Tag Archives: #gwalior

Author, Lakshmi Rao with her tanpura(Image by Jigna Desai)

The Enduring Poetry of the Gwalior Gayaki

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

“Geetam Vaadyam Tatha Nrityam, Trayam Sangeeta Mucchyate.”

This quote from the ancient Sangeet Ratnakar by Pandit Sharangdev, defines ‘sangeeta’, or ‘collective music’, as singing, instrumental music, and dance. De rigeur for many Indian children, I have fond memories of training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic vocal music myself. While my exposure to playing instruments was limited, I spent time listening to soulful Hindi film songs and singing in the school choir.

 I also ventured outside ‘sangeeta’. Over the summer holidays, I lost myself in brooding Dutch skies and the idyllic English countryside, while painstakingly recreating the paintings of the Old Masters on my own. My unexpected partner in artistic ventures was my mother. I still remember her reciting “For whom the bell tolls”, during our weekly Sunday oil-bath ritual. The oil was smelly and the bathroom floor was cold, but John Donne lit up my seven-year-old imagination. 

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

Captivated by words, endless hours were spent in bookstores and libraries, train compartments, and dull classes secretly devouring Dickens and Austen and later, Sheldon and Nabokov. Fascinated by these cerebral and rather mysterious personalities, I wondered: was writing art? If a picture paints a thousand words, are words then less, or more? And do they not have a place in “sangeeta”?

Time passed and I “grew up”; focusing my energies on studying and working, traveling extensively while juggling the demands of career and family. In 2009, I decided to take a much-needed break when we moved to Mumbai and rekindled my interest in the arts, this time through Hindustani classical music. I found a compelling and motivated teacher in Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, the doyenne of the ancient Gwalior parampara. Neelaji, as she is affectionately known, traces her lineage through her guru, Sharathchandra Arolkar, to Krishnarao Shankar Pandit and in turn to Haddu and Hassu Khan. Of course, the millennia-old river that Indian music is, there have been many others that gently fed the rivulets and streams. I feel incredibly lucky to be connected to this lineage of artists, spanning space and time.

Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)
Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)

Famous for its “ashtanga gayaki” (or eight-fold ways of voice projection), the distinctive Gwalior aesthetic relies on the composition as the portal into the raaga. The gayaki employs  a number of musical forms to render emotion: “khatka”, “meend”, “gamak”,”aalaap”, “behlava”, “taan”, “kampan” and “murki”. The richly detailed, complex compositions typically contain many of these forms, both conveying the essence of the raaga and the unmistakable singing style. Gwalior singers typically favor the “siddha” raagas (principal raagas). Yet, what drew me most was the focus on the “bol” or words of the bandish, and the interplay of these words with the “layakari”, or play of rhythm. While many gharanas emphasize similar musical forms, the Gwalior gayaki melds them with the “bol” – and “bol aalaap” is a hallmark of this tradition. 

In my quest to convey the beauty of these verses, I stumbled upon an entire world of poetry and lyricism. One of my favorite bandishes, set to raaga Vrindavani Sarang:

“Bore jina Allah ko yoon na jaaniye. Karna tha so kar chuka, aur ji chaaha so kara.

Adarang sanchi kahat, as kaaman ko, rahim reejha reejha layi, kahu ki as kaaman kara, so hi det rab”. 

Translated:

“Oh simpleton, do your duty and once done with it, do what you desire.

Adarang says truly Allah will satisfy your sincere wishes.” 

Written by Adarang who was a poet in the Delhi court of Mughal Emperor Mohammed Shah Rangile (1702-1748), the soaring notes pay tribute to the Creator. Singing the composition day after day, I noticed how my mood gradually grew more positive – and I realized the power of poetry. Poets weave magic, and “geetham” would be closer to “vaadyam” without their precious words.

Another evocative piece set to raaga Bageshri, about the plight of a lovelorn woman pining for an indifferent partner and confiding in her friend strikes a different chord. The second stanza, especially, conjures vivid imagery:

“Kaun gat bhaili, mori sajani, yeri mayi, piya na pooche ek baat;

Ek ban dhoondhoon, sakala ban ban, gayi daar daar, karahi paat paat”

Translated:

“Where has he gone, dear friend, my love did not take leave of me;

I am searching for him in the forest, through all the woods, branches, leaves.”

I joined the “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley” circle in 2019, hoping to better understand poetic sentiments and bring more feeling into my singing. Surrounded by verse in languages ranging from Pali to Portuguese, and meeting online as a getaway from Covid-imposed isolation, I eventually summoned the courage to write, too. Here’s a bandish on my travels, to meet my teacher:

“Badhi kathinayi saha guru dwaar aayi,

Ghar baal chhod kar, gyan pane mayi.

Guru haske kahe, jaanat nahin baawri,

Main antar mein rahoon, tu kahaan jayi”

Translated:

“Braving great troubles, I came to my guru’s door,

Leaving my family, in order to gain knowledge,

The guru laughed, asked if I didn’t know,

That the guru resides inside, where are you headed?”

Listening to poetry has unexpectedly grown into a much-anticipated weekly ritual. I’m delighted in my discovery of an art form within an art form, expanding my horizons and making friends along the way. Many of the members in our circle share common interests and creative collaborations bubble up quite often. I look forward to the ventures and adventures that beckon in 2021!


Lakshmi Rao is a senior disciple of Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, training in the vocal style of the Gwalior parampara. She calls the Bay Area home, and remains ever curious about the world that was, that is and that will be! 


 

In the Land of Narmada: Visions From 50 Years Ago

Sri. Nettur P. Damodaran (1913-1978) was a prominent public figure from the state of Kerala, India, who had made contributions in various fields as a freedom fighter, political activist,  social worker, author, journalist, Member of Parliament, and a senior government official. The recently published book In the Land of Narmada, which is a translation of a travelogue written by him in Malayalam and first published fifty years ago, is a fascinating work due to many reasons. It shines a light on many facets of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which are unknown to the present generation.

Among such lesser-known aspects of daily life in the province are those related to the dreaded gangs of dacoits.  For all practical purposes, dacoits have been eliminated in central India, the current generation, including the youngster from those areas, are not aware of the sway they once held on the day-to-day life of the people. 

Apart from their social impact, the stories of these bands, which included the full spectrum, from the scum of the earth right up to almost noble souls, make fascinating reading. The personal experiences of the author had half a century back, as highlighted in the excerpts below,  will certainly ignite curiosity in the minds of the readers to learn more about them. 

Dacoits come in, right in the introduction to the book written by renowned novelist, travelogue writer, and winner of Jnanpith Award,  Sri. S. K. Pottekkatt wherein he describes an experience he had while traveling with the author: 

“….I still remember a small incident that happened during that trip. Somewhere on the way, a group of six or seven men stopped the bus in which we were travelling. We noticed few passengers getting up and making seats available for them when they boarded the bus. Those who entered the bus were seen speaking loudly and gesticulating among themselves. We understood that they were showering abuses in strong colloquial tongue. Suddenly, a young man with thick moustache got up from his seat, removed his footwear and started slapping a fairly old and hefty man on both sides of his cheeks and shoulder without respite.

While receiving the blows, the elderly man did not utter a word nor did he resist. He just unsuccessfully tried to evade and then quietly withdrew, mumbling. The conductor, the driver and the passengers remained silent throughout the episode as if they have not seen anything. Nettur and I were a bit perplexed.

Once the bus reached a deserted place, after travelling two or three miles, the thick moustached young man ordered the driver to stop. After the bus stopped, first the young man followed by others in the group, including the person who received the slaps, got down and went away. Once the bus started to move after they disembarked, the passengers heaved a deep sigh of relief. Then they broke their silence. It appears the ones who disembarked were the members of a dacoit gang!”

Sri. Nettur P. Damodaran continues his narration in the chapter on the dacoits – Please keep in mind the fact that this book was written fifty years back. Many of the schemes described and societal changes envisioned by the author have already happened, which in turn highlights his unique insight and foresight.

From ‘Land of Narmada’, originally published in the year 1972

……Along with a team comprising a clerk, a peon, and a driver, I left Delhi to go on a tour of Madhya Pradesh, one day. Traversing the dacoits-dominated districts of Morena, Gwalior, and Shivapuri, we reached Shivapuri. Though we had some apprehensions in our minds, none of the dacoits cared for us. What would they gain by robbing us?

It is the rich, those who don’t pay upon their demands and the informants who help to catch them, that they generally kidnap and harm. Perhaps they would have known that neither I nor my party falls in that category. Apart from that, our travel was in broad daylight and on the Agra–Bombay National Highway. There’s heavy traffic on that highway.

It appears the dacoits have great respect for such highways. They are also true nationalists, who abhor parochialism! If anyone travels fearlessly on provincial roads, they do not spare them. Those holding local sentiments and are parochial in mind should hence exercise extreme caution before venturing on such roads. Generally, they do not harm outsiders. They catch hold of only those who are living among them; whom they know very well.

Dacoits also have certain needs, don’t they? They approach the rich and seek money, when in need. If the approached one does not pay up, they simply withdraw after setting a date. On that chosen date, they reach there and take him as a hostage. Once the set ransom is paid, the person is brought back as well. However, if he does not pay up, the rich man will never return home.

Helping the poor and the suffering lot is one of their covenants. They donate liberally to the poor parents for meeting the expenses of their daughters’ weddings. Is it for nothing that the authorities are failing to eliminate the dacoits? “

The political philosophy of the dacoit gangs also is socialism. They have a popular base and public support—the egalitarian principles of the dacoits are generally applied to those ruthless anti-socials, who have amassed wealth by exploiting the poor. I used to wonder at times whether areas such as Morena, Shivapuri, Bhind, and Gwalior aren’t more suited than Kerala for communism to flourish.

The dacoits do not have any special affinity towards communism. They are believers in God. For them, committing dacoity and even murder is considered as acts of offering to God. Whether communism will take roots among them is a matter to be seen.

Vinobaji had conducted a padayatra over there. He also did succeed to some extent. But it is difficult for Vinobaji to succeed where government, police, law, rules, etc. are enmeshed in tangles. If such issues were not there, probably Vinobaji could have succeeded and the dacoits could have undergone a change of hearts and their lives would have found new streams to flow. Though they do not respect the law, they have certain laws of their own. They follow them. Before carrying out every dacoity, they bow before their Goddess.  The boundaries of operation for individual gangs are set. If anyone breaks these boundaries, they fight among themselves. As a result, many die. It is believed by the villagers that such dead bodies of dacoits killed in inter-gang fights are later picked up by the police and exhibited as the ones killed in police encounters falling prey to their guns to gain fame. To my knowledge, this belief is not only among the villagers but among others also. 

Many officials who had been in the captivity of the dacoits had described their experiences to me. Once the houses of the officials stationed in the district headquarters of Bhind district for the construction of an irrigation project fell prey to the dacoits. They did not harm anybody. After selecting and bundling things lying there that they felt would be of use, they dispersed peacefully. There is a danger only if they are resisted. In such a case, in addition to money, lives also may be lost. In Bhind itself, once a lady officer fell into their hands. But they did not do any harm. Being a lady and an outsider, she was let off. But her peon, a local, who got up from sleep and came there on hearing the noise had to bear a minor burn inflicted on his hand. Perhaps a punishment for not vigilantly guarding his lady boss. This was the only harm done by them.

In Shivapuri, we had parked our car in front of a shop for filling the tank. That shop was owned by a rich Sait. A month before, that very shop and the town had witnessed a scene. A few men came in a jeep, alighted in front of the shop, and asked the owner Sait to board the jeep. As if accompanying known people, Sait boarded the jeep. Only much later did the citizens of Shivapuri realize that the people who came in the jeep were dacoits and it was an abduction for money, after the Sait returned spending few days as their captive and guest and regaining his lost freedom by paying up the ransom. The shop and the Sait are still there. The Sait is quite sure that they will not approach him again for quite some time. The dacoits observe many such etiquettes. They approach an old target only after completing a full cycle of covering all the targets on the list. Such an understanding exists between the rich and the dacoits. Many people in the area also believe that there is a different set of understanding between the police and the dacoits. I have met many who believe that the issue of dacoits remains unresolved because both sides have reconciled on cooperative coexistence within certain limits. 

Chambal Valley (Image from Land of Narmada)

The Government has a good scheme to sink the dacoits. It is the Chambal ravines that aid the dacoits to hide and engage in guerrilla battles. 

On our way from Dholpur in Rajasthan to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, we reached Shivapuri after crossing this gorgeous and modest river that flows along the border between the two states. It is difficult to believe that dacoits are hiding within the folds of the flowing attire of this charming beauty of a river that is streaming through a long and broad path far beyond the line of sight.

If the shores on both the sides are visually examined, one can find truth in these stories. Because of the soil erosion due to the continuous flow of water, the terrain formed over a long distance is full of large pits, mounts, and caves. It will appear as if nature has built a fort for the dacoits to have a free run in the area. The Government’s plan is to flatten these areas for making them cultivable and to smoke out the dacoits like wild rats. The name of the scheme is Chambal Valley Reclamation Scheme. Long live the Chambal project!


Pradeep Nettur, the translator of the book, is the second son of the author. An Engineer by training and a Civil servant by profession, spanning 36 years, he pursued his literary passion by taking up the translation of this masterclass work of his father, which, though widely appreciated, was confined in the vernacular for about 50 years, for laying it before the world of an extended, enlightened and enlarged readership.