dilruba | دلربا | meaning, a woman who steals hearts.
In this 10-part series, Dastaan-e-Dilrubai, Shreya Ila Anasuya narrates the histories of Indian women who delighted and moved people with their skills in singing, dancing, acting, and writing — bearing witness to their power.
With art by Satwik Gade.
Read more from the series here.
Outside, the rain lashes the deserted streets of the city, scattering fiery gulmohar blossoms on the concrete. Inside, the chanteuse sings in Malhar, a raga of the rain — the pronounced crackle of the recording a torrid electronic downpour of its own. But even what would otherwise count as a disturbance becomes beautiful thanks to the singer’s mastery of her craft — her playfulness, soaring, still rooted in her obvious control. Rumjhum badarwa barse.
After she ends the song, she says her name, so softly you almost miss it. She is Janki Bai of Allahabad, a singer and poet who rose from extraordinary odds to make a name for herself, a name that rings in history, memorable as her bright voice.
Unlike many well-known courtesans, Janki wasn’t born to a family of performers.
She was born in Benaras, in the year 1880 — the daughter of a wrestler who abandoned Janki and her mother, Manki, for his mistress. Manki was then betrayed by someone she considered a friend, and sold without her consent to a kotha in Allahabad.
It was there she discovered Janki’s fondness of and facility with music, and appointed Hassu Khan to be her teacher. Janki was educated — she learned Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit, English — and this knowledge no doubt informed her musical performance. Later in her life she wrote poetry and eventually published a diwan, or collection, of her own.
The training worked wonders, and Janki quickly rose to become a star — not only in the traditional performing contexts of the salon and the court — but also in newer performance avenues including the gramophone and the concert. Like her contemporary, Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta, she became a highly sought after gramophone artist, cutting a number of discs in a recording career that lasted over two decades.
People clamoured to buy her records, and the Gramophone Company knew a star when they saw one. Accordingly, her payments rose — from Rupees 250 for the first 20 songs she recorded at the start of her career, to Rupees 5,000 for the same number of songs towards the end. Along with Gauhar Jaan, it was Janki who was summoned to the imperial durbar of 1911, to sing before King George V, where they performed the duet 'Yeh jalsa tajposhi ka, mubarak ho, mubarak ho'. Her records sold in the thousands; in fact, some of them reportedly sold over 25,000 copies, which is — if it is true — “...unheard of even for her most accomplished contemporaries,” as Vikram Sampath writes.
Yet despite these successes, the most oft-repeated fact about Janki is that she was called ‘chappan churi wali’ (She of the Fifty-Six Knives) because of a horrific stabbing she survived by the skin of her teeth when she was very young. The attack left her with visible scars for life, to say nothing of the agony and terror it must have wrought on her young mind. In becoming the star that she was, she belied the expectation that courtesan-performers were supposed to meet the conventional standard for beauty in order to be extremely successful. She did not meet those arbitrary standards, and as far as her career was concerned, this did not matter. She was a dilruba, winning hearts wherever she went.
This is why one might consider her other moniker, bulbul (songbird). The truth is that Janki’s life was both — wound and wingspan, bounty and bereavement, choice and circumstance. She was a woman performer embracing new technology in a world where feudal systems celebrated male performers who did not deign to record. She was a beloved of her fans, and cheated on by her husband. She was not born to a courtesan, but her mother was as instrumental in her success as though she were. She lost her childhood home, but bought many more. She acquired much finery, and gave generously of her wealth. She loved deeply, and died alone.
Unfortunately, history has not done justice to the complexity of this life. A true biography of someone like Janki is only possible to do if one accepts that large gaps remain where we cannot know what happened for sure. For example, the story of the motivation behind the attack on her has many different versions, and nobody can say for certain which one is true.
But as Janki herself knew so well, art goes where reality may not.
Novelist Neelum Saran Gour, fascinated by what she calls “the faded legend” of Janki, “who had been forgotten in her own city, despite the iconic position she’d acquired at the peak of her powers” took it upon herself to tell Janki’s tale. And this is precisely this duality that interested her; in an interview, she said, “In her life, like that of other artistes, I found a permanent situation — life in real time, life in art; the troubled vexed life and that fabulous artistic life. Art stepped in where life failed her.”
The result is a novel, Requiem in Raga Janki, that fictionalises what we can’t know while preserving and passing on what we do know, pitch perfect in tone, and deeply compassionate in treatment. Gour has even translated from Janki’s original poetry — which brings us back, fittingly, to the largesse of the rain:
‘O Janki, the heart is a sheltered cavern that the rain may not breach.
Even so, this spray slants in and fills my goblet with pearls…’