Reminding Us, Via Song, that Women Have a Duty towards Themselves

For the first time in its 75 year history, Sursagar Society, run by the first family of the Dilli Gharana, has put together an all-female ensemble of singers

concert at kamani

New Delhi: A flight of steps through a mess of wires, iron grills, corridors, sundry shops and offices of an old building in Delhi’s Daryaganj takes you to the Ameer Khusro Institute of Music, on the second floor. Till that point, except for the name, there is little to point out that this music school is the prime proponent of the Dilli Gharana, the school of Hindustani music founded by the 13th Century Sufi mystic Hazrat Amir Khusro.

Music wafts out of one of the two rooms that comprise the institute, run under the banner of Sursagar Society. Step inside and you walk straight into the rich history of the gharana. Portraits of its shining stars who projected the gharana’s strong Sufi strain line up the wall. An idol of the symbol of love, Meera Bai is placed alongside one of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning.

A sitar leans along a wall, an angrakha hangs from a window and two pairs of tablas fill up some space. Then there is a group of students on the carpet, crowding around a man behind a harmonium. The 62-year-old man with salt and pepper hair is Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan, the khalifa or the senior most exponent of the Dilli gharana.

“Today is a special day for us. A day of celebration, of the success of the concert ‘Rudaad-e-Shereen’ we presented at Kamani Auditorium recently,” says Khan’s daughter, Vushat. The five disciples singing along with Ustad Khan in the room are those who participated in the concert on August 25. What’s different is that all of them are women. And together, they comprise an all-female ensemble of singers of Sursagar Society, the first ever in the organisation’s 75 year history.

Ustad Iqbal Khan’s family is the seventh generation keeping the Dilli gharana’s traditions alive. But the connection goes back much further, to Miyan Achpal, a musician at the Delhi Sultanate, said to be the Ustad of Bahadur Shah Zafar. The Sursagar Society was founded in 1940 by Iqbal Khan’s grandfather, the late Ustad Chand Khan, in memory of his father, Ustad Mamman Khan. The Society has since been preserving and promoting the style and compositions of the gharana, producing a number of disciples in the process.

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Members of the ensemble at a rehearsal with Ustad Iqbal Khan in Delhi. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Like in any other gharana, along with the male disciples, the list of its famous female shagirds is long. Iqbal Khan’s forefathers produced names like Mallika Pukhraj, Madhubala, Mumtaz, Sidheswari Devi and Kamaleshwari Devi. Also Sundari Seshadri, Krishna Bisht, Vandana Vajpayee, Tripti Ghosh, Kavita Sehgal, Indira Sehgal, Sonia Saraswat, Ishrat Jahan.

“However, for the first time, the Society put up a programme comprising only its female shagirds. They are all upcoming artistes learning from Ustad Iqbal Khan,” says Vushat.

The reason for adding this newness to the Society’s repertoire in its platinum jubilee year, explains Vushat, is as much about propagating the cause of women’s empowerment as about presenting to the audience the compositions of Ameer Khusro who “had a song for every occasion.”

“Rudaad-e-Shiren” musically narrates the life story of Shireen, an ‘ideal girl’ from the nobility of medieval Delhi. Like any other girl of marriageable age of the time, she too had to leave home one day, had to take on the responsibility of being a dutiful wife and a mother. In the process of living her daily life, she didn’t realise when love slipped out of her life, when she began to cease living for herself. Till one day, she stumbled upon the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi and came face to face with a mystic who helped bring herself to life. She saw the point that most women overlooked – that they too had a duty towards themselves, “the duty of loving and living their lives alongside others.” The mystic showed her how to be on the path of love despite living within domesticity.

In chaste Urdu, the script – written by Delhi University lecturer Bhawna Goyal, who also performed in the concert along with Vushat (the narrator), Anju, Mohena, Leena and Shaheen – is interspersed with compositions of Ameer Khusro. As per the need of the narrative, it goes from a carefree wedding song (“Woh aaweh to shaadi ho weh”) to a Bidai song (“Kahe ko byahe bidesh”) to a Jhula geet (“jhula kisne dala”) to Khusro’s other compositions like “Main toh tohre dware”, “Main to gaye thi beech bazar” and “Tori Surat Ke Balihari, Nizam.”

While the singers rendered the soulful compositions at Kamani, the backdrop ran a series of Raja Ravi Verma’s women. “When we thought of having a backdrop for a rendition that narrates the life cycle of a woman, we couldn’t think of anything else but to portray the archetypal women painted by Raja Ravi Verma,” says Vushat.

This newness of the Sursagar Society, she adds, has been widely noticed. Plans are now being mad to take “Rudaad-e-Shireen – A Celebration of Womanhood” outside the country.