NEW DELHI: IT takes some grit and a whole lot of untrammelled determination to write a book with the brutal understanding that its fate is uncertain, largely because of its subtext. When Requiem in Raga Janki, published by Penguin was being penned down by author Neelum Saran Gour, bouts of unpredictably surfaced, only to be met with intense opposition.
The life of Hindustani singer Janki Bai Ilahabadi, was an illustrious one in the Allahabad of early twentieth century, but the passing years couldn’t retain the gleam of her glorious story. For Gour that was rather pitiful. So, not caring about who would read the book, she still decided to work on the manuscript that would trace back the remarkable journey of the life and time of Janki Bai Ilahabadi, who, from a naïve and trusting young girl went on to become a savvy women, creating ripples of admiration wherever she went.
Once the book was published, a pleasant surprise awaited Gour. She found that the book, indeed, had a large audience that was interested in the singer’s eventful story.
For a woman who counted Maharajas, Maharanis, nobles, poets, scholars and others such, as her admirers, it’s unfortunate that Janki Bai is rarely spoken of today. She recorded close to 150 music records, the first one recorded in 1907, at the peak of the flourishing Avadhi culture. But today, she is simply a fleeting memory.
A visit to ITC Kolkata a long time back, bought Gour’s attention to Janki Bai. Some years after that, she stumbled upon her story while working on another assignment. “I loved the authentic being behind the star. The person behind the persona. And since I was familiar with the period she lived in, I went on to learn more,” says Gour.
To her advantage, the author had sharp comprehension of Hindustani music. It came in handy while writing this book. She owes it to her father’s assiduity towards the art form.
Requiem in Raga Janki has been written from a realistic, humane point of view. It’s an evocative account of a women surviving 56 knife gashes by a rebuffed lover (that gained her the name chappan churi). It’s a riveting account of a legendary singer, who though, grew up in a nautch house, rose to be the most sought after singer in the courts of Allahabad.
The businesses of telling stories goes through her books goes on just like the business of living, for Gour. Though, one’s truth and one’s narrative are often divergent things, she points out. “One’s self is a thread of episodes arranged selectively to support our interior story, with lots changed and edited to suit the economy of life management. The gaps constitute the roads I haven’t taken. One of the most significantly absent things in my life is the person’s whose voice you hear in my books,” she says, adding, “You just wouldn’t connect with the person I seem to be in my day-to-day existence. Much of my life goes in coping with middle class pressures.”
In the brouhaha of everyday busy life, Gour hasn’t found the time to wonder about who she is? Her books know her better than she knows herself, she says. She is persistent, lives in the quotidian present and is grossly allergic to power displays and imposters. She enjoys reading, specially books that time travel into a period with characters who made them a time worth living in, she shares. One such is a women called Janki Bai Ilahabadi.