Kanupriya Dhawan: Thank you for making time for this interview. First, if you could elaborate on the way your article is titled, ‘Celebrating her in Thumri’, as if ‘her’ i.e., Radha was just there. It became obvious that ‘her’ would be Radha.
Vidya Rao: Actually that title and the ‘her’ was from Harsha Dehejia’s book (Radha: From Gopi to Goddess, ed. Harsha V. Dehejia, New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2014). So, that title particularly was his. I think I might have just said something like ‘Radha and the Thumri Repertoire’ or something like that. But I think if you look at the entire range of titles they are like that: as you quite rightly mentioned, taking it as given that Radha is central to the book. And when you speak of the title, that’s what it’s focusses on. The titles flow from one to the other, which was missing in the initial title. So, for the title, I cannot claim credit.
K.D.: If you talk about thumri as a genre, how is it different from other genres? Also, how do you see the idea of the feminine and gender in thumri?
V.R.: This is a very long and big question. Yes, it is different from other genres, from what we call classical genres. For example, let us see the difference between khayal and thumri. It is, really, the kind of weightage that is given to the text in thumri. It’s not that the text is not important in khayal, it is there. Each musical form brings text and musical sound structure together in very specific ways. And that’s what really makes it what it is. To me, thumri does this in its own way which is commonly rendered as shabd pradhan. But you cannot actually say it as shabd pradhan because it’s not like a bhajan, a kirtan, not even like a ghazal. Though thumri singers sing ghazals they sing them in the style of thumri. The text in other forms is clearly primary and music has to serve the text. In thumri they go together. You really cannot say that one is more important than the other. The word becomes musical, and equally musical sounds in a sense almost start having a lexical meaning, they are not just music.
So, I feel that it’s a very, very special relationship between word and musical sounds in thumri. Which is why I think when thumri singers themselves speak of this style, they never use the word shabd pradhan, they will say bol bana. Kyunki bol ne usko banaya hai, ek hi bol lekar aur baar baar usko bolna. When you do that, actually you create ambiguities and uncertainties. Because if I take one word or one phrase out of an entire sentence, the meaning can be ambiguous. And I think, thumri actually plays with that sense of possibility of ambiguity, within every situation. I really love that about it. The uncertainties and ambiguities, it takes it very playfully. It’s almost a lesson in life because our lives are full of uncertainties and ambiguities. Sometimes I feel that that is the greatest lesson for me from thumri―to be playful about it―uske saath bol banao.
K.D.: Is there any gender connotation you see in this style?
V.R.: Yes, of course. In the most obvious way because traditionally it was sung mainly by women who were courtesans of male leaders. So, the whole issue of a gendered address is very much a part of the history of thumri singing. It is also gendered in the sense that the text is almost invariably—it is sometimes a little ambiguous—in the voice of a woman. People say there are some male voices also. But according to me the gender is just left ambiguous. It could be a sakhi speaking. This would actually take one to asking questions about who is speaking to whom, the relationship between them and what is the bhaav? So, it opens up to a lot of meanings and questions.
So, I feel it’s very open in a lot of sense. For me, thumri, in a way, has a much deeper sense also because it displays a kind of alternative way of speaking and expressing. Also to the norm in the ways that it produces itself, in the ways that it is sung, it extends the bandish. Women, being in a patriarchal society, are the ‘other’. They are not central. Until now when everybody has started saying ‘person’―this person or that person but otherwise, generally speaking, we do use the male connotation. It is taken that humanity is primarily male and women are an alternative kind of being. So, thumri poses this alternative. And for me it is important to see that as a position of strength, question and interrogation. I feel that it is important for us as women to rejoice and see the strength of being a voice in emergence, a voice that is not mainstream and the greater freedom to do a lot of things rather than to see weaknesses and problems. One has to also stand and oppose and deal with the problems which are on the ground.
It would be a very nice thing if the world were a little more feminine. Parita Mukta has come up with a very nice book about the communities of Meerabai. It’s called Upholding the Common Life in which she is talking about these mandalis in Rajasthan―these are male singers who sing Meerabai’s ghazals and she shows how these people who come from lower castes question certain attributes of society like feudalism through the voice of Mira. She uses a very beautiful phrase: ‘as if the world becomes strimaya’. I find that such an extraordinary thing and really in thumri this is exactly what happens. In thumri, it is really an art when singing the thumri the world becomes strimaya. You can question only things you are not comfortable with, right? And the world is not comfortable for women, for lower classes, lower castes, etc. They are the ones who are questioning here. So, it has the strength of asking questions, interrogating and, of saying and pointing out that something is not quite right here. But it also has a very big and beautiful virtue of doing this through thumri in a very beautiful and gentle fashion. Being beautiful doesn’t mean that it is less immediate or it has less impact. But it uses that quality of beauty, grace and fluidity for doing it.
K.D.: We are already talking about thumri as a format in itself, which enables certain things and probably represents a subject in a very different fashion from other genres like literature or art. So, how do you think the character of Radha is represented in thumri?
V.R.: It is very often that Radha is mentioned by name. Very often the figure is addressed as Krishna. Sometimes, the name is not mentioned but 'the one who is breaking pots' and doing such things is a reference to Krishna. It’s almost an archetype, right?
I think Radha is present within the thumri repertoire at all times because she is the nayika, an iconic nayika, in possibly all traditional arts. Certainly, in all the traditional performing arts she is there, in that energy; and in thumri definitely. I am assuming at times musicians have said, ‘yeh to Radha ka dil bol raha hai’ and there is no mention of Radha at all, not even a mention of Krishna, because it is assumed and taken for granted that she is the nayika. So, when the nayak speaks the nayika has to be Radha. For me it would be the all-pervasive presence of Radha within thumri. However, I will say that this does not mean that thumri is a bhajan, it’s not. It is not a devotional form. It is like a dhoop-chhaon so that that emotion comes in but it’s not the only thing. It is also a very, very secular, earthy and folk form.
K.D.: When exactly does thumri establish its presence in India?
V.R.: That is a big question. Actually, I feel that these questions asked about origins are highly problematic. Bahaut kuch kehte hain log ki, Oh tenth century mein form milta hai, fourth century mein form milta hai. The point is that to call it a form it has to have a certain kind of thumri. What we call thumri now is thumri because it has a certain kind of language and poetics. Until you have that kind of poetry and that particular kind of coming together of certain images which are coming from the bhakti traditions, riti kavya, Sufi philosophy, and from certain kinds of folk music, which is created in response to situations on the ground you cannot talk about a specific form. Like bidesiya songs, you find them arising at a particular point of time because of the shifts in agrarian structures and economies when men are migrating to new urban centers where there was possibility for work because there was no possibility to survive where they were living. And we find that now also that is happening―the rise and the collapse, forgetting of certain forms of folk music because of what is happening in the lives of people. So, I feel that all these things become important when we talk about a form. To that extent, then I would say the way a contemporary thumri singer imagines it—the thumri that I sing—can be seen somewhere from the late 18th century.
Again, these are questions many scholars debate and everybody has a different view about it. But I also think the kind of themes, language and musicality that seem to have come together at that point is very different from the thumri we sing. Things have changed. If nothing else has changed, the technology and of course context of the performance have. So, that’s why I say it is a kind of imagined moment for us. We say thumri or bandish dates back to that time, or the poets date back to that time, or there is something that we would connect from there, but actually the art form is something which is constantly being made. So, it is as if every point, every moment is a point of origin. That is why I hesitate to talk about origins, and that is partly because I am not trained to argue those questions, so that is better done by somebody else.
K.D.: There was an article, ‘Seeing Radha/ Being Radha’, in which you talk about the different personas that the character of Radha would exhibit. Could you please elaborate on this? Also, the complexity for a thumri singer, of having to really relate to this otherwise difficult character.
V.R.: Even if you look at the Bhakti repertoire you do not find a singular kind of persona; it is multiple and it is complex. And when you add to this the layer of thumri, which is a secular and very much a courtesan form, then you are adding yet another set of layers. The complexity just increases. Adding to this, the fact that it is we who sing in our time and with our histories. I really believe that it is important for us to understand that at the moment of singing, whoever I am―I may be a very ordinary singer and may be anything, or a non-singer even: it is I who is doing it, my life and history will interact with it and will come in. The way I think, the way I understand, what is important to me, it will come. The honesty and the focus with which a singer would address the histories with thumri, poetry, bhakti, Radha and the history of the singer in experience makes an individuated voice within a tradition. Kehte hain na, raag ko apnana chahiye, bandish ko apnana chahiye, this is part of it I think. Complexity toh hai hi. Where do you find one Radha? Kahin goddess hai, kahin bilkul mugdha nayika hai, kahin bade gusse se baat karti hai, kahin she is jealous. Even in the Bhakti tradition and in thumri, over the years you have added another set of layers.
K.D.: She is often called the uttam nayika. What are the real implications of uttam nayika and how does her character fit into that?
V.R.: She is supposed to be the uttam nayika. Literally, uttam nayika is the perfect nayika. So, she is the most perfect type of nayika. Of course, apart from being very beautiful there is also her personality. She never oversteps and stays within the so-called societal norms about how a woman should behave, and norms are a nice way of keeping women within limits. Like, don’t shout, don’t yell too much, don’t show your temper too much; you can be angry but you know you have to be angry in a very sweet, polite way, which is having more sadness than anger. But in thumri, because of the bol banao tradition, we are constant. This is the way I understand it, that we are constantly playing with who is speaking. Toh hum kuch keh sakte hain as an uttam nayika; hum kuch keh sakte hain as a mugdha nayika; as a mugdha who is an uttam nayika, and it can become a very ordinary, you know, samanya nayika.
K.D.: So, Radha becomes all of these? At times she is uttam nayika and then at some other time she is a different nayika?
V.R.: Yes. I don’t know if everyone would agree with me, because first of all somewhere Radha may not be mentioned at all. But, because there is this association that Radha is the nayika, the iconic nayika, she is present. As a thumri singer I am holding that in my mind; on the other hand, I am singing in a way that is constantly shifting, making it very unstable in a sense. Then, what is this Radha-ness? And I would say that the beauty of it is that there is no answer. There is only a question. And I am very happy to have only a question.
K.D.: The subjectivity of the singer itself in terms of what he or she thinks of Radha and is she the nayika, because if she is the…
V.R.: Yes, because if I was certain, somebody else may say that if this is about the uttam nayika, it is saying Radha alag kuvar samjhaye, toh yeh uttam hi ho sakkti hai. But somebody else may feel differently like, ismein thoda kuch aur bhi bhav la sakte hain. So, it is the way you want to approach the text; and somebody may like it, somebody else may not like it, but I find it very interesting to open up texts completely.
I mean, let me take a text which does not mention Radha. Now there is a bandish which has been sung but is not that popular, ‘daamini damke jiyera lal jaye, gal bayina dal sayina, badra garje’. Toh jab hum isko sunenge, humein yeh hi lagega ki yeh mugdha nayika hai, I mean, otherwise who is going to feel frightened of thunder? I mean specially living in this world, today, there are a lot more things to be frightened of than thunder. So, it is a mugdha nayika. On the other hand, let’s take the history of this bandish. An imagined history, where we don't talk about particular dates, but its historical context, a tawaif would have sung it, toh jitni bhi mugdha ho, according to her age, baichari she would have to be a bit knowing, nahi toh kacchha kha jaate log uss ko. She had to be a bit street smart. So, what is the song about then? How would she sing it? How would she address it in the bandish? And how would she address it in the performance?
There are two addresses, at least: two levels of address. Ek bandish mein, ek nayika keh rahi hai, ‘gar bayia, dal sayia, badra garje’ vahi cheez voh gaa ke, ek audience ko bhi sambodhit kar rahi hai. Toh yeh, in dono ka bhi ek khel hai, chuppan chuppai jaise jo bhi kahiye usko. There is a dialogue between these two forms of address―these two moments of address. There are the contexts of these addresses and speeches. How do they all come together? How do they all adjust for a space in the performance and within the text? Now to me, and I will say this again and again, certainties just collapse when you think of it this way. I don’t know anymore, it seemed in the initial hearing. Initially when I heard it I thought that this is the mugdha nayika, but when I think of all this I say ki mugdha hai or is she just pretending? Is this a ploy? Is this a little game? Is it just flirtation? What is it; pretense? And what happens if the tawaif is an old woman? Of course she will sing it as a mugdha, but the mugdha’s voice in an older body. What kind of meaning does that create? What kind of nayika does that create?
K.D.: Now that we are talking about the courtesans and singing, can you talk more about this overlap of Radha and the courtesan?
V.R.: I think when we sing thumri, we have the history of the courtesan, the historical context of the courtesan musicians, as well as the context of the performance for somebody like me or anybody of my generation, or even the younger generation, which is a very different context. Already two contexts are sort of negotiating for space. What is happening? But in the background there is this thought in one's mind that the nayika is Radha. So, a whole lot of contexts. And, which Radha? Who is that Radha? Is it the Radha of the Braj tradition? Is it the Radha of Wajid Ali Shah’s Raas? Is it the Radha of some other traditions? Which Radha are we speaking about? Even within the Vaishnavite tradition there are many interpretations. So, which one? To me this changing and shifting is beauty and that is the leela actually. And, to me, that finely constantly shifting is totally uncertain and ambiguous—that is the experience in a moment of what we might call leela. It is given to us for that moment.
K.D.: Why do you think it is the character of Radha only? Is it because she is the one who never enters the marriage structure and thus these ideas of swargiya and parakiya always revolve around this character? And an overlap can possibly happen?
V.R.: The thing is that Radha herself does not find a mention till much later. Even in Bhagavata Purana, she is not there. Raas is mentioned. One gopi gets a little upset, but who that gopi is we don’t know. She appears much later and then she is mentioned more and more. Once she appears, then it is as if the world of poetry, music, dance heaves a sigh of relief at finding the ultimate nayika. More and more is embellished―aur, aur, aur nikhaar hai. So, she is real. Just because she was not mentioned earlier does not mean she was not there. The first thing that we have to remember is that she has not always been there. Within the Vaishnavite tradition also Radha is perceived in very different ways. Not just in different times but even in different spaces and texts.
K.D.: Why only Radha? We never had any other character from the divine pantheon we talk about in the same light as Radha?
V.R.: Even the Swargiya–Parkiya distinction is to say ki yehi hai. Because actually there are songs within the Vaishnava padavalis which celebrate the marriage of Radha and Krishna. And they see her as married to him. There are many bandishes, many poets and much poetry, in which whether Radha is married or not is not the point, but she comes across as swargiya. She is so confident that she holds Krishna in her hand. Gadadhar Bhatta Radha ke bare me kehtein hain ki (mujhe exactly uske words yaad nahi aa rahe hain) vo uske jo bhanwar jaise naina hai, Krishna ke, yani ke idhar-udhar ghoomte rehte hain, kahin ek jageh tikte nahi hai, kabhi isko dekhte hain kabhi usko dekhte hain, usko pakad ke rakhti hai; voh kamal hai jo un bhanwar jaise naino ko pakad ke rakhti hai. Vo dori hai, sudori, jo unke mrig jaise naino ko pakad ke rakhti hai. To yeh hai ki voh swargiya hi hai. I mean the boy who is always looking at other women and making everybody feel so special, she, i.e., Radha is the only one who can hold him. So, if that is not seen as swargiya, what is? In a sense I think it is putting institutional marriage in its place. See anybody can be married but can anyone like Radha hold those flitting bee eyes? Bhanware jaise naino ko pakad ke rakh sakte hai kya? Only Radha can do it. I think that is a very important thing, especially for modern women to understand. And we know this, it happens with real women also.
But yes, what you are saying is interesting, because the great love stories within the Indian tradition, whether the Sufi balladic traditions or others, these are of a kind of love which does not end in marriage. Very often it is tragic love. People have many theories about it. Naina-ji, my guru, used to say: ‘Sita, Lakshmi, Savitri, are the appropriate role models for women. Sita, Savitri, they are very good wives. But, she would say this, humare liye Radha hai, because she risked everything for love. And that is the way you have to be―risk everything for love is also to risk everything for music. Krishna hai to music hai. I mean, for somebody who likes music it is your Krishna, your beloved and if somebody likes painting that is his/her beloved. You just risk everything and give up everything for it. Aur voh milta bhi nahi hai, as we know. It is always a yearning that you can never get there’. Naina ji would also say: ‘People like Sita and Savitri because there is the element of duty. As a wife it’s their duty. Radha ki koi duty nahi thi, unhone duty tod di. Jo bhi roodhiyan thi society ki she broke them all’. Radha went against every known rule: she was older to Krishna and she was married to somebody else. According to the stories that we are told, he never married her. He went away and then married so many other princesses.
K.D.: It is almost as if marriage was not really required.
V.R.: Yes. And in such huge extraordinary poetry traditions how much poetry is there about Rukmini? There is some in Kuchipudi but it is a very different kind of poetry.
K.D.: That is also an episode on Rukmini and her absence in Gujarat. Another question is that in the character of Radha we see shringar ras. How does character flower into bhakti ras and viraha as they say?
V.R.: Actually all musicians say this and Naina-ji would keep on repeating that shringar to rasraj hai. Everything is within that, shringar ke andar sab kuch hai. That is why it is rasraj. And she would say it very beautifully ki shringar ka rang, as everything has a colour, is blue because the sky is blue and the ocean is blue. So, it is infinite. Everything is there, jealousy, anger, viraha, the joy of meeting, nakhra, seriousness, duty, etc.
K.D.: And Radha is the perfect…
V.R.: She is the iconic nayika, so yes. But when you talk about bhakti, it itself is a very vast thing. I mean many people say it is a bhaav, it is an attitude. Abhi bhakti mein bhi kayi prakaar hote hain, vatsalya, dasya, madhurya, aadi. Madhurya bhakti mein shringaar aa jata hai. And it is considered again the highest, to love, to have Bhakti and to look upon the divine as your beloved. Just look at the poetry that is written or composed: everybody including Kabir, who is supposed to be very philosophical and a vairagya type, unke kavya mein bhi itna shringar hai.
K.D.: If we go back to Radha, what I understood from this interaction is, one, she has multiple representations, and two, it is very difficult to relate to her as a performer because of the complexity. Also, you once mentioned Sonal Mansingh’s representation of Radha.
V.R.: [laughs] That was very interesting. I can’t remember what performance this was. It was many years ago. She was doing this ashtapadi on chandana charchita neela kalebara peetavasana vanamalee keli chalanmani kundala mandita gandayuga smita/ Saleehaririha mugdha vadhoo nikare vilasini vilasati kelipare (Sri Krishna who is adorned with 'Tulsi' garland is smeared with sandalwood paste all over his bluish body. He is wearing yellow silk robes. While he is playing with Gopikas his gem-studded ear-rings were dangling beautifully. Srihari is enjoying sports of love with Gopikas in Vrindavana). It was as if this bandish, this ashtapadi, and this description of Hari/Krishna in the beautiful Vrindavan forest, in dalliance playfully with all these beautiful women, that the voice that was speaking was the voice of the bhakta/poet. So, the emotion was bhakti or adbhuta―adoration and amazement.
Sonal Mansingh, actually, shifted that into Radha’s mouth. That dialogue ki dekho kya kar raha hai! and all those emotions of shock, disbelief that this is what he is doing, flirting with all the other girls, emotions of anger, jealousy, a little bit of desperation, worry that mein kahaan hoon? Where am I? Who am I now? The text itself is just a statement. Hari is playing and dancing with these beautiful women in the forest wearing pitambar, but suddenly, the focus shifted to Radha and her emotions on perceiving this. And I found that very, very interesting. Certainly for me, as a thumri singer, it was a very important learning experience. It shaped the point of view, it gave me a lot of understanding and a way to understand bol banao―creating moment and character through the performance.
K.D.: Is that when you started engaging poetry into the character of Radha? Or was it when your guru spoke about Radha….
V.R.: As a child, a young girl, I went through a phase of very intense Krishna Bhakti. And when I was really convinced that if I wish hard enough I would transform into Vrindavan. Of course, I don’t think it ever happened. But as I grew there was a kind of way in which I was identifying with some characters, like Meerabai, for instance. They really resonated with me―that kind of devotion which was very different from the devotion of the male poets. Even when they speak as women, when they speak shringarik, it is very beautiful. But Meerabai’s voice is something else for me. This was how I was becoming aware of this character of Radha, her drama.
So, I think it was somewhere there at the back of my mind and then there was my own engagement with thumri which looked at devotion, love, shringarik attachment in a very similar way. But yet coming from another space and the complexity of that, there were questions about what are these spaces? And for me, why are both these spaces so interesting and attractive? Apparently opposing spaces. Of course, I would hear people/singers say different things. All these things became like little bits of tadka (spicing) to make my own dish. How do I put them together? How do I create a meaningful narrative for myself out of all this? When you start thinking, actually, every moment becomes an inspiration. Everything you see and hear tells you something. Sometimes, even just sitting in a bus, somebody behind you say something and you say, ‘Oh my god, that reminds me…!'
K.D.: Just to put everything together, who exactly is Radha, for you? What is your version of Radha?
V.R.: I don’t know. If I knew that would be like saying that she is finite and I do not believe that the nayika is finite. I think we can only keep searching and discovering, every day. And I specifically said nayika, I did not say Radha. Because when I said that she is not finite, I don’t want this to be read or being put out there as a spiritual thing, it is not. It is everything. Everything is like that. The world is like that; it has no end. I mean if you were to ask me about the nature of a flower, how can I tell you? It is eternally full of mystery. And that is what it is. So, is the beloved eternal when we speak of Krishna as being Naval? Naval ka voh hi matlab hota hai na ki hamesha naya. It is exactly what Shakespeare says about Cleopatra: 'custom cannot stale her infinite variety'. You can never get to the end of that. And that is what is so wonderful and beautiful―that is the nayika, that is a thumri, that is the nature of my child. I mean it is my child that I am supposed to know. But no, I don’t. I mean, every moment will be as if I have seen something else. So yes, that is the nature of Radha for me. But I will say that is also the nature of the world, in that sense Radha is the world and the world is Radha; nayika is the world and the world is nayika.