The conflict between a woman’s creative impulse and her domestic obligations is an age-old theme that has been written about across genres and locales. Also, how a woman has to sacrifice her artistic talents under the oppression of patriarchy is nothing new.
Gandharvi, the novel under review, is written by the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novelist Bani Basu (and translated by Jayita Sengupta) and is set in the Kolkata of the 1960s. It tells the story of Apala, a gifted singer of Hindustani classical music. Born into an old, middle-class family of limited means in north Calcutta, Apala is fatherless and raised by jethu, her father’s elder brother, who is not only a conservative person, but someone who does not encourage music as a profession because it does not fit into his idea of “respectability”. Nevertheless, she continues to take lessons under her guru, Rameshwar Thakur and manages to prove herself successful in a classical music soiree. But this success leads to her downfall in a way because at that young age she is selected as a bride by her husband who “chose” her after hearing her sing at a public concert.
With insensitive and exploitative inlaws, promises made by her husband of nurturing her talent after marriage soon wanes out and Apala’s marital life proves loveless. Giving birth to three children in quick succession, Apala wastes her musical talent and apart from her husband, even her children grow up learning to ignore their mother’s music. Her only connection with music remains with the tuition that she gives to some students at her residence. Shorn of freedom, love, and above all, music, Apala’s life moves towards a tragic end as expected. After losing her voice, Apala dies a tragic death.
Surrounding Apala’s story we find other practitioners of music and classical art. We have Soham, who in his early years undergoes a nervous breakdown and is brought back to his normal senses through Apala’s music therapy and who later in life comes back as a reputed singer after traversing the whole world; we have someone like Mitul who does not believe in the purity of classical music and loves to experiment with other popular forms; Dipali diwho provides moral support to Apala on many occasions; and Shekharan, the dancer who performs for western audiences along with Mitul. The lives of all these characters intersect with Apala’s in ways that profoundly affect all of them.
The novel ends with an epilogue written by Apala’s elder daughter, Sohini, where she explains everything and belatedly acknowledges her mother’s talent. She states that her mother had come from Gandharva-lok and she was an artiste from top to bottom. The Gandharvas in heaven had no conflict in their love for music. But in her mother’s life, there ensued a terrible conflict between her Gandharvi nature and her natural womanly feelings. When this conflict reached a high pitch, it resulted in her loss of voice in the last stages of her life. But she could not keep her artistic talent self-suppressed. It burst out in her paintings. Those who know, say that she had succeeded. Sohini is also not ashamed to admit that her family got pretty rich just through the sale of her mother’s paintings.
The entire novel is filled with idioms of Hindustani classical music. The translator has done a commendable job in maintaining a lucidity of style and the book is recommended to anyone interested in learning about the world of classical music. They will find it interesting to see how the novel itself is musical in its form, where in the end the movement of music and the life story of Apala become one and the same.
Before concluding, this reviewer cannot but express her dissatisfaction regarding the production of the book. For a reputed publishing concern like Orient Blackswan certain slips seem unpardonable. For a paperback novel not to have any information page inside the front cover is a new phenomenon; hence the reader is unaware of the publication details including the place as well as the year of publication. Again, the title of the book on the back cover is mentioned asGandharvi:Life of a Musician. Interestingly the second half of the title is neither mentioned on the cover page nor inside the book itself. If these are deliberately done by the publisher we have nothing more to say except that old-fashioned traditional readers are sure to feel quite uneasy about the whole affair.
(The reviewer is professor of English, Visva-Bharati University)