Saturday, December 21, 2019


Music is Love
Vidushi Savita Devi:
(7 April, 1941-20 December 2019)

Known for her Purab Ang Gayaki, Vidushi Savita Devi passed away on 20 December 2019. I interviewed Vidushi Savita Devi at her home in New Delhi in 2005, where her mother and guru Vidushi Siddheshwari Devi had left behind a great musical tradition and later a year after the death of her mother in 1978 Savita Devi began her music academy - Siddheshwari Devi Academy of Indian Music. After the interview we became friends and often met as long as she stayed in Delhi. Once she shifted to Gurugram it became difficult for us to meet though we kept promising to meet soon. But today, I really regret...wish we had converted ‘soon’ to reality...wish I had met her when she told me that she wasn’t feeling too good...wish...
As a tribute to the doyen of Hindustani Classical Music who made various forms of classical music like thumri, chaiti, kajri, sawan, etc. popular, here are the excerpts from the interview that I took for Radio Gandharv, Worldspace Satellite Network and now included in the book - Beyond Music-Maestros in Conversation, published by Niyogi books (the book is available on online stores).


Excerpts:
Interviewer:
Your book Maa—Siddheshwari is a very touching biography. Do you miss her too much?
Savita Devi:
I have expressed myself quite openly in the book. However, there are a few memories which I forgot to include in the book. And there’s one particular memory which I would like to share. It is generally believed that with death all ties are snapped. But I do not think so. Even after the death of my mother, I feel her presence everywhere. I often talk to her. You will not believe that I’ve learnt a few bandishes in my dreams from my mother.

Interviewer:
Really? That’s intriguing. How?
Savita Devi:
There were certain pieces that Maa had not taught me completely. I often used to think about it and wonder how to complete it. So, it was in my dreams that Maa taught me. I could hear her singing in my dreams and next morning during riyaaz I discovered that I knew the bandish completely. There’s one more instance. My mother was a great devotee of Uddhav, friend of Lord Krishna. She always used to say that there can be no greater bhakt (devotee) of Lord Krishna like Uddhav. I was sitting here, in my living room and trying to compose one of the bandishes of BaramasaUddhav bhor rahi madhukar jayen. I roughly recorded it and when later I listened to it I could distinctly hear another voice along with my own. And that another voice was that of my mother, Siddheshwari Devi. Then I made my son listen to that tape. He too confirmed my doubt.

Interviewer:
This is mystical.
Savita Devi:
Yes, but true. In fact, many a time, whenever I have to go for some big concert I always feel that Maa is with me. Once in Benaras I was supposed to perform jugalbandi with Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib. I was very nervous. But while I was practising at Khan Sahib’s home, I felt as if Maa was guiding me. That very night I again dreamt about Maa. I saw my childhood home in Benaras and Maa calling me from the wooden stairs. (Her voice chokes, eyes become moist). … It was purely because of her blessings that the next day’s concert went off very well. Even Khan Sahib was very pleased and he blessed me. I believe in mysticism and I always feel her presence around me, protecting me, guiding me.
(At this point her grandchildren return from school and cling to her.)

Interviewer:
At what age did you start learning music?
Savita Devi:
Arre bhai, if I say that my lessons in music began while I was in my mother’s womb, it would not be wrong. She was giving concerts till the last trimester of the pregnancy. I’ll show you one photograph of the concert where all the bigwigs like Ustad Amir Khan Sahib, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, Bal Gandharva, were sitting in the audience and Maa, with me in her womb, was on stage, singing.  And as for formal training, I think, it began when I was four or five years old.

Interviewer:
Was she strict?
Savita Devi:
During childhood she taught me lovingly but later on she became very strict. She was stricter with me than with any other student. Any mistake by me was intolerable to Maa. For each mistake the punishment was to practise it hundred more times. She never praised me. Even if somebody would praise me she would always cut them short, ‘Yes ... she would do well, if she practises more.’ Actually she wanted me to study. She always used to say, ‘Sangeet to ghar mein hai … par vidya!’ So, when I was six or seven years old she sent me away to a boarding school in Benaras. To my mother, education was very important. It was only during summer vacations that I used to travel with her for concerts.

Interviewer:
What about your elder sister, Shanta?
Savita Devi:
Maa taught her. She used to sing very well, but unfortunately she died very young.

Interviewer:
When did you give your first public concert, I mean at what age and how were you feeling at that time?
Savita Devi:
See, though I was put in a hostel Maa had arranged for a music tutor there. He was very strict. I received regular canings from him. Can you imagine that at that tender age he taught me dhrupad?  I still remember it; you see … I still remember his cane … (laughs aloud). At the age of seven I sang in my school competition and won a gold medal. And during that time, before Independence, a gold medal was made of pure gold. But Maa was so generous that she gifted that gold medal to my tutor. She was that sort … caring and sensitive.

Interviewer:
You had music as your subject?
Savita Devi:
Oh, no, no. Actually Maa had categorically told me not to take music as a subject. First I took science, then Sanskrit and then finally I took music, without informing my mother. I started learning sitar from Bimla Nandan Chatterjee. He used to take sitar lessons in the school. And the first song that I played on the sitar was Jana Gana Mana, our national anthem. Maa was unaware of my change of subject. She came to know much later, after seeing my results, through a letter from our principal.

Interviewer:
And then you must have got a good ticking off.
Savita Devi:
A little bit, but she was pleased that I passed with distinction. And my logic made sense to her. You see, she had asked me not to learn gana, meaning vocal music, not bajaana, instrumental music. So I convinced her that I had not done anything wrong. (She narrates laughingly) … Words, you know … and their interpretation. Anyway, after this she told me to carry on her tradition and to take music seriously.  After a few years I came to Delhi and became a lecturer at Daulat Ram College.

Interviewer:
In between you married Pandit Kishan Maharaj (At the time of the interview Pt. Kishan Maharaj was alive. He passed away on 4 May, 2008).. Was your mother happy with your decision?
Savita Devi:
You can say it was destiny.  Maa was searching for a right match for me. But most of the families were against my singing. So I told Maa that if I will not be allowed to pursue my art, my kala, then how could I be happy? During this time I met Kishan Maharaj. He was so handsome, good-looking and pleasant that I was completely swept off my feet. We gave many programmes together. Finally, we decided to get married and when I informed Maa she was very annoyed. She and the other members of the family were against it. But it had to happen, so it happened. As I said, it was destined.

Interviewer:
Then why did you separate?
Savita Devi:
Actually, Maharajji was a very dominating personality. See, I married him, thinking that he will encourage me, not throttle my talent.  Jab aapse aapki kala hi chheeni jaye tab phir aap bhi to marne lagte hain na bhai (If your art is snatched away from you, you too start dying inside, don’t you)! We had many arguments regarding this. I started feeling suffocated. And finally I had to take a decision … a hard one … You understand what I am trying to say?

Interviewer:
Yes, yes.
Savita Devi:
Besides this, there were many other domestic misgivings. By this time we had two children also.  Responsibility of their upbringing … no money … and so many other things, it was becoming chaotic … and before marriage I had resigned my job at Kanpur Degree College, where I was the Head of Department of Music. So,  I went back to my mother and she pardoned me. She  helped me financially how long could I take financial support from my mother?  And I didn’t want my children to study in some municipal school. Once you get married and have children, then you must take up the responsibility also. Nahin? So, I decided to take up the responsibility. I begged Maa for forgiveness. I wrote a letter to her, apologised and requested her to help me. I told her that the future of my two kids was very bleak in Benaras. Maa understood my plight and I came to Delhi. With her blessings I got a job in Daulat Ram College. Thus began my life all over again. After all, how long could I have suffered and jeopardised my children’s future. (She breaks down).  I started writing the biography during that time.

Interviewer:
So you started writing the book, Maa— Siddheshwari in the 70s?
Savita Devi:
Yes.  This book is an outcome of nearly twenty years of labour.

Interviewer:
In the book you have not mentioned much about your father. Why?
Savita Devi:
Well, he was a retired army personnel. He used to come and stay with us but I had a stepmother and step-siblings too. And most of the time he was away.  I wasn’t attached to him. He was my father but there was no affection. It was my mother who brought me up, just like I’ve brought up my children. Kishan Maharaj has not done anything for my children. He is their father, that’s all. The responsibilities that come when one becomes a parent have not been fulfilled by Kishan Maharajji. I have brought them up.  Similarly my father was there but it was my mother who really looked after my needs and brought me up.
(The telephone rings. She picks it up and talks about her forthcoming concert.)

Interviewer:
How many kinds of styles are there in thumri?
Savita Devi:
People say there are two kinds of shaili (styles)—Purab ang and Punjab ang. But Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib used to say that there is only one style and that is Purab ang, only the presentation differs. The language used is braj bhasha.  Now, you see one raga sung by different maestros will sound different. The notes are the same but the presentation style of each maestro is different. It bears the signature of each maestro. It is the same in thumri gayan also. The same thumri sung by Badi Moti Bai or Siddheshwari Devi or Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib will sound different.

Interviewer:
Why it is that thumri is still not considered to be a form of pure classical music?
Savita Devi:
I do not consider thumri ‘semi-classical.’ I think thumri is a form of pure classical music and I am fighting for it to be recognised as such. You see thumri is a language of emotions—bhaav pradhan. It is a bouquet of different ragas. But just as a painter has to choose which colour combinations will appear beautiful, so is the case with thumri. We have to use an appropriate and rich combination of ragas and swars. There is a proper method to it. It cannot be done blindly. The words are very limited in thumri, but we convey those very words in different emotions. Like for instance take the words Jao wahin tum shyam jahan saari rain jaage ho. It can be improvised in so many ways (she sings—improvising in different ways and decorates it with layers of emotions.) You see, one word can be improvised in so many ways. But in improvising we have to highlight the hidden emotions also. That’s why it is called bhaav pradhan shaili. If there are no emotions in thumri gayan then it is mechanical, technical .

Interviewer:
What kind of an institute is the Siddheshwari Devi Academy of Indian Music?
Savita Devi:
I established this Academy after the demise of Maa. It is to primarily impart education in thumri gayaki. For the last so many years (The Academy was established in March, 1978, a year after the demise of Vidushi Siddheshwari Devi) I am running this institute and imparting education in music. I have many students and they are doing quite well. I have also established an award, honouring Maa—Swar Siddhi. It is given to artistes, in recognition of their contribution to classical music.

Interviewer:
Your children didn’t pursue music. Why?
Savita Devi:
No, they have not taken it up professionally. My elder son, Sanjay, used to play the tabla very well even though he didn’t receive any proper taleem. Unfortunately he died in a car accident. He was only eighteen. (Her voice chokes) I was completely shattered. Even my younger son, Ajay was in that car. He was in the ICU for eleven days. But my elder son died on the spot. It was too devastating. I don’t want to talk about it now.
(She starts crying)

Interviewer:
What is music to you?
Savita Devi:
Music is love. Music is faith. Music is devotion.  Music is an offering, a prayer to God.  Music makes us reach out to God. Music spreads happiness, peace and unity. It has no boundary. It spreads the message of love and our music, whether of the north or the south, is deep, meditative and it enriches the soul.
 


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