Even though her mother turned her face away at her birth, she was born and brought up in a liberal family. The Sens encouraged their children, two boys and three girls, to study and also to sing, dance, and write. The girls went to school, uncommon for girls in those days. This was Calcutta about one hundred years ago, and the family belonged to Keshub Chandra Sen, a prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj of his time. Sarat Chandra Sen, one of his sons, and his wife Nirmala, or Nellie as she was popularly known, were the parents of Nilina, who was born on September 27, 1917.
Nilina and her elder sister, Sadhona, both beautiful and talented, grew up and went their different ways. Sadhona became an actress, receiving adulation for her dancing and acting, and was to die later as an unhappy person, troubled by the problems of her personal life. An interesting episode from their early lives left a lasting impression. Nilina was taken to the theatre by one of her father’s cousins, Panchukaka. The play featured Angurbala, who was a famous actress and singer in those days. Nilina sat enthralled through the performance: “such a beautiful woman, such wonderful singing”. Later, Panchukaka secretly took the young girl to see Angurbala in her house in Masjid Bari. This star of Minerva Theatre was kind to the young girl. She sang for her, even giving the young girl her telephone number and telling her that she could call and then Angurbala would sing for her again. Angurbala kept her promise. She sang for the little Nilina and Sadhona with whom Nilina had shared her secret. The two girls started dreaming of becoming famous singers, living in big houses in Masjid Bari, when people would come to their mehfils to hear them sing, little knowing what it meant to be a professional woman singer, a tawaif.
Nilina’s elder brother, Sunith, regularly organized concerts in their house, inviting such artistes as Enayat Khan, Mehdi Hussain Khan, and Girija Shankar Chakravarty, though no mehfil of professional women singers was ever organized. This absence was made up for by a wealthy merchant in a neighbouring house who organized every night the mehfil of the singer, Srijan Bai. Nilina also found a way to hear the most famous tawaifs of those days. She forced her parents to take her once to a banquet followed by a naach, in response to an invitation that came from Emerald Bower, a stately house owned by the Tagore family. From behind the screen on the first floor and in the company of the begum of Rampur, the young girl saw and remembered them all: Rattan Bai, Jaddan Bai — the mother of the film star, Nargis; Janki Bai, Angurbala, and, of course, Gauhar Jan, the queen of the tawaifs of her time.
They sang thumris, which is above all a musical expression of love in all its nuances. It is believed that the thumri travelled to Calcutta with Wajid Ali Shah, the deposed nawab of Awadh who was exiled in 1858. With the exiled nawab came a retinue of courtiers and also singers, dancers, poets, craftsmen, not to forget cooks. Calcutta could thus enjoy both biryani and the bhav of thumri. Nilina’s aunts knew popular thumris.
Nilina’s interest in music went deeper. She was to get proper training in it from Girija Shankar Chakravarty, from whom she learnt it for nine years. There was, though, a break in her musical journey which came in the form of marriage. Ripjit Singh of the royal family of Kapurthala was in Calcutta when he visited the Sens, heard Nilina sing, and fell in love with her. He refused to leave Calcutta till he had the consent of the parents, Nilina’s and his own. This is how she became a young rani of the Kapurthala rajwada and thus began a new life, organizing banquets for her father-in-law to which all of them came, “viceroys, nawabs, maharajas, civil servants”. This was also a time of silence for her when she heard others sing but did not sing herself except when she hummed privately to herself or for her husband. She remembered well how once when she and her husband drove from Delhi to Shimla she sang all the way in the car.
This time passed as well. Soon after the couple had celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary in Calcutta on August 14, 1949, Ripjit Singh died suddenly. She was now an outsider in the home of her husband. She had the choice of returning to her mother, who was still alive, in Calcutta. After undergoing a period of loneliness, misery and uncertainty, she made her choice. Her children were in boarding schools. Donating three hundred acres of agricultural land in Rajanagar to the area’s landless peasants, she severed all ties with her princely life. Even her beautiful clothes and jewellery were given away.
She moved to Delhi. Nilina Sen became the first director of the institution that is now known as the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Then began an indefatigable life devoted to the cultivation of music. She went on to become programme director at All India Radio and later at Doordarshan. In creating a musical space for others, she began to sing as well. She changed her name to Naina Devi, for it was still not considered proper for ‘respectable’ women to sing in public, especially the thumri. The name hid her identity and yet privately linked her with an unknown woman whom she had heard as a child near the Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi, and who left an impression with her voice and large beautiful eyes. This woman wore the white sari of a renouncer. She was perhaps once a famous tawaif. Yet another tawaif of Varanasi, Rasoolan Bai, taught her the nuances of singing thumri. Moreover, she had already started learning at the Kendra from Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan. By the time Naina Devi died in 1993, she had created a name for herself, winning recognition with the Padma Shri in 1974 and other awards. Perhaps, her greatest satisfaction came when she was invited to sing in the All India Tawaifs’ Conference. For her, this meant that upon listening to her nobody could say that she was not a traditional singer of thumri.
This is the story told by Vidya Rao in her sensitive book, Heart to Heart: Remembering Nainaji (2011). Vidya Rao was her student. During the period she knew Nilina, Vidya Rao listened to her, seena-ba-seena, ‘heart to heart’, to her music and her story. It will not do to overlook the fact that this is also a story of another woman, the woman who wrote this book. Ever respectful towards her teacher, walking at least two steps behind her, Vidya Rao gives away something of the story of a woman who learnt from her teacher in the latter’s life and still does so after her death. On the last page of the book, she writes that in the “absent presence” of her teacher she is being taught yet another lesson, to find her own path, to sing her own song.
Vidya Rao places before her readers the story of a remarkable woman who from her early Brahmo background became a rani and then aspired to sing like a tawaif, in search of herself, her vocation as a singer. Even though the Sen family was liberal, this course of life was not expected, nor desired. This story concerns itself with the price and the possibility of finding an independent artistic space for oneself for a talented woman, more so when such a choice goes against conventions and the notion of respectability. A piece of advice that Vidya Rao received from her teacher was never to be ashamed to sing the form that was once sung by those great women who were not considered ‘respectable’. “Always bring to your singing,” she had said, “the memory of these women and their pain.”
There are undoubtedly differences in the life experiences of men and women. It is touching when Vidya Rao says that most women in patriarchal societies experience themselves as eternal outsiders, belonging nowhere and with nothing belonging to them. In another place, she raises the issue of loving others and not losing oneself in it. Such are the issues, among others, that arise from this story of these two women. We need to reflect on the ways in which times have changed across generations. I wish to add that the issues of belonging and loving touch men too, perhaps differently. An exploration of that theme will require, though, another story that must be told as movingly as this story.