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Book Review: Mrinal Pande’s ‘Sahela Re’

Mrinal Pande’s ‘Sahela Re’ draws our attention to the bygone Hindustani classical music purists that makes music lovers sad, but to experience that era is priceless.

Ashutosh Kumar Thakur reviews Mrinal Pande’s book ‘Sahela Re’
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Indian music has been heard and loved since ancient times. It is known both for its rhythm as well for its melody. Musicians used to sing or play instruments for themselves, and the listeners used to receive their voices/sounds as gifts. There was a time in Indian music when there used to be seekers, not presenters.

When Vidya, a music scholar and the main protagonist and sutradhar of the story, sets out to write a book on the history of Hindustani classical music, she uncovers the remnants of a time and a tradition fast receding: when singers embodied the ragas in their purest forms; when patrons were worshippers, not followers.

Neither did their own scales bow down to the dictates of the market nor did the purity of the tone that they set for themselves. Their market was also not a borderless market, like today’s spread like a buffet spread out for the masses. It was a fort of taste in which only those with an ear for music could enter.

The novel Sahela re by Mrinal Pandey draws a complete picture of the same world in pieces. At the centre are Anjalibai and her mother, Heera, born to an English father from the hills and her mother, Hira on the mountain. Both were famous singers of their times. Moreover, they were also considered epitomes of beauty and manners. Sahela re is an admixture of many things—biography, 19th century Hindi detective fiction, colonial and post-colonial history, anthropology and reflections handed by many musicians and their groupies. It has to be called a novel because to tie everything together, the author had to invent large chunks of it.

Hira fell in love with an English officer Edward K Hewitt, and later they had a daughter, named Angelina or Anjali. One day, Hewitt's dead body is found in the woods, and Anjali, who grew up with a haughty temperament, is suddenly father-less and also poor. Anjali and her mother find refuge in Banaras, which was a stronghold of music and had connoisseurs of music.

Further in the novel, making our way through Benares, Calcutta, Bombay and New York, we meet the mother and daughter duo again, now as Anjali Bai and Hira Bai—a mother-daughter duo known as much for their singing as for their beauty and intelligence; the gifted Allarakkhi Bi, a friend to Anjali Bai; the famous singer Husna Bai, Allarakkhi's mother; and, their descendants, who attempt to salvage what remained of the old music for new listeners on foreign shores.

The novel Sahela re is as much a foray into the world of Hindustani classical music as it is about the power of music, women fighting for their autonomy and independence, the often-complicated relationship that mothers and daughters have, long-standing friendships, and even the pain and confusion of being away from one's motherland.
Revealed through fascinating anecdotes, correspondence, legend and gossip are the highs and lows of the artists’ lives, as they loved and lost, and moved on from mehfils to gramophones; we witness, too, the passion music provoked in the lives of its connoisseurs. Reading this novel, the memory of that golden era of music makes music lovers sad, but to experience that era is priceless. Nevertheless, this novel gives that precious feeling.

Author Mrinal Pande did not just find this story; she completed it on her own initiative, travelling, meeting people, talking, and collecting scattered written and oral information here and there. While reading this novel you can feel that Pande’s role as an author is that of being the eye of a camera capturing images honestly. The aim is to create through all these an artful (not arty) collage of disparate things that go to create an epoch and its music makers. Like their lives and times, the narrative is full of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts and violence. But the narrative refuses to reach out for journalistic facts and reason. This was the form the matter shaped for itself, as it proceeded, and she went with the flow.

This novel is written in the style of correspondence or letters—the epistolary format and reads like a detective novel. The prose the author has weaved in this novel is sublime.

For example, Mrinal Pande writes: “Radha Dada has a sharp intelligence and defiant temperament woven into his DNA. This is why he finally moved away from the family business altogether to start a publishing house in Lucknow, which is still very successful.

“But money can’t buy everything.

“In life, only a few relationships will, after they are formed, grow, and many of them will die. Most times, logic has no role in it. Partly because he remained introverted and partly because our mother, Amma, preferred silence to letting out her emotions, a steady bridge of communication could never get built between Dada and her. Later, Amma shares a deep bond with my husband who belonged neither to their community nor was given to talking much.

“As a man of few words himself, he perhaps sensed Amma’s unspoken fears and anxiety for her future after Dada’s departure better than me. He realized that, as she aged and grew frailer, she could not go on like this. And finally, on his advice, I asked Amma to move in here with us during her last days. I now realize that her last days with us were indeed full of a quiet joy.”

The major, as well as minor characters, come alive, and each one of them is unique and interesting in its own way. It is also a novel for those curious about classical music beyond Ravi Shankar and the ilk. While reading this story, one is saddened by the memory of a lost golden age of music, and from where the storyteller stands and tells this tale, one also feels angry at the injustices of the age, the way they treated women especially.

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A must-read novel Sahela re is nothing short of joining the detective journalist Vidya Rani on her adventures as she tries to piece together the tantalising mystery of Anjali Bai and Hira Bai.

(The author is a Bengaluru-based management professional, literary critic, and co-director of the Kalinga Literary Festival. He can be reached at ashutoshbthakur@gmail.com) 

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