Our Midnight Song: Shruthi Veena Vishwanath’s series highlights women artistes


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    The singer and curator brings to the fore under represented women artistes from rural areas

    Since midnight of Christmas 2020, Pune-based musician, educator and composer Shruthi Veena Vishwanath has been going live on her personal Facebook page. In a series called Our Midnight Song, she brings women artistes to the fore through music, dialogue and discussion. The guests “aren’t mainstream, are from rural areas, with work that remains largely under-represented, and whose main language isn’t English”.

    Community, agency, collaboration and curation are the underlying values of this series, which found its genesis following a call to action from the India Foundation for Arts — as part of its campaign 25 X 25, to celebrate 25 years of both the internet in India and the organisation. The idea is to challenge our own notion of what we think women’s voices could be, says Vishwanath, whose work largely celebrates intersections in classical training and folk forms. She is also known for her soulful rendition of music forms such as Abhang, Kabir, Nath, Vachana and Baul.

    Occupy social media

    The idea was triggered by Lavani, a traditional dance form from Maharashtra, that was showcased in the song ‘Wajle Ki Bara’ (translated from Marathi as ‘Is it midnight yet?’) from the 2009 film Natarang a coming-of-age story of an artiste, and one that brings to fore issues like gender bias. “Our own understanding of agency as both individuals and society has shifted since then, but we continue to grapple with societal norms. If we aren’t able to still occupy our streets at night, can we occupy the new streets, aka social media? If yes, how about I go with something that reflected my desire to get more perspectives from the women’s gaze out there,” explains Vishwanath.

    Shruthi and her grandmother

    Shruthi and her grandmother  

    Topics of discussion have included Buddhist poet Bhadda Kundalakesa; Marathi religious poet Janabai; Soyrabai, one of the eight wives of Shivaji; Princess Bontadevi of the Western Chalukya Empire who wrote Kannada poetry; actor and poet Mumtaz Sarkar; Pakistani singr Iqbal Bano; and Vishwanath’s own grandmother, Krishnaveni Suryanarayan, an exponent of the Saraswati veena. These chats and sessions — ranging from 10 to 40 minutes — feature multiple songs in Kannada, Marathi, Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi and more, both by her and other artistes, as well as recorded pieces.

    For instance, in a session that brought to life the sharane (poetry) of 12th century poet, Bontadevi, Bengaluru-based musician Bindumalini sat outside her gate at midnight and performed while a stray dog gave her company. For the first time ever, Shanti Tipaniya —one of the last generation of nirguni singers from Madhya Pradesh’s Malwa region — recorded herself singing two folk songs on women occupying space at midnight.

    Creating community

    • Vishwanath’s other series on her Facebook page, Music in the Machan, began on March 31, 2020, and has been running six days a week since.
    • It is an attempt to foster a sense of community and amplify voices like Rafiya Bewa and her troupe of wedding singers from Murshidabad.
    • Other featured artistes include Sufi vocalist Radhika Sood Nayak, Punjabi singer Sumeet Dhillon, Gujarat-based poet Purabi Bhattacharya, to name a few, who wouldn’t ordinarily find a place on social media.

    A space of one’s own

    The series also shares a powerful message on the importance of co-existence, harmony, resistance, and the need to peel the layers that make these voices both powerful and relevant. For instance, Vishwanath says the session with her grandmother was a larger question on foremothers. The one on lullabies where she herself sang lullabies from Babylon, Assam and The Holocaust, triggered questions on women’s songs and authorship. Vishwanath says there’s a constant group of people from India, Europe and North America who come online at midnight to participate, comment and share the series. “Because each episode is labelled, people across languages end up viewing more than one, and that has been fascinating, to have engagement across language, culture and genre,” she says.

    Savitribai's poem, sung with her image juxtaposed against the image of a school play on Savitribai, symbolising the larger fight

    Savitribai’s poem, sung with her image juxtaposed against the image of a school play on Savitribai, symbolising the larger fight  

    A small grant and some funding — supported by Mumbai-based Kshirsagar-Apte Foundation and philanthropy partners Titan Company Limited, and Priya Paul (chairperson of Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels) and Sethu Vaidyanathan (venture capitalist and entrepreneur) — helped her pay the artistes, especially those in the rural areas, an honorarium. “Much needs to be explored,” she adds optimistically. “I’m certain this will bloom into a larger project.” Will it be at midnight? “Maybe not,” says Vishwanath, adding, “I’ve had many sleepless nights. But will the work continue? Of course.”

    The sessions end today, January 18, and are available on Vishwanath’s Facebook page.

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