Naina Devi, leading exponent of thumri in the country, and Sadhona’s sister talks to Partha Basu of her life, her childhood and her family.
Naina Devi has lived an extraordinary life. The youngest of Keshab Chandra’s granddaughters, she married into the Royal House of Kapurthala halfway through her teens. Naina became Rani Nina Ripjit Singh. In Kapurthala, all the music, the dancing, the stage, the totality of an emancipated and creative ambience became a distant echo.
It would have remained just that, but her husband’s sudden death in 1949 trapped her in a dangerous game of palace intrigue. Luckily, she escaped, but shorn of almost everything. It was a black phase, a struggle to live, a slow wasting away. Until a brief memory from the past flared up in her. The memory of an old woman in the first wash of light over the oldest city in the universe… and a plaintive thumri that flowed with the great river, taking her from one truth to a greater truth.
She began to learn to sing again, under Gulham Sabir Khan of Ambala, Ustad Mushtaq Husain Khan of Rampur and the great Rasoolanbai of Benaras. The voice was now richer, tempered, and the delicacy of her bols closer to life. She became, and is today, the leading exponent of thumri in the country, specializing in the Purab-ang.
Those terrible years in the wilderness had sensitized Naina Devi to the trauma of love held back and today her Delhi home is a refuge for the down-and-out artiste. Every musician in the walled city, from the best-known sarangi player to the lowliest qawwal, knows her as a friend in need. She pioneered the Bharat Kala Kendra and founded Raag Rang, that unique artistes colony in Munirka, beside the JNU.
For Naina Devi it is not enough to be able to sing well. With her, in their final, tormented years, Rasoolanbai and Bade Gulam Ali Khan and the family of Shambhu Maharaj found the sustenance and care the world was no longer prepared to give them.
It is late evening and half of Calcutta is blacked out. Naina Devi wears chiffon of the palest green which counterpoints the colour of her eyes. She is small, tidy and serene. Life has impacted deeply on her face, but the husky, benedictine quality of her voice evokes memories of summer evenings. It reminds us of when we were young.
To us, who do not belong, the Bramho Samaj projects a somber, even severe, image devoid of exuberance and laughter. A number of creative people, some of them Bramhos, have said this. How was it for you, as children, growing up as Keshab Sen’s granddaughter?
Naina Devi – On the contrary, it was a lovely atmosphere full of music and dance. We belonged to the Naba Bidhan established by him and for us children, it was great fun. The Utsavs meant celebrations. Everyone was highly musical, my brother Sunith and my cousin Kumar Kanak Narain who was considered a rebel because he joined the professional stage at a time when everyone was giving it a bad name. This was really an aspect of Samaj emancipation.
Sadhona, I presume, got right into the spirit of things?
Naina Devi – We all did. Mejdi (Sadhona) was a brilliant mimic. My elder aunt, the Maharani of Cooch Behar, had a tremendous dramatic flair and during the Kalpataru, on November 10, she would narrate the story of Keshab’s birth, to the Samaj, in ringing, allegorical tones. Later, at home, Mejdi would dress up like her and imitate her, octave for octave!
What about formal training?
Naina Devi – Our home had so much music! There wasn’t an ustad who hadn’t performed there. Enayat Khan Saheb, Girija Chakravarty, Ustad Mehndi Hassan, Abdul Aziz Beenkar of Patiala who invented the Vichitra Veena, Khalifa Abid Hussain from Lucknow, Hafiz Ali Khan, Keramatullah Khan, Raichand Boral… so many of them! Mejdi learnt piano and at four, I could play the harmonium as well as I can today. We started singing lessons with Girija babu together, he was a purist so it was the same raag arana for about two years. I had the patience. Mejdi hadn’t. She said, I can’t go on singing ‘Mudri mori kahe ko cheen li..‘ for another two years! We also learnt from Zameeruddin Khan Saheb and Kumar Sachindev Barman.
Sadhona had already started to reject the traditional strait-jacket?
Naina Devi – Actually, she wanted to achieve too much too soon. But it was great fun.
Weren’t there studies? School?
Naina Devi – Of course. There was a lot of goings on about that. But we were captivated. And determined to become absolutely great artistes. I suppose in a way both of us made it.
You think Sadhona was very good?
Naina Devi – She was a genius.
Naina Devi, Sadhona as a child was high-strung, shy, afraid-of-thedark. Was there anything here that impacted on her later life?
Naina Devi – No. Except.. maybe… she was too tightly wound up,
We have read about her great first performance in Naba Brindaban playing Lord Krishna. Wasn’t that when Modhu Bose saw her, in 1928?
Naina Devi – Yes. Initially he was Modhu Mama to us. His father, the geologist P N Bose who discovered those huge iron ore deposits in Mayurbanj for the Tata Iron & Steel Company, and my grandfather on my mother’s side were close friends. Modhu wanted Mejdi and me for his Alibaba chorus and we did that. One day he sang for us in his pure beautiful voice. Mejdi was just 13. She was smitten. That’s how it started, really. They married in 1930.
Child marriage, almost. How did your family react to a 15 year-old girl marrying a man 16 years older?
Naina Devi – Oh, everyone tried to stop that marriage. But she was sick with love for him. She actually fell sick and Dr Bidhan Roy, I remember, examined her and said, “There’s nothing the matter with you,” and Mejdi said, “Yes there is; Modhu isn’t here with me.” She kept falling sick. In the end we had to consent.
Infatuation? A father figure?
Naina Devi – Hero worship, really. She was hopelessly romantic. She thought, What a wonderful world it would be, to love the intellectual and creative Modhu!
They married in 1930, you said. But soon there were problems?
Naina Devi – Yes. It quickly developed into a love-hate relationship.
Why the hate?
Naina Devi – You see… what can one say… the fact…
Was the marriage never consummated?
Naina Devi – There was a clash of, egos. And resentments… fights. Both were famous, highly talented, terribly opinionated. They meet only on an intellectual plane, which is all right for platonic relationships. But in a marriage that is hardly enough.
Then there was the void created by the absence of children.
Naina Devi – Naturally. When she saw my first child, she picked him up and wept. “I have no chance,” she said.
The physical need was never fulfilled.
Naina Devi – This is what brutalized her, finally. Brought out the terrible black side of her mind. In the beginning, Mejdi subjugated herself to his personality. But when she found fame and he started playing second fiddle to her in the 1936-’44 period, he started resenting her. She reacted violently to this. They were great egotists, both of them.
Why didn’t she just leave Modhu?
Naina Devi – She couldn’t. She loved him, you see.
But Modhu Bose left her, right?
Naina Devi – Yes, he left her. She was alone, drinking, breaking-up in Bombay. But her public didn’t know. The show went on.
Did she take lovers? Someone called her the Indian Mona Lisa; and she was fabulously talented…
Naina Devi – That’s the point, you see! As far as she was concerned, Modhu was the only one. Intellectually, the rest were dirt. We saw it coming with all that public recognition. She developed a towering ego. Maybe she made that painfully clear to her contemporaries, who lacerated her when they had their chance. All creative persons are great egotists.
Naina Devi – Of course. I feel terribly hurt when someone upsets it.
Do you walk off the stage in the middle of a performance?
Naina Devi – No, because I’ve learnt to control myself. But I have it, oh yes!
So it was ego. And then the drinking. Tell me, who gave her that first drink?
Naina Devi – Sadhona was never physically strong. She kept falling ill. Once in Bombay, 1938 I think at the Capitol, she was too sick to move. Modhu said, Here have this and you’ll be fine. He was a hard drinker. That was how it started.
I understand that towards the end, it was eau de cologne, spirits, aqua pytochotis, anything that kicked.
Naina Devi – And she was so cunning…
Alcoholics, drug addicts anyone who needs a fix to live out the next couple of hours are that way…
Naina Devi – Sadhona conned her family, the neighbors, the few friends who remained, even co-patients in a hospital she was sent to, just for a drink. She screamed for it, blamed her family, lied for it! It’s horrible what it did to her… took away everything she had. Sunith and his wife, we all, tried to help. But she had crossed the last frontier. Those final years were hell. They faced it. The gossips blamed them for not caring. The gossips did not have to live with what she had become. My beautiful, talented sister… .
I saw Sesher Kabita in 1956. The last poem. Her swan song. She was great in it. The problem didn’t show. I’m also told that a few months before she died, she was furious with someone who, at a party, was not photographing her from her most flattering angle.
Naina Devi – Oh, it did show a little, physically. But emotionally it was all over.
Meena Kumari once said that she drank to remember. Sadhona?
Naina Devi – She wanted to forget what she had become. I think Modhu finally realized what he had done to Sadhona. What they had done to each other. Destroyed each other totally. I tell you, it was an amazing relationship. Sometime in the 60s, Modhu came back. He was skidding then. He brought her out of some flea-bag city hotel where she was staying, to live with him in Karnani Estates. Two brilliant, once-famous people in a seedy one-room flat. When Modhu died in 69, Sadhona was the only one near him. They loved and hated each other violently. She died four years later. In those last years, Sunith tried to look after her as best he could. For three months he looked after her. The last thing he told me was, thank God Sadhona died when she did because what would have happened to her if she hadn’t?
Coming now to your life, there’s something which I wanted to ask you the first time we met. Why did you change your name?
Naina Devi – Well, to cut a long story short, I had to do it when I started singing so that no one would know who I really was. If my public knew my real background they would have said, That sort of non-professional woman is not-going to be able to sing thumris. I was going through hell, then. My husband died in 49 and there was a palace intrigue. It separated my father-in-law, the brother of the raja, from me. There were threats… they poisoned his mind against me… you know how it is…
I escaped to a farm with my children. I had nothing, but I didn’t tell anyone in Calcutta because they were having a problem with Mejdi and I didn’t want to be an additional burden. That’s when I decided to train myself to sing again. I’ll tell you something only a few know. When I was young my mother took me to Benaras. I vividly remember the Ahalyabai Ghat with all its niches and in one of them lived an ancient woman… enormous eyes, close-cropped hair and every morning she sang to the river and the steps: He Govinda rakha saran, ab to jeevan harey.. It came back to me after all those years.
Great. So there was no music in your husband’s home?
Naina Devi – Only during Holi or Dassera or marriages. I always used to get my husband to have mujras. This shocked the others, but I used to listen and after the performance I talked to the baijis. I built up a major part of my mujras. This shocked the others, but I used to listen and after the performance I talked to the baijis. I built up a major part of my repertoire from those mujras. Later, Rasoolanbai was a surrogate mother to me.
Why did you not adopt the khayal?
Naina Devi – You see, by then I had passed the age when khayal riaz must commence. I would have been no more than mediocre. Moreover, there was a dearth of specialization in thumri.
A sensible move…
Naina Devi – Hmm, I see. You must understand that my only real links were with Benaras and with those baijis who did those mujras at our place. My first love was thumri.
And what about the future, the thumri parampara? I mean people want either khayal or ghazal. Is anyone coming in, in between?
Naina Devi – Well, the future is quite bleak. There is Rita Ganguly and Sobha Gurtu whose mother Menakabai had an excellent bhao. Sipura Bose from Calcutta is very talented but her background, middle-class, gets in the way. I really think that a middle, upper-middle class background is a major handicap for women who want to sing classical, professionally. It is very difficult even today, to gain acceptance.
And shed the identification with the baiji baiji ethos? You didn’t seem to mind
Naina Devi – On contrary I wanted it. There had to be no connection with Rani Nina Ripjit Singh. The subterfuge was so successful that once, when someone organized a twaif’s sammelan, they invited me. Oh yes, amongst the men, in the Punjabi thumri there is Munnawar Ali Khan and in the tappa there is just Girija Devi and myself.
Thank you, Naina Devi. Its very late, so just one last question. Both Sadhona Bose and Naina Devi topped their respective fields. But then, Sadhona couldn’t control either her fame or her life. Naina Devi, in spite of everything, has handled both very well. How?
Naina Devi – I’ve learnt a lesson from her life. I’ve seen how she destroyed herself and I’ve been acutely conscious of that fact. You must nurture your creative power, not allow it to destroy you. I saw her and that has given me the control one must have over one’s life and work. To come anywhere near greatness (As told to Partha Basu in 1983, The Illustrated Weekly of India).