour
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0670091140
357pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 15th, 2018