Breaking the glass ceiling

Breaking the glass ceiling

It is said that music has no boundaries. Yet ancient India has a different story to tell. The societal imbalances did create a difference in how a man and a woman approached music, or more specifically, classical music. For ages women were mostly trained privately & were expected to limit their performances to family gatherings. In fact, for a very long period, women who performed in public were looked down upon, although their talent was appreciated.

When we talk about ancient India and classical music, the first name that comes up is Meera bai of the 16 th century. She was a devotee of Lord Krishna and considered herself as krishna’s wife. She was an extremely talented musician and poet. She was often seen in public with her anklets, challenging social norms, singing and dancing to her own tunes. A majority of bandish in Hindustani classical music are from her poems that describe the raw emotions of love and pain.

With the Mughal era, came the court culture of courtesans. The courtesans played a huge role in preserving Hindustani classical music and semi-classical music in India post 1857. Gauhar jaan, a famous courtesan from Kolkata is one very revered name in the world of music. She was the first recording artist in India when gramophones were introduced and was given the title of “Gramophone girl”. Her first recording was released in 1902 and was a 3-minute representation of a khayal in Raag Jogiya. Her unusual style of representing hour long khayaals in such short periods attracted a lot of criticism from the maestros but was adopted by many artists later. The trend of singing for records was well received by the courtesan community. Mostly because this was an opportunity for them to showcase their talent to the world and break the chain of exploitations. The rising aspirations came to a halt when in 1946, the Union Home Ministry of India issued a notice which prohibited courtesans from singing for the All India Radio. It was BV Keskar (Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting) who overturned this order in 1952 and mandated that all Muslim women singers should be addressed as “Begum” and Hindu women singers as “Devi”.

Gauhar jaan’s singing inspired many and one of them was Begum Akhtar. She was born to a courtesan named Mushtari Begum in Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. Initially, she inspired to build a career in Hindi films. When she heard Gauhar Jaan and her mother, she was mesmerised by the beauty of Hindustani classical music and decided to pursue it. She was among the first few women to give public performances. She excelled in singing dadras, thumris and most importantly ghazals. She was popularly known as Mallika-e- Ghazal (Queen of Ghazal). It is believed that after her marriage she had to leave her career in music and this dragged her into depression and severe illness. That was when she decided to come back into the field, wrecking the discriminatory customs, setting an example for the oppressed women who loved music. She earned the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for vocal music in 1972, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan award (posthumously) by the Govt. of India.

It was in the 20 th century that women in music emerged strong and their contributions were recognized. Alamelu jayaram iyer (a famous Carnatic vocalist and a disciple of Kirthanacharya C.R.Srinivasa Iyengar) was the first woman to independently organise Sabhas for performing music. Sabhas were respectable music associations to promote performances and were very common in Madras in the late 19 th century. The starting of 20 th century saw notable female performers such as Mogubai Kurdukar and Kesarbai Kekar. It was a time when gender discrimination was prevalent and the female singers received way less pay and respect than their male counterparts. This lack of respect was something which always bothered Vidushi Kishori Amonkar, daughter of mogubai Kurdukar and a renowned name in the history of Indian classical music. As a pioneering feminist, she was one of the first female musicians to demand the title of “Vidushi” for established female vocalists/musicians. From a very young age, Kishori tai saw the struggles of her mother Mogubai to establish herself. Mogubai was forced to travel in 3 rd class compartments for her performances and was given scruffy accommodations. Most organizers did not treat Mogubai with respect and this was partly because of her being from a lower caste. Growing up in such an environment made Kishori tai even stronger and she made it a point to never settle for less. In an interview with Indian Express she said, “I always stay in a proper hotel suite, I make sure that I am provided with a car, which is available at all times, and that all the payments are made properly”.

Hindustani classical music isn’t easy to master. It demands a lot of dedication and discipline. It has always been a challenge for women to devote their life to music due to our patriarchal system. Let’s take a moment here to appreciate the courage of these extraordinary women who followed their dreams and shattered the glass ceiling in traditional music.

"Sonalin currently lives in Bangalore and works as a Marketing Specialist. She likes exploring all forms of art with a special inclination towards music. Being trained in Hindustani classical music from a very young age of 6, she is still pursuing her training from sangeet sadhana. She strongly believes in the power of creativity and spends most of her time experimenting in the art space."

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