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'There was a lot of pain, a lot of struggle'

Namita Devidayal
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September 20, 2007

The soothing notes of Indian classical music trail through the quiet morning air, in perfect sympathy with the myriad shades of green peeking in though the large balcony.

Cotton, wood and canvas dominate the living room, in harmonious companionship with Nature's bounty outside.

Namita Devidayal walks in, draped in a cotton saree that reflects the refreshing blue of the sky, looking serene and nothing like her own description of who she is.

"Part of me is a mom and part of me is a singer and part of me is a writer and part of me is a party animal and it's all right, you know," she grins.

 "Unlike many people, I don't believe you can compartmentalise an individual. In fact, my book shows how I came from a very Westernised background, yet I could relate very intimately to my music teacher and her world, which is deeply traditional."

A gamut of emotions are running through 38-year-old journalist-turned-author -- excitement at the launch of her first book, nervousness that she is releasing her baby to the world's glare, confidence that her labour of love will be accepted.

Most of all, though, there is the unseen presence of her 81-year-old guru, Dhondutai, whom she calls 'the inheritor of the Jaipur gharana' and the inspiration behind The Music Room.

She discusses her forthcoming book, and her passion for music, with Savera R Someshwar. Excerpts:

How would you encapsulate what The Music Room is about?

It's my personal journey into the world of Indian classical music. It's also the story of three great singers from the Jaipur gharana, Alladiya Khan, Kesarbai and Dhondutai, who came from different backgrounds, and how their lives intertwined.

I've tried to be just a narrator, the sutradhar, through the book.

The Music Room is not just about a room or a physical space where you learn singing; it is about a mental space or a kind of metaphor for a space where I would enter, when I entered (Namita's guru) Dhondutai's life.

This is a space that has been inhabited by great people like Alladiya Khan, Kesarbai, Dhondutai... It's about how they convert that space. How they negotiate with that space. How much they had to sacrifice. The kind of pain they went through, the kind of joy they experienced in different ways -- whether it was pain or a simple communion with God.

It may sound a bit corny, but this kind of music is the closest one comes to spirituality. It's so meditative. It makes you forget the outside world. It's almost like going into a musical wonderland.

The book is also about how someone from a contemporary, modern world interacts with someone from such a traditional world.

It is also a story about India because, for me, that's what India is all about. It's about how tradition and modernity constantly collide and interact.

Is the book fact, or is it fiction?

I've taken the liberty to embellish the details and dialogues. But the events, the people, everything is absolutely fact -- whether it was the life of Alladiya Khan, the life of Kesarbai and certainly the life of Dhondutai... and just how these three people came together.

The book works on many levels. It's a story about music. It's a story about individual artistes. It's also a story about women in the art; a subtext I did not realise when I was writing the book.

Kesarbai came from the devdasi tradition, which was an extremely difficult place to be. On the one hand, they were the ones who carried on the tradition so they were the best singers of their time. On the other hand, they were treated with a lot of ambivalence by society because they were from the devdasi tradition. They were not considered from good families. You would not want your son to marry one of them.

There was a lot of pain, there was a lot of struggle and that comes through with Kesarbai's life.

In its own way, even Dhondutai's life was extremely difficult. In those days you got married and had children. But her father believed so much in this art that he encouraged her to follow it and be married to her music. She lives in a lonely world. All that has come through in the book.

Did you expect the book to have so many layers when you started writing it? Did you think that so many different aspects would come through?

I did not think about what I was writing... I was just writing a story that was inside me. The extraordinary thing is that the first draft hasn't changed much; the book just flowed out of me.

I wasn't really thinking about structure, yet, the structure has turned out to be so beautiful. It goes back and forth in time. Later, I realised that's how oral traditions pass on. It's like some little secret Dhondutai was teaching me that Alladiya Khan must have taught Kesarbai a 100 years ago....

The book is also written in that way -- you move seamlessly from a passage in a very contemporary context into something similar that happened between Kesarbai and Dhondutai.

And the thing about it is, the whole book just flowed out of me. There were so many stories I had heard over the years from my music teacher� and there was my experience. That whole world was so amazing and it was so different from my other world that I think it had kind of grown within me as a story.

Namita DevidayalWhat do you mean when you say it was different from your other world?

I had grown up in a very cosmopolitan, Westernised, English-speaking, dilettante world. It was much more global than traditional. In Dhondutai's world, it was just her music. That was it. There was nothing else.

Obviously, it made a very deep impact on me. I started going to her when I was just 10. I still go to her even though I may not learn music from her every time. Even when I was living abroad, the connection between us has remained.

There is something about the purity of that phase that really attracted me. It was something I was seeking which was so different from what I found in the rest of my world, which was media or whatever else that was happening in the rest of my world. This is something that took me into a much more valuable world.

And I have really kept it intact. You know, a lot of my friends didn't even know I was learning singing. It was almost like having a secret love affair. My friends are from a different planet. For them, why I would take a train to Borivali (a Mumbai suburb) once a week to learn how to sing was just a bit confounding.

What does Dhondutai think about the book?

She hasn't read it. She does not read in English. But she trusts me. I've told her there is a little masala in it and you have to just go with that.

We share a very lovely relationship, even though I irritate her endlessly. I am so fickle and so inconsistent. She gets angry with me because she feels I had the makings of a really great singer and I didn't do it. She used to call me her little Kesarbai because I have a very strong voice, like Kesarbai's.

There was a time when I wanted to be a professional singer. I had graduated from Princeton in 1991 and come back to India. For a year, I dropped everything and would go every single morning to Borivali to learn singing.

I think it was my own fear that stopped me from going through with that.

The thing is, it is such an isolated world. There is no real reward at the end of the day. When you have a job, you at least get that paycheck (laughs ruefully) at the end of the month. Here, it was just Dhondutai, and me learning music and not really knowing what was going to come at the end of it.

I'm the one who gave it up.

What about that world frightened you?

I think the fact that you never really know whether you are going to be good and make it. You have to be very unconditional when you surrender to music.

Also, I didn't know how I could sustain myself doing this; I've always been very, very independent.

If you read the book, you will see how even a great singer like Dhondutai has to really struggle. She's the inheritor of the Jaipur gharana. She's trained under one of the greatest singers of the universe, Kersarbai. And yet, there was a time when Dhondutai was broke. And she's wasn't 25 when this happened, she was 50.

It's a very difficult, very painful world. Any art is such; it demands tremendous dedication. And I really didn't have it in me.

To me, this book is, in a way, my tribute to what I wasn't able to do musically. The music is really in me and I am really committed to it, but I just don't have the kind of tenacity that it takes to take it to another plane� to really pursue it.

You can't have a late night and then get up in the morning and do your riyaaz, you just can't. And I'm very much in that world as well. I would have found it very hard to reconcile the two worlds. That's why I followed my second love, which is writing, and took to journalism. For me, this book has been a marriage of the two, which is great.

Who do you see this book appealing to?

I've given the book to a wide variety of people to read, from serious musicologists to some of my ditziest friends. What's really nice is that everyone has responded very positively. This obviously means the book works as a moving story.

It's not just a musical book.

It can be relevant to anyone who wants access to the world of music. But it is also a human story, so it should appeal to anyone who likes to read about other people's lives.

Tell me a bit about the promotional strategy; it's very unusual.

It's lovely. It's all thanks to my publisher, Chiki Sarkar (Random House India). She has been really passionate about the book. She doesn't know anything about Indian classical music, but she loved the book and decided she was going to promote it. She wasn't just printing it and providing it with a platform. She really took it to another level and I'm just so grateful for that.

The cover, which she conceptualised, is so beautiful that Random House UK is going to use it in the Frankfurt book fair.

If people want to start listening to Indian classical music, what would you recommend?

This is just really very hard because sometimes, it is just one little raag by one particular musician who may not even be that well known.

And to be honest, it is not like as if I have listened to that much music that I really have the ability to� But here goes:

I would recommend definitely a couple of Kesarbai's three minute renditions which are available on HMV.

Unfortunately, Dhondutai's published CDs are not widely available, but I would certainly recommend her Kabir Bhairav.

Ameer Khan's Hansadhwani is something I've grown up with and has just stayed with me.

Kishori Amonkar's rendition of the Raag Bhoop.

Bhimsen Joshi's, well I love his Abhangs, but certainly some of his raags as well.

Rashid Khan, I find, is a very lovely contemporary musician who just has an incredible sense of rhythm. Some of his taranas are wonderful.

Shubha Mudgal for her voice; what has really haunted me are some of her Kabir bhajans.

Ashwini Bhide Deshpande for her serenity and her mastery over the Jaipur gharana tans.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan for his tappas.

Photographs: Savera R Someshwar

Video: Namita and Dhondutai
Watch the trailer of The Music Room
Click here to read the excerpt

The Music Room is being serialised by Gandharv, the Hindustani music channel of World Space Radio, all through September. Gandharv plays out live at

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