Neelum Saran Gaur's Sahitya Akademi award-winning novel revisits the life of Janki Bai, the legendary singer of Allahabad who was scarred by 56 knife wounds at the hands of her suitor

The idea of being ‘thrown’ into existence, to be or not to be, or perhaps the strategic charting of one’s own life has been the subject of contemporary discourse for some decades now. Writers have applied this phenomenon not just to their own existential dilemmas, but also have studied historical figures in this framework. A recent example is the 2023 Sahitya Akademi winner Requiem in Raga Janki by Neelum Saran Gaur, who works as a Professor of English Literature at the University of Allahabad. She employs the word requiem or remembrance to look back at a time when in Indian musical realms, it didn’t matter what one’s religious denomination was. Your faith was your art.

Requiem in Raga Janki tells the forgotten story of Janki Bai (1880-1934), the legendary singer of Allahabad, who was attacked at the age of eight by her suitor, Raghunandan, to bear the scars of 56 knife wounds. Janki survived the vicious stabbing which came to be known as ‘Chhappan Chhurri’ (56 knives) and rose to fame, overcoming her life’s tragedy and taking refuge in art: “To breathe free of its tyranny, to forget it for a week, a day. Not to cede so large a portion of my soul to it. For surely there were other summonings, hankerings of the body and the heart, that this austerity of art peremptorily exiled.”

The female gaze

Janki Bai Ilahabadi, born in Benares to Shiv Balak and Manki, faced challenges from childhood. Her mother and her siblings were largely neglected after the father took on a mistress, Laxmi. Eventually, the mother Manaki left Allahabad with her children for Varanasi. In Varanasi, Manki became a tawaif (courtesan) and raised her talented daughter Janki as a singer.

As a singer, Janki contributed greatly to the Indian musical heritage. Through Hassu Khan, her music teacher, Gaur explores the complexities of Indian classical music, discussing the Hindu and Muslim traditions of ‘ragas’ and their specific times of practice. Hassu Khan unravels the mysteries of music to her and describes the deep devotion that was expected of a student of music: “You’re not an artist some of the time, remember this. You’re an artist all the time, in sleep and in waking. You breathe in your medium as a fish breathes in water. It is your chief reason for existing. It steers your ears and your eyes and the coursings of your blood. Whether the world accepts or rejects you is immaterial. The element you inhabit and stay all awash in fills your days and nights with purpose, with the promise of truth. The achievement of that one perfect note is God’s currency whereby you are unexpectedly and serendipitously paid.’”

Veena Talwar Oldenburg, in her work The Making of Colonial Lucknow (2014), argues that contrary to popular perceptions of the Kotha as a place of debauchery and moral decay, it was a centre of artistic and cultural patronage. The kotha was a site of the female agency. Despite operating within a patriarchal society, the tawaifs exercised a remarkable degree of autonomy and independence.

This leads one to an important question: How are courtesans represented and who represents them? A notable account is of Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan, which chronicles the aap beeti (personal history) and the subsequent jug beeti (collective history) of Umrao’s narrative vis-a-vis the dying Lucknow culture. Mirza’s account of Umrao is rather heavy-handed and often confounds her story. Gaur alternatively introduces the female gaze in Requiem in Raga Janki as Janki becomes more than a mere idea or a symbol of a dying culture. The narrator, through her postmodernist metafiction style, doesn’t twist or embellish her tale, rather acts as a facilitator to bring out the true account of her life.

The Frame That Holds the Canvas

When Gaur first chanced upon Janki Bai, she was struck by the insufficiency of material on her. She became curious to excavate the powerful story that lay beneath. In the few documents that were available, she noticed that Janki was creating a counter-narrative, deliberately evading issues and confounding things. As someone interested in Janki’s life, Gaur noticed inconsistencies in Janki’s narrative which left a vast margin for creative interpretation and subsequent improvisation.

Located at the meeting point of three holy rivers —Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati — Allahabad (now Prayagraj) is an important city in the history of Awadh embracing various cultural and linguistic traditions, including Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit. Gaur’s upbringing in Allahabad exposed her to a multilingual environment from an early age, with her mother being Bengali and her father a connoisseur of Hindustani classical music. She has authored 13 works set in Allahabad, including Three Rivers and a Tree (2015), which weaves in anecdotal accounts of Allahabad University. Humorously terming herself a 24-karat Allahabadi, she admits in an interview: “Allahabad has been a visible city in history but passed through a period of eclipse. I share Allahabad’s invisibility; Allahabad and I have been twins in that sense.......Allahabad is the frame that holds the canvas on which I apply the brush”

Gaur’s multilingual aesthetics in her writing, mixing Angrezi (English) with Bhasha (vernacular), was a gradual and transparent reflection of her spatial roots in Allahabad. This leads us to another question: how do we write about cities in fiction? There are many ways to perceive and experience a city. One way is through personal experience, growing up in that environment. Another is through how the media portrays it. Lastly, there’s the sociological perspective, which considers, for example, the reasons for urban migration. However, the latter two do not do justice to the individual experience. It is only through fiction that multiple perspectives can be explored. Requiem in Raga Janki foregrounds the personal history of an individual by paying attention to her eccentricities, and secrets.

The Alphabet of the Self

The book also intersperses the history of Hindustani music. A Hindustani Raga can be sung in many ways: one can wander and improvise so long as the basic notation remains the same. Gaur’s book is a performance as it embodies a Raga itself, through its components of an essential alphabet of the self, a basic notation, and finally the dominant mood. The documented details form the central alphabet whereas the creative endeavour of a fictionalised biography serves as musical improvisations within the Raga.

In Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, writes, “Language embodies culture, and culture, particularly through oral and written traditions, encapsulates the entire spectrum of values through which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” While Gaur acknowledges the postcolonial destructiveness of glossaries, she denies using multilingualism to achieve that end. She is also not ready to ‘bear the burden’ and says, “I use Hindi and Urdu words because I am multilingual and certain nuances can only be multilingually rendered. I don’t have any postcolonial objection to including glossaries for readers who don’t know either Hindi or Urdu.” Not only does she mix Hindi and English but Arabic and Persian also. Janki recites in the novel, “Ulfat teri dil se mere ja hi nahin sakti, nakhoon se kabhi gosht juda ho nahin sakta”. (The love I have for you can never leave my heart/like flesh can never be separated from nails).

A sprawling account

The book also documents important transformations in the way music was performed. The coming of the gramophone, an element of colonial modernity, was duly adopted by the musicians, including Janki, while some expressed their apprehensions. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. However, Gaur intermittently falls short of grasping the contradiction of Janki Bai’s era. This was a time when the traditional ruling class was being replaced by a Westernized Bhadralok (bourgeoise) class from Calcutta.

Despite that, Gaur knits an important account of Janki Bai, not necessarily as a woman artist, hence bypassing an expectation of a gendered accounting. Through a potent cocktail of history, biography and fiction, she is able to transgress the boundaries of documentation/history writing that often leads to straightjacketing and goes on to write a rather sprawling account of an artist. “Our fantastications, our edited, pruned and pared memories, our lies, yes, our comforting, sheltering distortions in which our realities take refuge. That was how it was with the history of the fifty-six stabs,” she writes.

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