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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 ‘respectable’ 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, don’t 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 ‘sanitise’ 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 language.  

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 ‘classical’ 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 ‘morality’ and ‘respectability’. Tawaifs and their music were considered immoral. After 1947, puritans got the tawaifs’ quarters closed down. Many, including Rasoolan Bai, were rendered homeless. 

Rasoolan Bai ‘married’ 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: “They are all devis; I am the last bai left!” (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 ‘married’ 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 mother’s singing but never learnt it; nor did the others. Whatever remains of the tawaif’s musical lineage will die out within a generation or two. 

The filmmaker’s 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