“A woman flows along with the situation. When she is a mother, she is fully devoted”

In this 'slow' interview, folk singer Malini Awasthi, a Padma Shri, talks about women, folk music, and the intricacies of marriage, and how her husband motivated her to start singing again

Neelesh Misra
| Updated: June 20th, 2020

Malini Awasthi sings a folk song

By the time I sang the stanza, I was crying profusely. My sister asked me to put the instrument down. In medical terminology, you might call it a breakdown or an outburst. After almost two weeks, I received a call from the Doordarshan Lucknow office saying, “We thought you might have quit singing after marrying an IAS officer. Doordarshan is organizing a national-level concert. Will you participate?” I told them: “I am an established Doordarshan and radio artist. You guys have stopped inviting me, thinking I will not sing after marriage! Of course, I will sing!” So, I went there for rehearsals … those days we used to have rehearsal sittings. That time, during the tea break, the producer told me that my father had come!

Why did you cry?

There are some things in life, which get absorbed in our lifestyle. For example, eating, walking, breathing. Music was an integral part of my life which suddenly came to a stop. Life had indeed taken a beautiful turn, however, that was not happening. Music was not just about singing. I used to be surrounded by music all the time … listening, and singing. And then I moved to a different kind of set up where there were multiple domestic helps, butlers surrounding you all the time. My husband was an SDM, so he used to take up local cases that he would attend at home. How could I be singing? There would be no electricity and those days we did not have a generator facility. So, with the high voltage, sometimes the fridge would fuse off or I would be tending to children’s needs or had to fetch the water from the well. Struggles and expectations from life took a different turn. I felt that I had entered a different phase of life, which was fine. And this turn happened after almost four to five years of my marriage. Why I chose that song, what it did to me and how I reacted was happening subconsciously. My sister apparently told my father about my breakdown, which I got to know much later. But that day the producer at Doordarshan told me that my father had met him. Later, I asked my father that why did he speak to the producer and he said he wanted me to start singing again. I said the same thing that I did not leave singing, but they stopped inviting me to participate. People assumed that I became unapproachable after my marriage to an IAS office. They thought I might have to take permission from my husband or maybe he did not like me performing in front of a large audience.  

You have touched a relevant point here. I had written a story long ago titled ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa’ where the girl gets married and the first few words she hears from her husband in her new house is him telling his servant to put the musical organ into the storeroom. Every day, the girl goes to the storeroom, looks at the musical organ, is not able to play it and tries ways to bring music back in her life. I had written this story sometime in 2012 and I had received calls from not just the fans but even friends and family members asking how did I know about this, because it was their mother’s story or their own! Giving up has become a part of every girl’s life story. In my team itself, there are so many members who were not professional writers, they were either married or had given up writing for various reasons, kept listening to stories and somewhere something inside them urged them to write to me. This culture of giving up dreams is one of the harshest realities of our country. Is it not?

The story you narrated, in that the husband tells to put the organ away. But, in my case, it was different. My husband was the one who forced me to start singing again. However, a woman has a different thought process. When she gives herself in, she dedicates herself completely. That is why, a woman flows along with the situation. That is why balance becomes difficult. When she is a mother, she is devoted fully. My husband used to coax me every day to sing. He used to tease me that I was becoming a typical housewife. This happened naturally and with the flow. Like any woman, I also got immersed in my duties and responsibilities. I always look at the birds and feel the metaphor that no matter how much and wherever a bird flies to, it comes back to the same tree or nest, automatically. My husband always used to encourage me to sing.

(Sings a folksong). It means, dear father, don’t cut the neem tree because there are bird nests in that. I am going away, but the birds will be here.

Wonderful! You mentioned about your marriage to Awanish Awasthi, an IAS officer. He hailed from a different atmosphere which had nothing to do with music.  Being an IAS officer’s wife, you got a chance to visit various villages and districts and must have got to experience various elements of countryside living. How have the experiences helped you?

When I first met Awanish, our families had known each other. So, we had the traditional style of a meeting where they had come home to see me. I was wearing a white saree against my mother’s wish. When I reached the room carrying a tray, I found it very stereotypical, so I gave the tray to my sister-in-law and walked in freely. My mother was telling them that I had got selected for a performance in the youth festival in Tashkent, however, they said no. So, when Awanish and I got a chance to speak separately, the first thing he asked me was that why did I not go to Tashkent? I was pleasantly surprised. I told him my mother did not allow hence. So, he said but you wanted to go right? And it was a big opportunity. That one sentence kind of cleared what kind of person he was and I felt as if I knew him well. That one sentence from him helped me understand that he might be a studious, academically strong guy, but with strong values. Somewhere both of us knew that our goals were the same with different routes probably, so we had to walk the path together. So, right from the beginning, we have supported each other. We had many village postings; eight postings to be precise. Coming to this village is very incidental. Within three years of marriage, we had both the kids.

Malini Awasthi with daughter Ananya and son Adwitiya. Source: Malini’s Instagram

What are their names?

Elder one is Ananya and younger son is Adwitiya. I used to watch our senior officers’ wives. They were extremely educated and used to hail from very affluent backgrounds, but were cut off from the reality they were working for. I strongly believed if the wives are cut off, husbands could not stay grounded themselves. There was no organic connection with the place and environment they lived in. Working in a countryside environment is not just about a 9-5 desk job. The entire stay in that village was interlinked, including connecting with the domestic helps and people visiting, neighbourhood etc. This kind of environment helped me connect with the folklore and I tried to bring the experiences through my folksong.

(Sings a folksong). Meaning: To make a room a temple, a light should be lit, similarly a woman with vermilion brings good luck and then she wishes to have a child in her lap. (Sings) Meaning: I tried all the efforts but only when god willed, I got the child in my lap. The stanza which I am singing next mesmerizes me wondering our ancestors were such seers that they gave such valuable preaching through songs.

(Sings) Meaning: the mother says after the child is born, I will give my child for the country’s welfare because only when my child helps the country grow my living will be worth it. This shows what beautiful feeling the mothers had for bearing a child. Today we get scared on how to let our children serve armies, those days mothers aimed to put the children for the country’s work without worrying about the result. This is lullaby where the mother is trying to inspire the child to help his country grow in whichever way he could. He could be a responsible engineer or a doctor or even a worthy farmer. Everyone wishes well for their children, but we have a rich culture where we expressed our wishes through such beautiful songs.

I was remembering the song “Yu to premi…”

Oh yes! Many people get surprised. In fact, I was telling someone about you and they asked if you are the same Gaon Connection fame Neelesh? I said of course the same! Our introduction was through this song only. I am glad to be associated with you for this song.

“Dil Mera Muft Ka” It was a new experience for me also. For a long time, I got trapped in an image of a romantic lyricist. So, it was an experiment for me also, to write such a peppy number and when I heard that it will be recorded in your voice, I was thrilled. There is so much to talk with you, I am thinking where to begin from. Your relationship with music has been at various levels, film songs, folk and others. How and when were to you introduced to folk music? It was in the air?

You can say that the places I was brought up in, it was definitely in the air! I was born in Kannauj. However, the first seven formative years of my life were spent in Mirzapur, with the Ganges in the backdrop. The dialect spoken in Mirzapur is Awadhi. So, being a culturally liberated place with the Ganges in the background, we used to have elite cultural events biannually. We have attended performances by Budhai maharaj, Sitara devi, my guru Abba ji and Kishan maharaj ji. Vindhyachal Mahotsav and Kajri Mahotsav were the two highlights of that area. These legends used to stay in Mirzapur for two-three days, so the foundation of listening and appreciating music happened there. It is difficult to point the first song I heard or learnt. But my mother says I used to sing this song “Suraj Mukh N Jaibo…” ever since. Much later I was told that this is a famous Dadra form of singing in raag Bhairavi by legendary Siddheshwari Devi. So, I feel, there is a big influence of Banaras. Also, in my family, my aunties were great singers. Although they sang only within the family, I found it incredibly attractive. Unlike other children, I used to sit close to my aunties and enjoyed their singing and that has had a great impact on my singing.

How old were you then?

May be seven or eight.

The Indian classical music has always had various gharanas promoting a distinct style of singing. Each gharana having its individuality and discipline. However, with time, that distinctness seems to be fading with time. How has your experience of learning from a gharana had been? Throw some light on that culture.

What a beautiful question to address! Because I have been trained in three different gharanas. Initial training was in Rampur gharana. My guru was Ustaad Shujat Hussain Khan saab. He was the grandson of Ustaad Mushtaq Hussain Khan saab. I was around 10 when he taught me the first lessons of classical music. For five years he taught me with utter dedication and patience. In those days, even the sitting pattern while singing was considered as a part of the training. So, girls used to sit in a particular side posture. But he was very particular about every student to sit either in Padmasana or Sukhasana and ensure our spine was straight. When I see people preaching Yoga, I feel anyone who has learnt classical music from a sincere guru must be practising Yogasana in that only. Body posture, breathing exercise is nothing but Pranayam. So, he taught me the discipline and attitude of respecting music even while performing on stage. If an artist is sitting on the stage, he/she is addressing the audience with a message so that the stage should be respected with disciple and the right attitude. This was my training from my childhood, and he used to always insist on singing with an open throat. Singing should have a natural throw. I have always been a very progressive and open-thinking person. Never had restricted upbringing being the youngest among all siblings and having such a teacher helped me open as a personality. And, we are talking of an era when playback singing had very project voice qualities. Lata ji and Asha ji were the benchmarks and in non-filmy, Begum Akhtar was considered the supremo. So, when I used to practice light music, I used to feel that I did not have the traditional girly soft voice and had an open throw voice quality.

Malini loves playing Sitar. Source: Malini’s Instagram

I was about to ask the exact question. One was the Lata ji school of singing quality and on the other had was voice like yours which had a character. Unfortunately, for a long time, such a heavy voice did not get the due credit and respect. I have seen the industry as an insider and as an outsider has seen the change. It is only recently that the voice with character is in demand. Did you ever feel out of place?

I would say otherwise! I will come back to my first teacher, he used to say this, “Who told you your voice was different? In fact, referring to music through film music is only a recent phenomena. If you take reference of any established classical singer and you would find their voice absolutely open and free-flowing.” He used to make me listen to Ustaad Fayyaz Khan saab, Rasoolan bai, Moti Bai or Siddheshwari Devi, all of them sang with G# (G major). He would say that compare your voice quality and singing with them. It is true that a lot of musical understanding among masses was through Hindi film music. The 1970s and 80s were all about film music. Then with Mehndi Hassan saab popularizing non-filmy songs, people experienced change. In fact, I feel, when Reshma ji came with her iconic song in film, people took notice of that voice quality. Of course, Usha Uthup was there, but she specialized in the western style of singing. With Reshma ji, after Begum Akhtar ji, people felt that they can fall in love with the rustic country-side voice as well. So, my guru said that I should be proud of my voice because it was gifted. He helped me train me with this voice.

Do not try to become someone else …

Exactly! That was what I learnt from Rampur gharana. Later, my guru had to go back to Rampur for personal reasons and then I started my training with Rahat Ali Khan saab. I had started understanding classical music and used to visit Gorakhpur radio station where he used to perform, and he was from Patiyala Gharana. He was a direct disciple of Barkat Ali Khan saab and I learning from him had become my cherished dream. I am sorry this interview will be getting longer as I am in the flow of talking.

No worries. It is a SLOW interview!

You know what? Ustaad Rahat Ali Khan saab was such a wonderful artist of our country, but did not get his due! I consider this was destined that he nurtured only two students and whenever they both perform anywhere in the world first take their guru’s name and then perform. One is me and the other is Daler Mehndi. After getting trained in this gharana, after a few years, I got a chance to learn from Appa ji.

Girija Devi ji?

Yes, my father transferred from Gorakhpur to Lucknow. I took admission to Bhatkhande university and I was a topper in Nipun and came first in their internal competition. Bhatkhande has a beautiful culture that whoever comes first in the competition would perform on the stage following a renowned artist. That year when I won the competition, my guru Girija Devi ji also performed. I had a performance for around 25-30 mins and after that when Appa ji was about to leave, our principal Surendra Awasthi sir introduced me to her. Remembering her face is like witnessing the goddess of music in person. Her bright brown eyes and she was wearing a golden saree. He used to converse with Appa ji in Banarasi dialect. She humbly said: “Yes, I heard her. Her voice is very bright and bold. Girls normally do not sing in that range, but she does sing well. Will you come along to ITC Kolkata?” She was teaching music in ITC Kolkata that time. My mother immediately informed her about my engagement, and I was about to get married in the next two months. I cannot explain the pain of refusing the offer from my dream guru. Later my husband got posted in Banaras. It was around Navratri. I used to tell my husband that almighty has given you this posting only for my sake. I was offered training by the guru herself which I had to refuse and now we are back in the town. So, I directly went to Appa ji and just requested me to take me in her tutelage. Here on my training in Banaras gharana started. I got the opportunity to learn from her for 20 years and everywhere when I am introduced on stage, it’s with this gharana first.

It’s interesting when a few music critics come and tell me that my earlier gharana trainings are visible in my singing. That is natural. The foundation training will never go away. However, Appa ji would always say that never try to copy me. To all her students! If you try to be my carbon no one will listen to you. Unless you make your own mark, how can you ever pass your knowledge to others? Moreover, I feel music is open and everywhere. The more you learn, you realize you have much more to learn still.  So, you must first learn thoroughly and then choose your path. I feel I have learnt throughout with any expectation of rewards. I never thought of where any of my training would lead me to. I believe in the Bhagwat Geetha preaching that keeps putting in efforts and results will follow. In fact, my mother used to say this is it! You have learnt what you had to! After that taking a sabbatical by will. After investing in so much time and effort, putting a stop willingly and then coming back and learning again was solely my choice. I was learning only because I wanted to keep learning. Today’s generation works with the only intention of instant gratification. Kids today learn a little and their only question is where will this appear? How and where will this get promoted? CDs Radio they just want to be heard and seen for their little effort. I guess I and many other artists along with me come from the generation which still believes that there can never be a shortcut for a big milestone.

Malini with her husband, Awanish Kumar Awasthi. Source: Malini’s Instagram

I will come back to my previous question about your marriage. This universal emotion of a woman leaving her entire identity and accepting a new family, new life with open arms is something a man can never understand. Everyday proving her worth in that new environment. How did you manage it?

Nothing different from anything you said! I was born and brought up in a traditional setup and was married into a traditional setup. The positive point was that both the families are very loving, so, in-laws loved me a lot. But yes, when a girl enters a new house, adjusting in both the families is always a tough task. It was a natural situation for me also. For example, with the new environment, it was difficult for me to think of continuing my riyaaz. No-one stopped or questioned me. But their set up was quite different and I personally felt it was not the right time or right place. I used to think more than others that how can I invite anyone for accompaniment in music. My father-in-law and mother-in-law both were already giving much love and appreciation, so I did not know how to ask for more adjustments from them.

Here I would like to mention one point, although it is not linked with your question, but from a woman’s point of view it is connected. Ever since I have got married and started performing again, whichever city/district I am in, I make sure I come back the same night after the performance. Only in rare cases where I know the flight is only available the next morning, I have stayed back. Otherwise even I go to as far as Saharanpur, I drive back to Lucknow the same night. The reason is to see off my husband to work the next day morning and when the kids are leaving for school, I get to pack them off. So, it is purely a matter of heart connection. When you love someone deeply, you are making the adjustments without realizing it and doing it wholeheartedly. I guess, if that day my sister had not seen my outburst while singing, I would not have realized that my art needed a platform again. This platform is not your family but your live audience, who access you for your craft and not for who you are. It has been a long and exhilarating journey.

(Sings a folk song) This means a bhabhi is asking her nanad how will you go alone it is about to rain? For which the nanad replies I do not care if it rains, but I will go alone!

So, this has been a persistence question and answer. Earlier also girls were questioned for going out alone and even today they are asked. They rebelled then and they rebel even now! It is all contemporary! Questioning is a right of any responsible relative and freedom is equally important for girls. If freedom were not important, we would not have songs celebrating womanhood. Songs for monsoon celebrations are a celebration of freedom of enjoying rains. If there were only restrictions, then how were the romantic songs made?

I will tell you about one more song. We talk about of modern women now; I say women were much more empowered in ancient times. In fact in romance and expressing love, they were extraordinarily strong, which is depicted in this ancient folk song.

(Sings the folk song). This means a girl is saying to her lover that I am a wild deer and you are a protect son. Why do not you come and hunt me down? I am a desperate fish in the water, and you are a fisherman’s heir, why do you not catch me in the net. I am the wildflower and you are a garden rose! These lyrics are liberated and progressive where a girl is telling her potential love to come and love her, in today’s lingo we can call it a proposal! But I doubt if today’s generation can think with this boldness.  

I always believe in promoting such progressive thoughts expressed in our folk songs. Unfortunately, today families do not have dholaks at home and kids might not know anything about our folklores. So, I feel artists like me should take it upon ourselves to dedicate our lives in promoting such art and sensitizing people that it is not just a song, but a deeper connection.

Transcribed and translated by Kalpana Swamy