On 29th August, 2009, a documentary film was screened at the Bangalore International Centre in Bangalore. The documentary, The Other Song, directed by a young Saba Dewan narrates the story of a lost song recorded in 1935. The singer was the famous Thumri singer of Benares, Rasoolan Bai. The ‘other song’ is a variant of the celebrated Bhairavi Thumri sung by Rasoolan Bai, “Phool gendawa na maaro, lagat karejwa mein chot“. But for once she sang jobanwa instead of karejwa in that recording. Till the middle of the 20th century, dancing girls or tawaifs were the only professional women musicians of India. They were highly educated women adept at the arts, literature, poetry and music, when large sections of Indian women were illiterate. Those were also the years when the purists of Indian classical music laid down the norms that formed the musical standards for the time. Describing such songs as ‘immoral’ and ‘explicit’, the music of the tawaif became immodest for respectable households. No wonder the song got banished into oblivion.
Rasoolan Bai, an excellent singer of the Poorab Ang Thumri, Dadra, Chaiti, Hori and Kajri, was born in 1902 in a village near Benares. She was a celebrated singer of her time and was much in demand in the courts of princely states. She formed the quartet of singing queens of that time along with Begum Akhtar, Badi Moti Bai and Siddheshwari Devi. Rasoolan Bai won the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1957, the second woman to be so honored after Kesarbai Kerkar.
A Sanskrit scholar and a connoisseur of music mentioned to Saba Dewan, Rasoolan Bai‘s famous Thumri and dared her into finding the version which had jobanwa and not karejwa. The film which sets out to be Saba Dewan’s search for the lost Thumri gradually unravels the many concealed layers, the tawaif as the treasure house of the Thumri, her way of life, her glorious years, now pushed to the margins, and the ‘other song’ right at the bottom of it all. In a moving section, the film recounts the efforts by the tawaifs to contribute to the non-cooperation movement, in response to Mahatma Gandhi‘s call in the early 1920s. When told, Mahatma Gandhi was furious with them. He would not accept them as workers, or take their donation, unless they gave up on their ‘unworthy profession that made them worse than thieves’.
It was obvious that Rasoolan Bai never sang the ‘other’ song again. She eventually ended up in penury, running a small tea stall in Allahabad, ironically right next to the All India Radio building where she once sang. She died on 15th December, 1974. Not more than 15-20 of her recordings are available now. Which brings us back to the missing recording. Saba Dewan did eventually track it down, thanks to another dogged sleuth, a professor of English in Kolkata, who listened to each Rasoolan Bai record in his collection and found the jobanwa version.