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Inside 'The Music Room' with Namita Devidayal

Namita Devidayal preparing to perform at the Asia Society on April 20, 2009.

Namita Devidayal preparing to perform at the Asia Society on April 20, 2009.

NEW YORK, April 20, 2009 – Namita Devidayal appeared at Asia Society headquarters for the American launch of her memoir The Music Room, a bestseller in her native India and winner of the 2008 Crossword Popular Book Award. After a short vocal performance and a reading from the book, Devidayal was joined by internationally acclaimed choreographer Rajika Puri for a talk in which the two women discussed Devidayal's memoir and the place of Indian classical music in contemporary culture.

When Devidayal was ten years old, her mother took her to a seamy neighborhood in Bombay to study music with classical singer Dhondutai, the last living disciple of two of the finest Indian classical singers of the 20th century. Devidayal's recollections draw together people from vastly differing classes, castes, religions, and regions. Hindustani classical music, like India itself, was born out of a synthesis of a myriad of cultures. "Just as Dhondutai and I were such different people from such different from spaces ... when Dhondutai went to meet her teacher, Kesarbai, there was a similar kind of contrast." Devidayal read from The Music Room the comical story of Dhondutai and her father, straightlaced middle class Brahmins, meeting Kesarbai, a foul-mouthed, rather flamboyant devadasi. "Music has been the story of India," explained Devidayal. "It has brought together the most disparate types of people and communities."

Devidayal spoke about the complicated sociological dimensions of Indian classical music. To the straightlaced conservative Dhounithai there was a definite hierarchy of "purity" in varying forms of music. For example, singing a kayal was perfectly acceptable, but she would not be caught dead singing a thumri, a more sensuous form which was performed by court singers and courtesans. "She [Dhounitai] came from the good family, and the thumris were performed by women who did unspeakable things with the patrons who had them sing in their parlors," Devidayal explained. "Keserbai was one of these singers." Devidayal, though, has her own ideas about music. "This is one of the biggest points of disagreement between Dhonuthai and me, because I don't believe you can actually create hierarchies in music. I believe music can either touch you, or not."

Puri and Devidayal talked about the social stigma faced by women singers in India. Historically many women singers were devadasi, women "married" and dedicated to a deity, taking care of a temple and performing rituals and classical arts. Devadasis originally held very high status in Indian society and were supported by temples. But as the prominence of temples waned and Victorian morality crept in, devadasi lost their status and traditional means of support, often turning to prostitution. "These women were not prostitutes to begin with," explained Devidayal. "They were very accomplished artists." In Keserbai's time women singers "lived with this crazy ambivalence where they were highly regarded as singers, but no one would marry them," said Devidayal. Even Dhondutai, who studied in the 1950s and '60s, fought against this stigma.

Finally, the two discussed how the richness of Hindustani music comes from the syncretism of northern India. In spite of the Hindu nationalism that helped revive traditional Indian music, "the music we have today is as beautiful as it is only because of the influences that came in when the Mughals came in," said Devidayal, adding that music is a rare arena where religious affiliation does not matter. "You have Hindu singers and Muslim singers performing together in a way that is unimaginable. I think we need to cherish this."

Reported by Terasa Younker