Naina Devi was passionate about thumri and the only time I was gently admonished was when I called thumri a genre of ‘light classical music’. ‘There is nothing light about it,’ she said. ‘It is a form that requires great skill and profound knowledge of classical music. —Nilina’s Song
Naina Devi was an unusual lady. She was born into a distinguished and somewhat eccentric Bengali family in Calcutta in 1917. Her grandfather Keshav Chandra Sen was a Brahmo Samaj reformist turned follower of the savant from Hooghly, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Her father Saral Sen was a bar-at-law from England, distinctly upper-class and his wife Nirmala (aka Nellie) came from a distinguished family of lawyers. Her father Purna Chandra Sen was advocate-general of Burma, as Myanmar was known then.
Of their three daughters, the eldest Benita married Raja Tridip Roy, head of the Chakma tribe in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of East Bengal that went first to (East) Pakistan and later Bangladesh. The second, Sadhona, became an accomplished dancer and actress and married the filmmaker Modhu Bose. The youngest, Nilina, who revealed an early talent for Hindustani vocal music was married off at 15 to Kunwar Ripjit Singh, a prince from Kapurthala in Punjab and was renamed Nina Ripjit Singh.
The story of Naina Devi comes to mind after reading Nilina’s Song by Asha Rani Mathur (Niyogi Books). It triggered a flood of memories for I happened to know Naina Devi and gained many insights on music and life offered by her from 1989 to the time of her passing in 1993.
She became Naina Devi after she came to Delhi in 1953 upon the death of her husband as a young widow of 29 with four small children when her father-in-law Raja Charanjit Singh suddenly tightened the purse strings. He wanted custody of the four children she had with Ripjit. A series of family intrigues drove her from Raj Nagar, a farm and once an idyllic retreat for her husband, herself and the children. It was only a few hours from Lucknow.
To avoid offending her late husband’s family she took the name “Naina Devi” a choice inspired by a girlhood memory of a forgotten tawaif.
Naina Devi learnt Hindustani vocal music from the stalwart Girija Shankar Chakravarty as a girl, and secretly pursued her passion with riaz in the innermost recesses of the zenana so that no one could hear her, and more openly later when she and her husband moved to Lucknow. It was Ripjit who encouraged her to cut four discs with the Columbia Recording Company that had opened a studio in Lucknow. Those recordings have now become collector’s items. It was this passion for music that came to her rescue in Delhi.
In the new capital, Rani Nina Ripjit Singh with the help of her friend Sharada Rao got a job with the Bharatiya Kala Kendra started by Sumitra Charatram, wife of a leading industrialist in the city. To avoid offending her late husband’s family she took the name “Naina Devi” a choice inspired by a girlhood memory of a forgotten tawaif singing “Hey Gopal, Hey Govinda Murari” on the steps of Ahilya Bai Ghat in Benares. Incidentally it was the great Maujuddin Khan, “the pedigree-less Pathan from Benares who first rendered this bhajan peerlessly. He was the foremost pupil of Bhaiyya Saheb Ganpat Rao, son of the Maharaja of Gwalior and his concubine Chandrabhaga Bai, a singing tawaif of exceptional merit.
It was a fortuitous meeting with Naina Devi in 1989 at her residence in Kaka Nagar, New Delhi, that opened the doors of perception for this scribe. She saw that this overweight, chain-smoking individual at her door with some musical queries, as yet half-formulated, was also in a quandary in his personal life. She was the soul of courtesy. Answering questions seriously but with humour as well, she extended an open invitation to meet anytime to discuss musical matters. In a while musical ideas began to impinge upon ideas about life and the possibility of the two merging with each other.
er contribution to the cause of performing arts and music in particular brought her public recognition through the award of Padma Shri in 1974. This spurred her to the creation of more programmes; she celebrated the seasons with music and dance, first the rains of the monsoon with Sawan Bhado, then the fresh young days of spring with Rang Basanti.
Naina Devi was an institution in the city as one of the prime movers of Raag Rang, an organisation that helped popularise Hindustani music.
“For her ambitious six-day festival and symposium titled Bansuri, she enlisted the support of other organisations, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Sahitya Kala Parishad. Here she returned to her favourite theme of the syncretic nature of northern Indian performing arts and she featured different forms of music and dance which evolved and developed through the influence of the Vaishnavite and Sufi traditions whose approach was very similar. Her metaphor was the flute: the flute of Krishna and of Rumi whose haunting refrains of love and separation echoed the yearning of the soul for sublimation.” (Nilina’s Song)
Naina Devi was an institution in the city as one of the founders and prime movers of Raag Rang, an organisation that helped popularise Hindustani music and had among its founders Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Sunil Kumar Bose, Keshav Kothari, secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademy, poet Keshav Malik, the artist M.F. Hussain. In its list of patrons were the Begum of Rampur, the Maharani of Nabha, legendary hotelier M.S. Oberoi, Maharaja Yadavendra Singh of Patiala, among others.
Raag Rang also helped indigent classical musicians who were in need of medical attention. Naina Devi’s touch was as discreet as it was sensitive. Her life was devoted to serving Hindustani musicians and the art. Sometimes these led to temporary misunderstandings. When the sitarist Abdul Aziz Khan, son of Ustad Wahid Khan, died she took his son Shahid Pervez to Ustad Vilayat Khan in Dehradun and requested him to teach Shahid. The ustad’s reaction was harsh but understandable, considering he had a sitarist son, Shujat, to train and discipline. He said “Nina Behan Aaj Mujhe Pata Chala Aap Shahid Se Zyada Pyar Karti Hain, Shujat Se Nahi” (I just realised you love Shahid more than you love Shujat.)
Shahid, orphaned in his early teens, was trained by his uncle, master sitarist Ustad Abdul Hafiz aka Khan Mastana, who for a time led a double life as a Hindi film singer in the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. Shahid absorbed everything his uncle taught him like blotting paper. Coupled with his talent and perseverance he became an important sitarist. Shujat Khan, despite his pedigree and talent and skill earns a pretty decent living…..but only that; he is not taken seriously by the cognoscenti.
Naina Devi’s intuition about people, including musicians, was uncanny. It was at a mehfil (soiree) in her drawing room that Ustad Ghulam Taqi Khan made the transition from excellent craftsman to authentic artist. His rendering of “Darshan ko sada Ankhiyan Tarasat Hain” (Mine eyes crave for a sight of thee) in raaga Jhinjhoti enjoined him to the truly asardaar singers who offer insights not only into the structure and character of a raaga set in a particular rhythmic tempo but also the sometimes hidden meaning of the brief lyrics around which the composition was set.
Tragically, Ustad Ghulam Taqi Khan died a little over a year after this concert. He was not yet 50. It was a personal blow as he was the son of her teacher, Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan of the Rampur-Sehsawan gharana. Her connection with Mushtaq Hussain was also responsible for her meeting with Aziz Mian, a Shia mystic from Khanka-e-Niazia, Bareilly Sharief, founded in 1776 by Sufi poet-mystic Maulvi Niaz Ahmad.
I felt a sense of great peace, of relief, as if someone had lifted a huge load off my head. I knew that nothing and no one could ever harm me.
Naina Devi’s connection with Aziz Mian dated to the early 1950s soon after her bereavement. Caught in a sea of financial and familial troubles, she came to know Aziz Mian through Mushtaq Hussain Khan. Aziz Mian was spiritual guide of many musicians from the Rampur-Sehsawan gharana.
He became her sheet anchor, helping her weather all the troubles that came her way—artistic, financial, professional, personal. Just as she was getting to be known as a singer, she lost her voice. Ustad Mushtaq Hussain took her to Bareilly to meet Aziz Mian. The Pir simply touched her throat and told her that all would be well.
“From this moment all your worries are mine. Go in peace; everything will be all right.”
Vidya Rao, Naina Devi’s student, describes her response in the biography she wrote; Heart to Heart: Remembering Nainajee. “I felt a sense of great peace, of relief, as if someone had lifted a huge load off my head. I knew with an extraordinary certainty, that nothing and no one could ever harm me. I was safe, and more than safe, alive in a way that I had not experienced before. When I left, Pir Sahib blessed me and said, ‘Ustad se lo taleem, mujhse taseer’ (learn the techniques of music, its intricacies from your ustad, but the essence, its secret heart, take from me)...
“I returned to Delhi. I was cured, singing again, and with his blessings, better than ever before. Truly Pir Sahib had given me the elusive gift of taseer. This is not something that can be learnt or acquired through riyaz. It just has to be, to come spontaneously, like a blessing, like divine grace.”
aina Devi, an aristocrat on both sides of her family, had a gift of empathy, particularly towards those less privileged. Her understanding of the mind of the tawaif, her heart, and of course her deceptive art comprising so-called ‘light classical’ forms like Thumri, Dadra, Chaiti, Kajri, Ghazal. She knew better than anyone else how demanding each form of vocal music was, and not as many a dismissive Ustad said that it was a light, sweet, charming form of music, a welcome respite from the rigours of the classical art of Dhrupad and Khayal singing.
One afternoon at home, she told the story of the great Ustad Ameer Khan and how he became “great”. It was through the loving care of Jagmohini Bai, who gave him nutritious food, badaam (almonds), milk, fruit and, of course meat, so that he could stand the strain of hours of riyaz. She loved him to distraction. Ameer Khan Sahib rose to greatness thanks to the completely committed care of Jagmohini Bai.
The matter however ended badly. Naina Devi remembered an incident when Ameer Khan had sung quite brilliantly at her house and during the break Jagmohini Bai, perhaps nettled at being ignored, kept asking people to hear her sing. It was an embarrassing moment for Khan Sahib and Nainajee, but somehow they managed to salvage the evening. Over time she went mad and died in obscurity.
But Ameer Khan was not an ingrate. He left a substantial part of his earnings to his son by Jagmohini Bai. On a visit to Rikhi Ram, instrument makers in Connaught Place, Delhi, with a friend who wanted to buy a decent sounding sitar (he bought one), the owner’s son showed me an album of photographs of musical luminaries from the past. It was a fleeting, poignant moment to come across, fortuitously perhaps, a photo of the attractive, maternal face of Jagmohini Bai. She looked the kind of woman who could give her all for the man she loved.
Naina Devi was a true representative of the Gango-Jamani Tehzeeb. In her house Hori Dhamars were sung for Holi and at Moharrum Marsiyas were “recited”; only the singer’s voice can render the verses to commemorate the martyrs of Karbala.
There were many memorable moments at the Kaka Nagar house. Banno Begum Niazi, a forgotten Bai from Jaipur surfaced at a mehfil organised to surprise Delhi rasiks. Bhawani Singh, Maharaja of Jaipur and Banno Begum’s erstwhile patron, was also present. The seating was on the floor, as in such baithaks. Banno Begum surprised all with her soulful sureeli (tuneful) and sonorous singing. She said she had not sung seriously for twenty years or more.
Dayam Ali Qadri, a fine tabla player from AIR Delhi was accompanying her and trying with misplaced gallantry to “accommodate” her, seeing that she was attempting to sing in a difficult time-cycle after such a long time. She smiled at him sweetly and said, “Aap Bajaeye Main Ajaoongi.” (Please play like you do, I’ll catch up). She sang with humility and, with a masterly combination of melody and rhythm, proved her point. She ended the concert with a short, sparkling khayal in raaga Durga, to remind herself that her roots were in khayal singing, although she regaled us all evening with intricately structured Rajasthani folk songs sung with deep feeling.
Naina Devi was a profoundly humane person, a true representative of the Gango-Jamani Tehzeeb, a way of life that represented harmonious syncretism. In her house Hori Dhamars were sung for Holi and at Moharrum Marsiyas were “recited”; they are not meant to be accompanied by musical instruments. Only the singer’s melodious voice or tarannum can render the verses by poets to commemorate the martyrs of Karbala. Dayam Ali Qadri, known only as a tabla player, surprised everyone with Marsiya duets with his brother, displaying tremendous fervour and musicality.
It was in her house that one met Mushtari Begum a well-regarded singer from Delhi, who had passed into obscurity, living in reduced circumstances. She was not a light weight, having learnt khayal from Ustad Abdul Aziz Khan of Patiala and Abdul Karim Khan Dilliwale, a khayal singer good enough to elicit praise from the brilliant, stubborn, impossible-to-please dhrupadiya Ustad Fahimuddin Dagar.
Mushtari Begum was in need of money but would be reluctant to accept it directly. Naina Devi got Uma Sharma, the kathak dancer, to give a nazrana in cash for the gift of a Bandish ki Thumri in raga Bihag, “Dekho Sakhi”, to Mushtari Begum.
er Kaka Nagar residence was like a place of pilgrimage for musicians and rasiks. The musicians did not have to be celebrities or the rasiks wealthy patrons of music. The important matter was to be in tune with things musical and aesthetically pleasing. She did not have a single false note in her. Everybody felt at ease in her company. Ustad Sabri Khan, a sarangi player of the Moradabad gharana did not know who Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare was: he was twice president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, a highly successful lawyer, a senior Congress politician from Maharashtra, and former Governor of Odisha, and last but not least a rasik. Sabri Khan was only impressed by the fact that one Murlidhar Sahab was coming for that evening’s mehfil at Nainaji’s house.
It was Sabri Khan who had accompanied Ustad Ghulam Taqi Khan during that memorable mehfil when the muse of music revealed herself and he had sung like a man blessed. Naina Devi felt an evil-eye had been cast on Ghulam Taqi Khan, “Usko Kisi Ki Nazar Lag Gayee Thi.”
Sabri Khan was a fund of stories about music and musicians. He felt Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan had spoilt his voice because of his addiction to charas. Ashiq Ali Khan was educated, dressed nattily in western clothes and was known to be a ladies man. He was believed to have fathered a daughter from a relationship with the singer-actress Mukhtar Begum. The girl grew up to be a famous ghazal singer—Farida Khanum who now lives in ripe old age in Pakistan.
Her track record as a producer of Hindustani music on AIR, and briefly on Doordarshan, was enviable. She brought out the best, whether in well-known or relatively unknown singers and instrumentalists.
Before Kaka Nagar, it was Naina Devi’s Vinay Marg residence that had become famous as a hub of Hindustani music. Musicians and scholars met here to discuss the intricacies of raagas, their structure, relationship to the given text if it concerned a bandish or composition in vocal music, be it a khayal, thumri, dadra or ghazal. On occasion, various aspects of instrumental music were also discussed. The sitar virtuoso Ustad Vilayat Khan was a founder member of Raag Rang and performed more than once at Nainaji’s residence. Others at her mehfils included Pandit Ravi Shankar, the master of raagdari on the sitar and his brother-in-law Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a genius on the sarod.
It is also here that Ustad Ishtiaq Hussain Khan sang memorably in raagas Kamod and Bihag. Anuradha Patel, wife of I.G. Patel, former Reserve Bank governor, got this concert recorded probably on a ¼ inch Ferrograph tape recorder. She had also recorded another important concert of Ishtiaq Hussain Khan’s at Naina Devi’s Kaka Nagar residence where he sang the Sadra (a child of the Dhrupad form) ‘Ali Wali Bipad Taro’, composed by his father Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan in raaga Hanskinkini and several Taksali or traditional compositions of the Rampur –Sehsawan gharana in particular raagas. Whether Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s renderings at the Vinay Marg flat were ever recorded at the insistence of Anuradha Patel or anyone else is not known. One wonders where these priceless recordings are now.
Her track record as a producer of Hindustani music on AIR, and briefly on Doordarshan, was enviable. She brought out the best, whether in well-known or relatively unknown singers and instrumentalists. When Doordarshan was in a nascent state she did interviews of great archival importance with Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Mushtaq Hussain Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan, most tuneful of sarodiyas, Lacchu Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Roshan Kumari, outstanding exponents of kathak. Late in life she regretted that her efforts had come to naught because Doordarshan had not bothered to preserve them. Among the lost treasures were interview-cum-performances with Rasoolan Bai, Badi Moti Bai and Siddheshwari Devi.
A remarkable woman, an artiste to the fingertips who exemplified what it meant to be an aristocrat. It was a privilege knowing her.
She rescued Rasoolan Bai when she had been abandoned by her family who had exploited her when she was a top light classical singer in Benares. She was ill and penniless. High blood pressure had reduced her voice to just over an octave but she still sang thumris and dadras with supreme authority. Naina Devi brought her to Delhi got her treated at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and organised concerts and radio and TV recordings for her when she was able to sing. Badi Moti Bai, another stalwart from Benares was indigent, in poor health, her art bypassed by patrons with philistine tastes. Again, Nainaji rescued her and ensured that she got proper medical attention and some money from performances in Delhi.
She had a habit of trying to back up a point made by playing the recording the artiste being discussed. At a time when one did not know Rasoolan Bai once had a voice that could soar easily to two-and-a-half octaves, she played three-minute 78 RPM recordings of Rasoolan Bai singing a chota khayal in raaga Multani and then a ghazal by Mirza Ghalib, “Dil-E-Nadan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai”.
Similarly, she illustrated a point about Ustad Ishtiaq Ahmed Khan’s brilliant sarod playing by saying there was a less frequent use of the meend or the gliding note in his playing; a fact borne out by the recordings in the AIR archives in Delhi. There are examples of his playing in the recordings of Bhairavi, Lalit and Jaunpuri, from a live concert at the Tansen Festival in Gwalior in the mid-60s.
Asha Rani Mathur’s loving, evocative, well-researched biography has brought back memories of a remarkable woman, an artiste to the fingertips who exemplified what it meant to be an aristocrat: one who gave unstintingly of herself. The images of Nainaji teaching Vidya Rao, who was like a daughter to her, and Shubha Mudgil, already a well-known khayal singer who wanted to learn thumri, dadra, chaiti, come back vividly. How lovingly she taught them, going over each musical idea slowly, meticulously till it was properly grasped. It was a privilege knowing her.