The name Naina Devi draws no response from the driver taking us to the Chapslee estate on Shimla’s Elysium Hill. This hill station thrives on stories of the times gone by, but the 50-year-old resident has not heard of her lore. “No one really knows Naina Devi outside of this house in Shimla. She was Rani Nina Ripjit Singh here, the daughter-in-law of this house,” says Alka Sharma, office coordinator at Chapslee estate, which is now also an expensive bed-and-breakfast. Inside the house, hunting trophies, polished wooden floors and silver and brassware are gleaming reminders of a royal past. An upright piano in the living room is the only allowance to the world of music.
There is no tanpura, no harmonium — the mainstays of a thumri riyaz. Even the gramophone, a feature of many older Indian aristocratic households, is absent. Perhaps, that is only appropriate. This is where Naina Devi, a legendary exponent of thumri, dadra and chaiti, lived — and in many ways — lost her voice. “I never heard my mother sing at Chapslee, not even a low hum. We had heard that she had a beautiful voice, but none of us heard it here,” says Naina Devi’s daughter, Rena Ripjit Singh. In a paper titled “Women in Traditional Media”, presented in 1991 at a consultation in Bangalore, Naina Devi had said, “There was no question of a rani singing, even for her own pleasure. I sang to myself when I was alone in my room.”
She had arrived at Chapslee at the age of 16 from Calcutta, the new bride of Rajkumar Ripjit Singh (Raja Charanjit Singh’s son). This is where she lived with her four children. A “good woman” like her could not sing, even if her husband was in thrall to her voice. But this is the story of a woman who transformed from Nilina Sen to Rani Nina to Naina Devi — and found her way back to music.
By many accounts, Naina Devi was one of the finest thumri exponents of the 20th century, even if she did not leave behind a substantial discography. Her greatness is acknowledged by musicians but not many regulars of the contemporary concert circuit have heard of her. “Naina Devi is remembered by musicians and connoisseurs, mostly by an older generation, and the ones whom she taught. But she was distanced from the general population because she began to perform much later in life,” says Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal, who learnt from Naina Devi in Delhi in the 1980s. She was among the many artistes who took part in the low-key birth centenary celebrations of the musician held three months ago in Delhi.
Only a couple of Naina Devi’s audio recordings survive on YouTube — Gori baanke naino se chalaave jaduwa, a dadra in the romantic Mishra Pilu, was uploaded online by Mudgal. One can hear a slightly nasal, bass voice of a woman in her 50s, singing of female desire.
Naina Devi is remembered not just for her voice and style, but also the legendary musical baithaks she hosted at her Kaka Nagar residence in Delhi. A woman, without the financial support of her family, organising such soirees with the generosity and ease of a patron of the arts, was rare. Her house was frequented by legends like sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Munnawar Khan, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Anjani Bai Malpekar and Siddheshwari Devi, among others. “Once I opened the door to find Ustad Munnawar Ali Khan standing there. He had come to discuss the nuances of tappa. Any musician could just walk in and stay there,” says Mudgal.
Vidya Rao, who was also a disciple, remembers how Rasoolan Bai — the famed courtesan from Mirzapur and a foremost exponent of the purab ang gayaki (a style typical of Banaras and eastern UP, which largely involves singing thumri, dadra, kajri and chaiti, among others) and the tappa, came to live with Naina Devi after her home in Ahmedabad was burnt in the Gujarat riots of 1969. “She was unusual because she had a perspective which was different from most people. At a time when thumri was looked down upon, and few people sang and taught it, she was embracing it. The respect she accorded to her fellow musicians was immense,” says Rao.
Many who frequented Naina Devi’s home didn’t know that before she became the Urdu and Hindi-speaking Nina, she was Nilina Sen, grandaughter of Bengali philosopher and social reformer Keshab Chandra Sen, who founded the Naba Bidhan Brahmo Samaj.
Born in 1917, Nilina was raised in Calcutta, the capital of the British Raj and a cultural and financial hub. She grew up in a home of music lovers. Her parents (Saral and Nellie, Sen’s son and daughter-in-law) hosted artists like the legendary sitar and surbahar player Ustad Enayat Khan (Ustad Vilayat Khan’s father), Mehdi Hussain Khan and renowned singer Pandit Girija Shankar Chakraborty of Berhampore, among others, at their baithaks. Her elder sister was the up-and-coming Bengali actor, Sadhona Bose.
As a child, Nilina loved to sing. She was seven when she floored Chakraborty with a rendition of Bhairavi. Chakraborty decided to teach her and did so for the next nine years.
Chakraborty’s other disciples included flautist Pannalal Ghosh and vocalist A Kanan. But Sadhana’s success as an actor in films like Ali Baba (1937) and Raj Narthaki (1941) had already set tongues wagging. Nilina’s parents were worried about their younger daughter’s affinity for music and the influence of her sister over her. Even though there was appreciation for art and classical music in the house, they did not want the women to have a career in the performing arts.
So when Ripjit Singh sent a proposal for marriage, Saral and Nellie relented, despite the match not being from a Bengali family and even though their daughter would be thousands of kilometres away. For years after that, Nilina kept writing to Sadhona, whose black-and-white portrait sat on her writing desk, about her life in Shimla.
After a grand wedding and a long train journey from Calcutta to Shimla, Nilina became Nina. Raja Charanjit Singh and his family was comfortable with women performers, as long as they were not from their home. Thumri, closest to Naina’s heart, was especially considered a tainted form as it was linked to kothas and tawaifs. “In those times, women from good families didn’t perform. My grandfather was very strict, unlike my father who was in love with her voice,” says Naina Devi’s daughter Rina Ripjit Singh. But she did not stop learning.
Chapslee was bridled by convention but Ripjit Singh’s farmhouse in Rajanagar on the Lucknow highway was not. There, she revived mujra performances and hosted some of the finest courtesans. “After a performance, she’d sit with them and ask them about a particular taan, how it was sung. She wanted to know the raga, the lyrics, the turn of phrase, musically and otherwise,” says Ratanjit, her grandson.
She practised for herself, learnt because she wanted to and because it was hard to live without music. In her book Nilina’s Song, The Life of Naina Devi (Niyogi Books), her biographer Asha Rani Mathur writes, “For Nina, the atmosphere in Lucknow of the 1930s and 1940s, the grace of its etiquette and courteous manner of speech was intoxicating…A large part of the repertoire that she carefully built up over the years and used for her performances and later taught her students, was sourced from these occasions.”
Thumri, rooted in the folk of eastern UP and Bihar, was once a form sung by women, mostly courtesans — they were some of the most educated women of their times, well-versed in politics, literature and the art of conversation, and held in high regard. They entertained feudal patrons with love songs that were uninhibited and sexual in nature. The form evolved in the late 18th and early 19th century Awadh. It thrived under the rule of Wajid Ali Shah, who also wrote many thumris under his pen name Akhtar Piya.
Even then, it was considered a pleasant form of music, not rigorous or demanding enough. It was elevated to a semi-classical genre (as it is categorised even now, a peg below the khayal, considered the epitome of classical music) only at the turn of 19th century when conscious raagdari was added by many singers. But thumri was always considered a fallen form, mostly because of its association with courtesans, its erotic language and because it was sung in the voice of a woman who expressed her desire.
Sharma says that Nina turned to thumri, because she had deep empathy for the baijis and tawaifs. Naina Devi wrote in the paper, “Women in Traditional Media”, of a tawaif: “…here a woman despite her brilliant accomplishments was never really secure. Unless she was very lucky, the caprices of a patron, the fickleness and dishonesty of a lover, not to forget silently creeping old age, would get her in the end. It would not then matter how delicately her imagination worked on bol banana or how proficiently her voice executed the essential quality of her vocal timbre exemplified by technique.”
In 1949, Ripjit Singh died of a sudden cerebral haemorrhage. Nina was only 29. It was a difficult time, as her in-laws doubted the intentions of their daughter-in-law, worrying that she might remarry and hence divide the property.
She turned to music for solace, and began singing on radio, considered more respectable than singing live in front of people. “I could not sing under my own name because I didn’t want to offend my family members: so I sang incognito under the pseudonym, Naina Devi.” She decided to move to Delhi with her children. Her father-in-law wasn’t ready to let go of their custody. But Naina was adamant. Once in Delhi, her friends Sharda Rao, Nirmala Joshi and Sumitra Charatram (founder of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra) helped her find her feet in the world of performing arts. Naina Devi was the artistic director of the organisation in 1952. She first lived on Pusa Road, and changed many homes before she came to Kaka Nagar. “A lot of people held baithaks. Hers are still the most revered,” says dancer Kathak exponent Uma Sharma, who learnt bhaav (expression) from her. Soon, Naina Devi was producing programmes for Doordarshan, singing for AIR and doing interviews with legends such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. She was given the Padma Shri in 1974 for her services to music.
Her thumri performances had organisers mistake her as a tawaif often. “I even received an invitation for participating in a Tawaif Welfare Conference. I took it as a compliment that my music was as professional as a traditional singer,” wrote Naina Devi.
“She laughed a lot, freely, and was a very gentle guru,” says Rao. Mudgal recalls how she was simpler than the male gurus she had learnt from. She wasn’t very secretive about the music she taught. “Sometimes, she would give you three-four pieces in a day, something not many gurus do,” says Mudgal.
“She continued to sing because it was what kept her going,” says Chandrajit Singh, Naina Devi’s grandson, who lived with her during her last years. “Even when she was unwell later, she constantly wanted to attend concerts, host people. It was as if she was making up for all that time she had lost,” he adds. Naina Devi passed away in November 1993, leaving behind few recordings but an enduring legacy.