Subhadra Desai’s bandish in Sanskrit

Hindustani vocalist Subhadra Desai has given a khayal dimension to shlokas and bhakti poetry

The strains of the tanpura gently mingle with the air of unassuming confidence that vocalist Subhadra Desai carries. As she closes her eyes to enter a meditative state, the audience is invited to witness the interiority that defines her music. A melodious voice matched with rigorous training, each syllable is enunciated with clarity and precision. The notes of raga Chhayanat stir to life, and while the listener may expect a regular traditional bandish, there is a surprise in store. The lyrics of the composition are not in the usual Braj Bhasha, Awadhi or Hindustani, but in Sanskrit — with a verse woven seamlessly into the raag framework.

“Sanskrit is not just a language, or associated only with dharma, it encompasses literature, arts, mathematics, science and various philosophical traditions,” says Subhadra, who also has a Ph.D in Sanskrit. She has delved into ancient Sanskrit texts and medieval Bhakti poetry to offer new interpretations within khayal music.

Unique confluence

Sharing the childhood memories that fuelled this innovation, she says, “At home there were always discussions around music, literature and spirituality. My mother used to teach Bangla literature and as a child I used to dream of becoming a professor of Sanskrit,” says Subhadra. She trained in Hindustani music, and at age 12, became a student of Madhup Mudgal at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Delhi. Later, she began researching Vedic chanting, and started to imagine new ways of musically interpreting various shlokas. “Only the three basic notes are used in Vedic chanting, or a shloka is sung as an invocatory prelude in a Hindustani concert, without the taal. But I wanted to understand the possibilities of a confluence with khayal music.”

Explaining the intricacies of singing Sanskrit verses, she says, “The most important thing in terms of technique is to get the pronunciation correct, and there should be no grammatical errors. For instance, breaking up a seemingly long word to accommodate it into the rhythm may change its meaning. The language has a certain flow and that has to match with the music.”

Composing a Sanskrit shloka in the khayal style was a challenging task. While the raag must compliment the literary sub-text, moulding it within a taal cycle was equally daunting. “There were times when I would sit with a shloka for days, trying different musical structures, understanding the bhava of the words. There must be synergy between sahitya, swaar and taal.” Recalling one of her earliest attempts at giving a khayal dimension to an 8th century devotional composition by Adi Shankaracharya, ‘Niravana Shatakam’ consisting of six Sanskrit verses, she says, “I composed it in Shree raag, and set it jhaptaal.”

On women seers

During her research, Subhadra also discovered that there is a mention of over 27 rishikas (women saints), who have remained unsung. After a concert based on their works, she travelled across the country collecting compositions of women saints. “We only know of Meera, Lal Ded, Andal, Akka Mahadevi, and a few others. But there are more than 75 women saints who have contributed immensely to bhakti sangeet.

Subhadra’s research culminated in a book titled Indian Women Seers and their Songs: The Unfettered Note in 2017 that transformed her devotional music repertoire. “They have expressed their emotions so fiercely in the songs that I was intrigued about how the compositions must have been sung.”

Combining her research with imaginative musicianship, Subhadra’s artistic quest touches upon philosophy, spirituality, literature and ragas. “Just like raag and swaar make us antarmukhi (inward-looking), Sanskrit texts also inspire us to explore our inner worlds,” she says.

The author is a Delhi-based arts researcher and writer.

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