Nilina’s Song is an engaging biography of the musician, Naina Devi, whose extraordinary life took her though fundamental changes of environment and fortune. Each new turning point reflected significant shifts in history as well as geography, from the cultural ferment of post-renaissance Bengal to the glamour of vice regal Simla; from the glittering social life of royalty in the Raj era to the elegance of the Nawabi lifestyles of Awadh and Rampur; and finally to a newly independent delhi re-discovering its identity.
Through extensive interviews with her family and friends, the author traces the saga of a woman who re-invented herself and her persona, from the young Nilina, granddaughter of keshub Chandra Sen, Steeped in the philosophy of the Brahmo Samaj, to Rani Nina Ripjit Singh, wife of an aristocrat of Punjab, Adapting herself to a different kind of sophistication and refinement and then, as circumstances changed, to Naina Devi, seeker of music, who found her peace and her vocation in the world of the performance arts.
About the Author
AshaRani Mathur is a freelance writer and editor who made the switch from marketing to writing when she was associated with, and wrote for, the former in-flight magazines, Swagat and Namaskar; and later edited publications for the Festival of India including the definitive ‘ Indian Bronze sculptures’(with Karl Khandalavala).
Subsequently she edited and produced books on aspects of Indian life and culture, as well as art catalogues, and has written books on subjects such as textiles, carpets, shawls and jewellery. She has also scripted documentaries For television on the many tribal populations of India, and has been the music producer for the record label Music Today, where she had the good fortune to work with some of the greatest names in Indian music.
The year 2017 marks the birth centenary of our mother, who passed away almost 25 years ago. Despite all these years we still feel her presence in so many ways. The love she gave us and the lessons she taught us through example, remain with us as a cherished inheritance.
A child of the Bengal Renaissance and granddaughter of the celebrated social reformer, Keshub Chandra Sen, she married an aristocrat of the Punjab. Traversing provinces, cultures and cuisines with aplomb, she soon became an accomplished hostess, wife and mother.
But alas, dark clouds appeared on the horizon and cast their shadows on her young life. Bereft and bereaved she navigated grief and loss with fortitude, donned the mantle of change and found her moorings in the performance arts, dedicating her life to music thereafter ....
Nilina's Song: The Life of Naina Devi encapsulates the lives of Nilina, Nina and Naina.lt rekindles memories of joy and sorrow and reaffirms our pride and privilege at having been nurtured by such a remarkable lady-our Mother. Courage was her credo. Accepting change of circumstance with dignity, breaking barriers of tradition with grace, she showed us the meaning of 'resilience' and 'resolve' and left an indelible imprint on our lives.
The interesting representation in the book of the social fabric of the time, the intellectual elite of Bengal, the aristocracy of Punjab, the landed gentry of Awadh and the cultural resurgence in the post-Independence era will enable readers to experience history. Naina Devi's passion for music, the bedrock of her existence, and the amazing trajectory of her life as artiste and patron will resonate with both young and old.
I first met Naina Devi barely two years before she passed away, but in the time that remained of her life we worked quite closely together on a series of albums for a well-known music label. We spent long hours with singers in recording studios, we often lunched at her home and occasionally went to concerts together. In that short time, Naina Devi became a mentor, from whom I learnt a lot about music, not so much in formal terms about its structures but in a more impressionistic way about its meaning and intent and emotion. As the seasons changed, the garden in front of her home was transformed into a coloured canvas where musicians would throng to celebrate Chaiti with hues of pink and Basant with deep yellow. It was there that I learnt, by listening, how seasons shaped the textures of music, its forms, its colours. She seemed to know every musician in Delhi and many of them would be present. Everybody was invited, her home was always open, always welcoming. They sang all the forms she loved, thumri, chaiti and jhoola and kajri, and baramasa, and after the music was over, everyone stayed on for dinner. 'Jab tak gaana, tab tak khaana,' she would laughingly say, 'How can there be music where there is no bread broken together?'
Naina Devi was passionate about thumri and the only time that 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. The greatest thumris display and exact extraordinary "taiyyari", the skill born of years of practice, in their performance. You must appreciate and acknowledge the art and training behind the form,' she added. And though I had often heard qawwali singing, it was she who introduced me to the remarkable Ustad [afar Hussain Khan sahib of Badaun whose performances combined the ecstasy of the devotional form with the polished musical training of the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. At her insistence, Khan sahib and his group were recorded by the music label I worked for and that remained one of the most unique albums of the label: and, I am told, the only professional recording of this maestro made in India.
I say all this because although she has been gone for a long time, it is only now that I realize how little, in fact, I knew then about Naina Devi and who she really was. She would describe with great enthusiasm the features she produced for All India Radio and Doordarshan, and the interviews with musicians she conducted for telecast or broadcast; she would speak of the exhilaration of the early days of her work with the performing arts in Delhi; she would sometimes break into song to illustrate a musical point. She would delight in detailed explanations of the programmes she had conducted and how their themes expanded to draw in art forms of different kinds. Musicians would frequently congregate in her home and the conversation would sparkle with anecdotes, historical and contemporary, which offered rare insights into the world of Hindustani music and dance, through its most eminent artistes. Or discussions about some intricacy of technique or rendition which (regretfully) passed over my neophyte head, yet supplied the vocabulary which she would patiently and carefully explain to me later to add to my learning.
But she never spoke of her personal life. Of course I knew the bare facts-that she was widowed, that she had four children, that she had trained a number of students who became eminent singers and that she had a large group of friends and acquaintances both in the music world and out of it. I was completely ignorant of her connection with the royal house of Kapurthala. I had no idea that she was the aunt of Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur whose grandmother, Maharani Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar, was Naina Devi's father's sister. Because her daughter's name was Rena Ripjit Singh, I assumed that she was from Punjab and found out only later that she was in fact Bengali, when she mentioned her sister Sadhona Bose, the dazzling star of the film Raj Nartaki. Still later I discovered the distinction and high standing of her natal family in Calcutta.
When I think about it, I wonder why this was so. Perhaps in that limited time, with so much focus on music, there was little opportunity to dwell on personal matters. Perhaps she thought I already knew, or had been told, about these things from others. Or perhaps it was just the delicate veiling of the private space that she kept for herself. Rabindranath Tagore, always a prolific letter writer, was as keen an observer of human nature as he was of rural life; writing to a friend from Bolpur in the autumn of 1894, he remarked, 'We know people only in dotted outline, that is to say, with gaps in our knowledge which we have to fill in ourselves, as best we can .. .'
As I began work on this book, I realized that my 'dotted outline' was far sketchier than most, to say the least, To some extent, those 'gaps' were filled by the many stories recounted by her sons and daughters, her students, her friends, and all the people whose lives she had touched in many ways, who cherished her charm, her grace, her compassion. These recollections were invaluable. But the deepest unfolding of her life was like unravelling a skein that went backwards into a distant past well beyond her own past. The filling in of those dotted lines led to an exploration of the many environments that shaped her: social history and geography, the impact of family and its values, the heavy weight of that tradition, and her own personal and profound hunger for music and the performing arts. Much that makes us who we are is woven into our DNA as an inheritance from ancestors, and so it was with her. And so it remained until the very end, for she belonged to an earlier era when there was ample time to absorb and assimilate, and lessons lasted a lifetime.
What is more, it seemed to me that there was more than one woman who had occupied that specific time and space. This extraordinary life encompassed three different women-Nilina Sen, Rani Nina Ripjit Singh and Naina Devi-or maybe just one woman who had shape-shifted into three avatars, reinventing and adapting herself to each phase she passed through. We live with imperatives that dictate how we must conduct ourselves either as duty or through choice. Naina Devi's was a generation that was trained to respond to the call of duty. Yet, having discharged it under difficult personal circumstances, she was able to go beyond pain, move ahead and follow her own path. Embracing change, she transcended it to create a new life for herself.
Her story begins in Calcutta, still then the glittering first city of the Raj, in the first quarter of the 20th century. The city was the cultural capital of the country, where patrons encouraged music, flocked to the theatre, read the work of distinguished writers led by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, welcomed the art of the Bengal School and the films of the dazzling young actors, directors and composers who made the Calcutta of those days the centre of the Indian film industry. The young Nilina was the granddaughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, steeped in the liberal afterglow of the Bengal Renaissance and the Brahmo Samaj with their far-reaching social reforms. It was truly said that 'what Bengal thinks today, the rest of the country will think tomorrow'. The city and her home, Lily Cottage, were filled with music, and music became a leitmotif throughout her life. She herself learned to sing under the guidance of the distinguished Girija Shankar Chakravarty and created the opportunities for herself to listen to the leading singers of her time. Her social circle included visits to Jorasanko, the family home of the Tagores, and the Calcutta homes of her aunts-Suniti Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar and Sucharu Devi, Maharani of Mayurbhanj. Her older sister, Benita Roy, Rani of the chakma Raj of Rangamati, was a visitor to Lily Cottage.
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