The 16 conversations here answer that question but also transcend it. Ambai is clear that she does not want to confine the musicians, dancers and artists represented here within the narrow limits of "women's art", though their responses to and breaks away from "normal" life for women is naturally an important part of their stories.
It was not easy for Ambai to bring these stories to us, and this book should be seen as part of a larger undertaking - the recovery of the history of women, as well as an exploration of the life of the artist. Says Ambai: "I was not looking for information I could quantify; I wanted a window opened so I could look into their lives, and a door opened to let me in. I did not want the emotional aspects of their lives to be separated from their art." The oral histories that result are not just enthralling, taken collectively they form an important document that fills a gap in the history of all women.
Not all the names command instant familiarity: Gangubai Hangal and Naina Devi, for example, are well-known, but folk artiste Ranu Bai has not been in the limelight and few would recognise India's only professional woman ghatam player, Sukanya Ramgopal. This results in a range of experience that will astonish even those who think they are in touch with their cultural roots as they come upon woman after woman who has struggled and finally mastered her chosen field. But this is not a book for just the connoisseur, or just the music historian, or the seeker after feminist truths. The hard-won conversations and interviews, that required a bond of trust between Ambai and her subjects, that took place over many sessions, move so fluidly that one is drawn easily from one artiste to another. The insights are sharp, as these women analyse their lives, celebrate their work, and outline the many obstacles in their way.
These conversations are far removed from today's soundbytes. They are reflections on what it means to be a woman, a working woman, an artist in a man's world; on how to create space and turn that man's world simply into an artist's world. The Singer and the Song is a unique attempt to document the creative process itself and like the great ragas, it reverberates and acquires new meanings for a long time afterwards.