CUSP music festival: Battling stereotypes, Rumi Harish explores musical space beyond the realms of gender, caste and religion

  • Rumi notes that manifestation of guilt in a student, the necessity to be critical of one’s own action, leads to the perpetuation of stereotypes in classical music rather than tradition.

  • Venturing out of orthodox grammar, Rumi started exploring the khyal sangeeth which discusses every day’s life as it goes on.

  • He stepped out of realms of gods and goddesses, changed his idea of bhakti, and instantly fell in love with khyal.

For a Hindustani classical vocalist, Rumi Harish is oddly dressed, but delightfully so. Sporting a casual look in linen shirt and trousers, he appeared more an activist. But that is one of his daily fights within the orthodox music space. The Hindustani vocalist, playwright, performer and gender activist has been exploring the classical space while battling stereotypes of gender, the tradition of bhakti and the elements of melody. To explore the freedom in musical space, it was important to break the conventions, according to Rumi.

His conversation with Priya Purushothaman, another Hindustani singer on gender and expression as part of CUSP Music festival in Chennai on 1 February, was enlightening and engaging at the same time.  Rumi’s musical life, which started when he was a teenager, took him on to a road to self-discovery. Wondering why there was no spontaneous flow of love and devotion — the primary elements of bhakti – towards Lord Krishna, Rumi notes, “Forget Krishna, I was fascinated with Radha more and my compositions were towards Rekha, my favourite actress; I was madly in love with the actresses Rekha and Tabu.”

 CUSP music festival: Battling stereotypes, Rumi Harish explores musical space beyond the realms of gender, caste and religion

Rumi Harish. Image via Facebook

Sometime during childhood, a critic commented on young Rumi’s voice, “Oh! she does not have a feminine voice.”  It took him on another search. “I used to imitate singers like Bhimsen Joshi, fascinated by their voices. Every six months, the voices changed. That’s when my guru told me — your singing voice and your speaking voice... you have to figure it out yourself — without any need for influences”.

Rumi recalled how Pandit Rama Rao Naik ji, the guru, was hugely radical despite a highly orthodox musical background. When Rumi questioned the relevance of guru–shishya parampara – the unquestionable and unconditional devotion and respect of a student towards one’s guru, he responded, “You are my friend and you are learning from me, so do I [learn from you]. But I expect you to hold my hands when I walk for I am very old.”

Rumi notes that manifestation of guilt in a student, the necessity to be critical of one’s own action, leads to the perpetuation of stereotypes in classical music rather than tradition, and the control exercised through it. Rumi was so steeped into this cultural stereotype for so long that breaking out seemed impossible. But then the guru came to help again: he attributed the origin of classical music to people themselves, not gods. If the composition, textures and shastriya are in written form it is classical music. Folk music, on the other hand, stems entirely from an oral tradition. If a person sings naturally, he is into folk music whereas if he is trained to sing, he is into classical music.

This unconventional learning prepared Rumi to explore the freedom in classical music and helped him walk out of stereotypes.

However, Rumi discloses having lost concerts once he started performing in casual wear, not in sari, without sporting a bindi or long hair. It was getting so claustrophobic at one point, that Rumi felt it was vital to prioritise his mental health. “I could not keep up with the grammar of these people and it was not just the gender of voice but of the body, dress and the being.”

Critics, gurus and rasikas often commented how [Rumi] "had stopped singing after taking hormones and started living with hijras these days.” But when they were busy scripting the end of his career, Rumi had other plans. Venturing out of orthodox grammar, Rumi started exploring the khyal sangeeth which discusses every day’s life as it goes on. He stepped out of realms of gods and goddesses, changed his idea of bhakti, and instantly fell in love with khyal – which translates to the imagination, thought or to think.

Rumi finds the movements of certain compositions in khyal so picturesque while singing that he could break gender, caste and religion. Like in one homoerotic composition he sings, wherein the narrator or the singer longs to walk with her beloved but finds a langur disturbing their union. This langur keeps climbing up the back of the singer.

On an interesting note, this composition does not reveal the gender of the singer, the one who tells the story. But this composition has been sung as such for the past 1,000 years, assuming the langur to be Krishna with no other scope for exploration.

Many such compositions in khyal, Rumi remarks, continue to be sung merely musically without trying to interpreting the context in which it is written.

Rumi notes that quality of voice came to be stereotyped once falsetto entered the films and music space was divided across gender. “Before that anybody who could sing, sang and thus there was no concept of melody attached to a voice. Most of the gurus did not have the so-called melody in their voice, Pandit Ramji Rao, Mallikarjun Mansur and many others. But they sang so brilliantly that melody was felt in the composition, not in the voice,” Rumi said.

In battling stereotypes, in breaking barriers, Rumi not only explores the musical space beyond the realms of gender, caste and religion, but helps open up some rigid spaces.

Cibe Chakravarthy Selvaraj is a freelance journalist from Tamil Nadu

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Updated Date: Feb 04, 2020 16:26:33 IST