Editor’s note: As part of Margazhi.org’s March tribute to women in the performing arts, we are happy to share content contributed by our patrons and subscribers and writers. In this series, we are happy to present the first – an article by Dr.Nita Vidyarthi – who has written a tribute to some of the Kolkatta women who have left an indelible mark in the minds of connoisseurs. Read on and let us know if you have similar thoughts to share or women that you would like to pay tribute to. Mail us at editor@margazhi.org. 

Author: Nita Vidyarthi; Image Courtesy: tamilnation.com, songbird.me,eadt.co.uk; chandrakantha.com

The contribution  of women of  Kolkata  in Classical Music and Dance has long been a matter of pride for the country. Many have by now become history, but the memories of its glorious past linger in the minds of not only the audience but also of practitioners, teachers, scholars and the common man and some vestiges of its achievements can still be witnessed.

The dancers and Baijis many of  whom moved  down from the North, settled around the Bow Bazaar area possessed  a treasure trove of music and dance. The first to be mentioned is the legendary Gauhar Jaan, (26 June 1873-17January 1930), a premier vocalist in Kolkata in the musical world of 1890-1910 and also a  Kathak dancer , a disciple of the legendary Bindadin Maharaj.
Frederick William Gainsberg  of  The Gramaphone Company, established in 1898 came down from England to record  her singing in the “First dancing Girl, Calcutta”. The label First indicated not only  her elevated position but the her pioneering art of mastering the technique of condensing the  performance of elaborate melody of the Hindustani Classical music  in just 3 ½ minutes, thus becoming a role model to the vocalists of future. India’s first disc, 78 rpm.  had Gauhar singing  a Khayal in raag Jogiya  recorded in November 2, 1902 in a makeshift recording   studio in a 2-roomed hotel in Kolkata  with a princely amount of Rs3000. That one bold step changed the face of Indian Classical music! She ruled the world of Indian music and  popularised  light Hindustani classicals, “Kachha Gana” through her  about 600 records ,composed Ghazals and could sing in 10 different languages including French, English, Persian Arabic and Pushto. So her training and style reached out to a wider range of audience. This was remarkable as several Ustads those days ignored  the recording medium completely and  Gauhar recorded  the music taught to her  by her Ustads .This helped in racing the development of Indian Classical music and preserving  our musical tradition of at least 3-4 generations preceding her own! These were the  glorious days of  musical history shared by other women  singers of raga-based songs from stage , Harimoti, Sushila, and the acclaimed Binodini Dasi (1863-1942) whose contribution to the success and development of Bengali Classical songs were immense, the most important  being their communication with the connoisseurs as well as the lay  audience.

The early nineties saw  Dipali Nag and Malabika Kanan , vocalists of rarity  contributing  not only with their teaching and performances but  by helping students to gain a footing in the field.  Sandya Mukherjee , the President of the West Bengal State Music Academy a distinguished , vocalist  along with member- Secretary Malabasree Das with Kaushiki Banerjee organise regular  training, workshops, competitions, performances  including the prestigious annual Uday Shankar Dance Festival inviting dancers from home and abroad, thus giving an opportunity of learning, educating  and entertaining.

ITC Sangeet Research Academy boasts of Gurus like Vidushi Girija Devi, Subhra Guha and Kaushiki Chakravarty Desikan to train scholars many free of costs and conducts short term music appreciation courses, also free. The  internationally renowed veteran Sitarist  Joya Biswas,  a disciple of  the legendary Pandit Ravi Shankar , dissipated her knowledge through performances and teaching . Bengals’s own  Bishnupur Gharana,  has really no female vocalist but a young sitarist Mita Nag, daughter  and disciple of the distinguished Monilal Nag in the male-dominated domain propagating the nuances of this rare Gharana.  Rupasree Bhattacharya is the only female Harmonium player  an accomplished  vocalist too who have accompanied the top musicians of the Hindustani  classical music. Acclaimed  Singer  Riddhi Bandopadyaya ‘s  endeavour of collecting , documenting and performing the  songs of the Baijis of Bengal is a path-breaking effort of preserving and enriching the field of classical/semi-classical  vocal   music. And then there is  27 year-old  Rimpa Shiva   one of the few female tabla-players of the Farukhabad style ,known for her incredible speed  and control, an idol for women wanting to break the preconception that tabla is the male -dominated instrument. Singer Sanchaita Chaudhuri’s effort of helping needy students  of Classical music under the banner of “Guru Parampara” cannot be overlooked.

In the field of dance, the distinguished  Manipuri  singer and dancer Guru Kalavati  Devi  is reworking  and salvaging the songs of Raas-leela and documenting  some of the lost dance movements together with her daughter Bimbavati. Guru Dr. Thankamani Kutty too not only  trains  but provides necessary back-up to stage their  skills  and be self sufficient. Her Classical Performing Arts Research Centre is providing a platform and elevating the status of Classical Music and Dance. Kathak danseuse Chetna Jalan offers dancers to stage their skills with free facilities of light and sound in her Padatik Buildwell Theatre together with a small Honorarium for them  every Friday evening. Oindrilla Dutt through her organisation Open Doors had promoted many a great dancer and singer like Priti Patel, Sharmila Biswas , Chitresh Das, Vani  Jayaram and others thus giving  Calcuttans an opportunity to watch and appreciate master performances. Then there is Darshan Shah of Weavers Studio for the Arts who has great strategies to present and elevate the classical arts  by organising shows both for the common public and niche audience.

The city has lots of them !

Effort comes  in all cases, directly  from  those trained performing artists , practitioners, teachers, the promoters of arts, those who help  or sponsor them  to perform and the  audience or listeners not to forget the critics and the media and almost all of them being women an image of “Stree-Shakti”.