Titles hurt. Their absence hurts even more. The compulsion to write world-renowned tabla maestro Anuradha Pal’s name without the celebratory prefix “Ustad” or “Pandit” or “Vidwan” (in the Carnatic tradition) is no editorial fallacy. This norm—of delaying or refusing a title to a woman artiste is a royal remnant of the patriarchal hangover the Hindustani tradition of music and dance suffers from. Today, women maestros—and only vocalists among them—are addressed with the title of “Vidushi” before their name. Anuradha, a rebel in the male bastion of tabla maestros is merely addressed as “India’s leading woman percussionist.” This routine description, no matter how unsavory, works for itself in a complicated scenario.
Anuradha, who was taught by the world-renowned percussionist late Ustad Alla Rakha Khan and his son Ustad Zakir Hussain had to fight many a ‘gender battle’ during her initial days as a musician. She says “Once a senior maestro said during a rehearsal that I was best suited to play the vilambhit (the slow composition) as his younger brother would be given the drut (compositions in a faster tempo) to play. I asked what he really meant. He cheekily said that he wanted to save a woman from all that hard work. Why? Was it jealousy? Or was it outright nastiness?”
Who had known that a woman would accomplish what her male contemporaries wouldn’t? Anuradha is many legends in one. She is a soloist like no other and an accompanying artiste with the sensibilities of a vocalist and a non-percussionist.
Her band Streeshakti—where she performs with a number of women artistes of the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, like Ghatam Sukanaya and well-known saxophone artiste Lavanya—is more music than gender. Her other band, Recharge, a world music venture that performed to five lakh people at Woodstock, is her eccentric alter ego. Anuradha says, “In 1996, when Streeshakti was founded, we kept the ensemble restricted to percussion. Gradually, I felt we could reach a wider audience with vocals, stringed and wind instruments.”
Streeshakti is an open band. The members keep changing as Anuradha travels to different cities in India and abroad. “It helps me keep the band musically flexible. Sometimes I meet the artistes a few hours before the concert and we perform after a couple of hours of jamming,” she says. Streeshakti revolves around classical melodies and rhythmic structures woven over laya and taalas from the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions. Streeshakti’s woman power resides in this aspect. The band performed Vatapi Ganapatim at her concert in the capital recently. Will she like to break away from the trend of performing popular compositions in Streeshakti? “I am not comfortable jamming on stage. I want to keep it balanced between melodies and a flowing jugalbandi,” Anuradha says.
While Anuradha learnt under the Punjab gharana of tabla, her playing style betrays a repertoire that is scientifically a blend of the best (in moods). It has come out of doing what the most heroic women do—soak, sense, seek and “surrender.” Anuradha carries the methodical intuition of her own Ustads, their clarity and showmanship in finger movements. Then, she has the dynamism, temperament and the ‘presence’ of Pandit Kishan Maharaj, the tough lure for softness and detail of Pandit Shanta Prasad and a shooting madness for intrinsic fireworks of Ustad Ahmad Jan Thirakwa. She is, very much, today’s surbahar maestro Annnapurna Devi who had become like a confluence of the energy and thought owing to the presence, training and company of the greatest three men around her (her father Ustad Allauddin Khan, her brother, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and her love Pandit Ravi Shankar).
The conversations between the artistes in Streeshakti belong to different moods. Sometimes, it’s a vivacious chirpy girl talk through the way the artistes mull over the sound in their instruments. At other times, the conversations (and jugalbandis) are like the deep and sombre musings between thoughtful women.
Anuradha adds, “The milestone moment for Streeshakti was when we began the use of lakshan geet (raga-based compositions that speak of the flow and nature of the raga they are tuned in) and the different jaatis (the categories in which ragas are divided according to their structure and nature). We have also explored the complex cycles between the wide range of five and eight beats.”
Anuradha, like Streeshakti needs audience for her music, more than the gender.