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Requiem in Raga Janki

A book that highlights the independence and achievements of a lone woman in the Raj era where majority bowed to patriarchal norms even in the West, revisited by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Requiem in Raga Janki

Author: Neelum Saran Gour

Publisher: Viking

Janki Bai Illahabadi (1880-1936) was one of the first recorded artists of India, an artist whose records can still be found and whose voice can still be heard. She was a courtesan, an Indian classical singer with an extensive training in the field by great maestro Ustad Hassu Khan. Born to Shivbalak and Manki, a family of sweets sellers in Benaras, tragedy befell her family when her father left the house in search of his mistress. Her mother was then betrayed and duped by one of her friends and sold to a kotha[1] in Allahabad. It was then that Janki was introduced to those dingy alleys of Allahabad where she could have easily faded into oblivion amidst the sea of unfortunate women like her. But that wasn’t meant to happen. For her mother recognised her talent and arranged for her to be mentored by the great master. The rigorous training bore fruit when she was invited to sing in a royal court. So enchanted was the Maharaja that she was lavished with riches along with a high praise. She then rose to become one of the greatest singers of the time and performed alongside legends like Gauhar Jaan (1873-1930).

One of the famous anecdotes about her life is that she had received fifty-six (chhappan) knife wounds while very young but had miraculously survived them. She then came to be known as Chhappan Chhuri Wali[2]and slowly, over time, it acquired the meaning we are now acquainted with. Today in Hindi, the phrase is used to refer to a haughty woman.

Requiem in Raga Janki is a heavily fictionalised biography of the singer written by Neelum Saran Gour who works as a Professor of English Literature at the University of Allahabad. She has authored six novels, four short story collections, two works of non-fiction, and has translated one of her novels from English to Hindi. Requiem In Raga Janki had won The Hindu Prize for Fiction in the year the book was published, 2018.

In her attempt to tell the story of the once famous songstress, the author succeeds in making Janki Bai come out of dark alleys of obscurity and claim her long lost place of recognition. Gour not only explores her journey to becoming a famous courtesan but also, through her vivid imagination, she tries to explore Janki as a woman fraught with anxieties about love, religion, relationships and fame. Gour undertakes to give her a voice since voices like hers have easily been forgotten and have not been accorded due reverence in the popular culture.  To forget these voices is akin to forgetting a past which is as much a part of our history as it is of our musical heritage. Gour’s work thus deserves more recognition.

To begin with, author’s depth of research — on Janki, on the time she lived in, the customs and social mores, on the history of classical singers and on the knowledge of ragas, is apparent in her writing. Add to it her flawless writing, attention to detail, an evident grip on the vernacular, lucid and almost poetic prose and what we have is a book that is unputdownable from beginning to end. 

In the very well-crafted narrative, we not only become privy to the real incidents in Janki’s life, her journey to fame but also to the fact that she was a gifted poetess as well. At author’s deft hand, Janki’s conversations with famous poet, Akbar Illahbadi (1846-1921), with whom she shared a good rapport in her lifetime, glitter with beautiful couplets. Though Janki’s couplets are mainly taken from her work Diwan-e-Janki, the couplets that had been attributed to poet Akbar are composed by Gour herself, whose eloquent rendition leaves the reader enraptured.

This book is a beautiful tale of the life a singer who carved her own destiny and lived life on her own terms, in times when women were generally subjugated and confined to roles given by society.


[1] Brothel

[2] Survivor of 56 stabs by knife

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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