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.


Recently a set of well-intentioned but sensationalist social media posts about a famous singer got me thinking about the tricky nature of biographical writing, especially when the person being written about is long gone. Every narrative is imbued with the writer’s agenda, their biases, their set of values. There is no “authentic” version — especially in the case of beloved public figures.

When it comes to the lives of South Asian women performers in the 19th and 20th centuries, the erasures they were themselves forced to embody mean that the waters become even more muddied.

Let’s take Siddheshwari Devi, one of the most revered singers of a genre of Hindustani music that is called “light” classical, as an example.

Fables and legends

Sources say she was born in the early 1900s in a musical family in Benaras. “Musical family” here is a euphemism for her tawaif lineage — she was descended from the great singer Maina Devi, and her aunt was Rajeshwari Devi.

She lost both parents early in life and was brought up by Rajeshwari. Her talent and interest in music meant that she joined her cousin, Kamleshwari, in taking lessons from her first teacher, Siyaji Maharaj. There are a number of stories about this, one of them being that Siddheshwari, scrubbing pots and pans in the kitchen, heard Siyaji beating Kamleshwari for not being able to follow him in singing the tappa he was teaching her. Legend has it that she rushed in and flung her own body on her cousin’s to stop the blows, and then told her cousin what her teacher was asking her to sing was really quite easy, proceeding to sing it perfectly.

Who is to say whether or not Siddheshwari entered Siyaji’s tutelage in this exact manner? As Tawaifnama (a non-fiction book on the lives of tawaifs by filmmaker Saba Dewan; in my opinion the most remarkable work of its genre) demonstrates, these larger-than-life tellings are rife, and serve specific functions. In this case it gives us the impression of a household in which Siddheshwari most likely did not have the easiest time, and tells us that she began her musical training at a young age, and the name of her guru.

There is also the matter of how she left her aunt’s home. In an account by Sheila Dhar, a self-confessed “outsider” to the world of professional music, it was because she fell in love. In another account by Amrit Lal Nagar, it was because she angered a patron, displeased her aunt, and so had to leave.

In both accounts Siddheshwari has spoken directly to each writer, about the same event. Yet we are presented with two different narratives, as much informed by the writer as they were by Siddheshwari herself. It is perfectly possible that both are true, and equally that neither are.

Given the matrilineal system of tawaif households, this would have been a significant change in the young singer’s life. But we can’t know exactly what happened, though each narrative will insist on its authenticity.

Thumri and ambivalence

Then there's the matter of deliberate occultation. Sheila Dhar’s account of Siddheshwari Devi starts with a gorgeous description of witnessing the singer performing at a wedding. As part of the performance, Siddheshwari dances while a very young Sheila looks on in awe.

This portrayal of her mother’s early career angered Siddeshwari’s daughter Savita Devi, and the scholar Lalita du Perron writes that she demanded an apology from Sheila Dhar.

Why the anger? This is because Siddheshwari was best known for her absolute mastery of thumri, a repertoire of Hindustani music that was much maligned and is still treated with ambivalence because of its historical association with court singers, and hereditary singers.

The origins of thumri lie in the folk music of the Gangetic plain. For much of its life, scholar Peter Manuel writes, “thumri was most typically sung by a courtesan as accompaniment to interpretative dance”.

From the late 18th century onwards, thumri began to be cultivated as a musical genre in its own right, and aside from courtesans, male musicians began to sing it. Its heyday was in 19th century Lucknow, under its last king, Wajid Ali Shah.

“Courtesan culture during this period was at its zenith of prestige and influence,” writes Manuel, and “...prominent courtesan singers were ranked even above contemporary male musicians.”

Tawaifs had a vast repertoire beyond thumri, but as du Perron tells us, thumri was the only form that was closely linked to dance. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Indian middle class’ attitude to dance changed drastically, and the subsequent anti-nautch campaign meant that professional women singers began to be targeted.

Thumri had to distance itself from dance to survive,” writes du Perron. She might as well have been talking about tawaifs and their own identities.

Eventually, national institutions like All India Radio would make it impossible for the traditional practitioners of thumri to sing unless they produced certificates of marriage.

It is against these sweeping changes that generations of professional singers like those in Siddheshwari Devi’s family had to adapt in order to go on singing.

In this context, it is perfectly clear why Savita Devi would have been upset.


A complex history

In an interview about Tawaifnama, Saba Dewan warned against wish fulfilment narratives about tawaifs. A wave of feminist engagement looks at them as powerful women who were educated in the literary and performing arts when women in so-called respectable homes did not have access to this education.

It is certainly true and under acknowledged that there are many cases in which tawaifs rose to great prominence — in politics, in courts, in literature, on the radio, in the concert hall, for the gramophone, in theatre and film. The most successful and elite of them owned property and became wealthy. The more powerful they were, the more sexual autonomy they were likely to have.

But Dewan’s layered narrative shows us how diverse these stories are, even within the same tawaif family, or among tawaif families who know each other closely. When tawaifs performed in courts or for landowners, they were part of a feudal system, one that Dewan says was “adjunct to patriarchy.” In Dewan’s narrative we see how one young tawaif was raped repeatedly and absolutely did not have sexual autonomy. We also see hierarchies within and between tawaif households, including caste-based and gender-based discrimination.

It is against these extremely complicated histories, many of them deliberately erased, that we have to read Dhar’s and Nagar’s interviews with Siddheshwari.

In both accounts she comes across as a warm, generous, vulnerable, complex, flawed, and luminously gifted singer.

There is an unforgettable passage in Dhar’s essay where the singer engages in an impromptu jugalbandi with Mahalingam, the Carnatic flautist. Both performers and the small audience consisting of their friends are overcome by the virtuosity and love in the room.

There is an account of the rivalry between Siddheshwari and Begum Akhtar — in which Siddheshwari is simultaneously in awe of her rival’s beauty and talent, and insulted by Akhtar’s snubbing of her attempts to become friends. As part of this frustration she relates to Dhar the caste-based discrimination that was practiced in her aunt’s household. (“My aunt had a parrot in the courtyard who was trained to ask the caste and credentials of everyone who came to the house.”)

Nagar’s book shows us a Siddheshwari who is more than happy to talk, and to accompany Nagar to meet an older singer, the renowned Vidyadhari Devi. In Nagar’s account we meet Siddheshwari, the mother who wants the best for her daughters (she uses the English word “topmost” when she tells Nagar about her ambitions for them). This involves hoping they will not sing, for she knows the stigma that professional women singers face first-hand.

Seemingly to Nagar’s surprise, she also advocates strongly for courtesan culture to end. A multitude of meanings can be read into the way that Nagar has quoted her, one of them being that she denounces younger courtesans, or at the very least, speaks of them with undue judgment. But to me the clue really lies in the sentence where she says (and I paraphrase, since the original is in Hindi), that it was still all right when everything happened openly, but that things had gotten much worse since tawaifs had been pushed underground.

Scholars like Saleem Kidwai, Anna Morcom, and Amie Maciszewski have shown the impact on tawaifs of exactly this process of stigmatisation. Not only were all female professional singers seen as one homogenous community (which it never was), the music that they had cultivated with so much skill over many generations was taken away from them by revivalist nationalists.

In order to fit the changing times, the repertoire of thumri (which includes dadra, hori, chaiti, tappa, and more forms) itself was changed. Its earthy, sensual lyrics were amended to suit devotional interpretations rather than those related to romance and sexuality.

Over time those who were permitted to perform it publicly in the concert hall had to either come from elite families, or hide the fact that they came from courtesan lineages.

Morcom’s scholarship in particular shows the truth of Siddheshwari’s observation to Nagar, i.e. the more that tawaifs (especially more marginalised by class and caste identity) were pushed away from the arts and talked about only in terms of sexuality, the more they had to rely on erotic performance and/or sex work to survive.

The unknowability of Siddheshwari

If her interviews are always reflective of the writer’s biases (and the reader’s), how does one access someone like Siddheshwari?

As always I return to the mesmerising recordings of her music strewn over the internet, but there is one other way. Mani Kaul’s 1989 film, Siddheshwari, eschews linear narrative and the quest for static truth.

Instead there is the city of Benaras, its ghats, its river water, the boats on the river, the ashes of the dead, the experiences of a changing cast of actresses who play Siddheshwari and other characters.

Weaving facts, mythology, and fiction together, and using the landscape of the city that was Siddheshwari’s own, Kaul does his own inevitable narrativisation. The visuals are arresting, but what kept me hooked was the polyphonic soundtrack, the haunting music that filled Siddheshwari’s life, and with which she filled the world.

At the very end, in a heart-stopping few minutes, the singer herself appears on screen — this is archival footage of a Doordarshan video. With one hand over her ear, and her eyes closed, she demonstrates her life-long intimacy with purab ang gayaki.

In the magic of her changing face — suddenly scrunched eyes, her mouth opening into the word saiyaan (beloved), and her expressive hands that emphasise melody — and above all in that fruity, circling, word-defying voice, in its modulations and deliberate pauses, in its consummate control, in its soaring expanse, lay the only direct path I found to the woman that was called Siddheshwari.