She met her voice and her life partner at a recording studio. At her first musical collaboration with the violin maestro L Subramaniam, Bollywood playback singer Kavita Krishnamurthy had to go for more than a dozen takes before she could deliver a certain line in a tillana correctly. Subramaniam was the first musician to have pointed out the weaknesses in her music.
She says, “I was initially taken aback by the number of takes. I just wouldn’t get it correctly. Then, I reflected on my singing and pitching aspects and realised it was a blessing to have met and faced him over music.” The incident helped the two musical talents to become friends, and then a couple. In 1999, Kavita suffixed Subramaniam to her name, and with it—a rich musical legacy. Today, she is the voice and the mind behind the family’s international collaborations and music festivals. Kavita is Subramaniam’s second wife. His art has always been closely linked with inspiration from his other half: Subramanium’s first wife Vijayalakshmi was his muse and saviour, pulling him out of emotional curves and giving him the inspiration to go global by collaborating with Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grapelli, Zubin Mehta, Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, Michael Koehler, Simon Wright, and Mark Lockett.
“The bed is the main assembly for an artist couple,” says Kolkata-based artist Shuvaprasanna. “Life is an art of compromise. The bed is the seat of permanence for a culture couple,” he adds. As artists, Shuva and Shipra come from different territories. Shuva’s works range from philosophical existential urban scenes done in charcoal and chalk and flattering figurative Krishna and Ganesha series. Shipra’s works are pieces of flowing thought—with fish and other animal motifs tangled in hair and water alike. There is a call of fantasy within a fantasy.
What makes them different from the younger, fiercely market-driven couples?
Shipra says, “We were never really running after money. We were content in doing our own work. There has never been a clash between us as artists. We are very honest in giving views on art.” Shuvaprasanna is a man of many moods—something that reflects in his work.
A few months ago his tirade against the Left was expressed in a painting showing a corpse wrapped in red, resting on a table, being looked at by an assembly of people without their left arms. “It all began when Mamata Banerjee requested me to paint for a cause—for the victims of violence in Nandigram. I painted about 150 pieces. I spent from my pocket happily on the material. The proceeds of the sale went to the Nandigram victims. I take missions seriously,” he says.
Dates are important in a romance and marriage both. Shuvaprasanna was born in 1947, the year of Independence and the couple married on August 15, Independence Day. Their dependence on each other speaks only about the independence of their art.
Would the country’s art scene be half as interesting, invigorating and inspiring without these couples? No.
When culture as subject and surrounding binds a couple, disciples and artists become family; auditoria, greenrooms and galleries become a shared existence. Concerts or exhibitions, record rattling auctions and recitals become mere milestones in their seamless quest for perfection, poise and aesthetics.
To have art, the muse, the inspiration, the audience, the listener, the receiver, the canvas, the experiment, the critical view and the applause living and breathing a touch away is a blessing. The “couple” transforms into a “custodian” or precursor of a tradition living under the same roof—even before and without realising or desiring so. The Arthanareswara —Siva’s form with Parvati constituting the left half of Shiva—performing a jugalbandi—duet—is being manifested as the power couples of Indian art and culture. It’s about sharing and poise.
Few years ago, at one of her solo concerts in Bengaluru, well known Delhi-based cello artist Saskia Rao De Haas had barely begun playing the alaap when her son ran into the packed auditorium. She had no room or rhyme to panic. “Ishaan got so overwhelmed seeing me on the dais. He looked at me from a distance and all I could hear was a loud ‘Mummaaa’ yell.” Her husband, noted sitar player and Pandit Ravi Shankar’s disciple, Shubhendra Rao who was seated among the audience pressed into action, and vanished with the baby until Saskia played the last strain of music.
He says, “I felt so sorry for her, as an artist, a husband and as our child’s father—all. The situation helped us learn a lot and we became closer as artistes, friends and a couple. Shubendra and Saskia never crumble to deadline pressures over commissioned projects. They manage an endless routine tours and concerts—working from the music factory at home, interrupted by surprise SpiderMan mask appearances from a growing Ishaan. The couple is waiting for a concert date to bingo a revolutionary moment in the Indian music scene—“cutting noise” from the traditional Hindustani music concerts by using “silence” as an element. Percussion instruments and applause from the audience will be given a royal miss.
Applause is not necessarily the driving force behind some culture couples. Legendary dancers Yog Sunder and Odissi artist Geetashree became a couple during the peak in the modern Indian scene during the 1940s. In the 1950s and 1960s, they withstood several Railroko andolans and strikes, travelling with troupes and boxes full of costumes. The couple took dance ballets to army jawans on borders, to hospitals, factories, schools and colleges, through the Indian Revival Group.
Why is a “cultural couple” a subject of interest? Why does, when you catch Subodh Gupta scraping fungus infested aluminium kettles in his Gurgaon studio while grumbling about Duchamp and his Monalisa Moustaches your attention shift to his wife Bharti Kher? Why do you crave to watch Jalabala Vaidya play Rama and Sita knowing that her husband, Gopal Sharman penned this version of Ramayana 40 years ago, keeping only her in mind? Why is it the savant's hope to catch the Brootas, the Parekhs, the Hores and the Dodiyas mullling over a line or an impasto over a morning cuppa? That’s because “culture couples” are the initiators of a movement, a tributary of thought and its shapers. In the process, they turn into subjects of art themselves —like kuchhipudi maestros Raja and Radha Reddy. India’s culture couple have created an idiom of their own: artists Paresh Maity and Jayashree Burman, Atul and Anju Dhodia, Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar, Jitish and Reena Kalat, Amjad Ali Khan and Subbalakshmi, A Ramachandran and Chameli Ramachandran—the list goes on.
POWER OF TWO
The synergy produces a combined genius. Had Pandit Kumar Gandharva and Vasundhara Komkali not been a couple, the world would have been deprived of the spiritual confluence of mellifluous mirror-image improvisations in nirguni bhajans and khayalas. Far away in Odisha, Sanjukta and Raghunath Panigrahi immortalised padas from Geet Govindam.
The union is one that procreates more than just progeny. Creation becomes a continuous process, a method and measure to “evolve” in a space that extends from the bedroom to the riyaz room or the library; or the studio and exists, in entirety, alongside the couple’s togetherness. Their experiments and eccentricities wed the art form.
The result is a concert at many a crossroad: fans of the sitar-surbahar duets of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Annapoorna Devi trawling the web for bits and pieces of their music bump into each other repeatedly; only to be at war over who was a better musician. Sometimes, the culture couple is driven by the desire to shape a new genre, far away from the compulsions and customs of the fad-ridden vicious circle of performance.
Had Monika Tanvir—back then, arguably the brighter disciple of theatre guru Ebrahim Alkazi—not shared her co-artist and husband Habib Tanvir’s love for folk theatre, Indian theatre wouldn’t have so effortlessly blended with Western influences, political thought, giving shape to the tangy and the biting, witty folksy element in their dialogues.
For a couple, their journey begins from art and merges into art. Manipuri dance exponents Guru Singhajit Singh and Charu Sija Mathur have placed the North-east on the performing arts map for eternity. They have immortalised signature Mahabharata episodes, like the relationship between Arjun and Chitrangada, Draupadi swayamvara, Kalia Daman, Abhimanyu and Krishna Leela and other facets from Indian scriptures and epics. Their work is a blend of extensive research and regional aesthetics. The bond of love and togetherness between them is evident during the portrayal of episodes based on love.
The love between the culture couples isn’t what chicklit is made of. Within their homes, history is made, the best masterpieces frowned at, musical strains shunned and shrugged at. Much before their “market friendly” or politically incorrect art statements are out, works grow, crumble, are reconstructed, de-constructed, brushed and re-brushed over bedroom and breakfast banter.
For all the grumpiness he would puff out of his cigar and earth shattering one-liners in Urdu and English in makeshift stuffy greenrooms, veteran activist, playwright, actor and director Late Habib Tanvir was often seen pretending to be a reasonable listener to his wife, director, co-artist and wife Monika Tanvir. It was an unusual sight to see an unsparing Monika fan an argument, sitting on a box full of costumes in the sweltering heat, spewing sweet rebukes after rebukes to Habib over organisational issues. He would continue eating from his thaali while Monika would be simultaneously comforting him with a hand fan while rebuking him. Nagin, their daughter, would often try to fish her dad out of the arguments, sometimes right before the staging of a play, and get reprimanded for it. Monika passed away in 2004, leaving her friend and co-activist lonely, silent and thoughtful.
DANCE AND DEVOTEES
Daksha Seth and Devissaro’s story is like an intricate Pahadi painting of the raas lila—a canvas replete with art, dance, music, spirituality, nature and the human urge to be one with the Almighty through art. Since she first rode on his broken bicycle to visit Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar’s residence, where Devissaro stayed as the Dhrupad stalwart’s shishya in order to both learn and find shelter (literally), Daksha has given the country a genre within a genre over a life-long collaboration with the versatile Australian artist. Daksha was mesmerised by Devissaro’s knowledge and interest in Indian scriptures. Gradually, she discovered that he was accomplished in Indian music as well. Indian percussion instruments were not foreign to him. “Shifting base to Kerala gave us the space to be the people and the artistes we really are. I was away from my friends and almost cut off for years together. In creating the best Devissaro and I could together, I realised that we were far away from the pressure of expectations. It gave us the time to deconstruct whatever we were trained in and knew to put together works like the Sarpagati in the 1980s.”
THE GURUCOOL OF ART
For an “endangered” art to survive, there’s a dedicated Guruma (title given to the guru’s wife) at the base of a learning tree. At India’s first and foremost Dhrupad gurukul, the Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal, there are three of them. Ramakant Gundecha’s wife Renu is the fulcrum. Dressed in a beautiful sari, wearing a radiant bindi and plucking on a tanpura’s strings is the only picture the world sees of Renu Gundecha. From playing the role of the essential Guru Mom to disciples at their gurukul, Renu also accompanies her husband on the tanpura at the Gundecha Brothers’ duets. Her contribution was rewarded when Alia, a talented, but blind Pakistani student refused to return to Lahore owing to her emotional attachment with her gentle guardian.
Ramakant says, “If musicians as brothers have to survive, support first has to come from their wives and parents. Umakantji, Akhilesh and I have performed together for decades—thanks to my culturally sensitive wife. ”
Cultural sensitivity can be inclusive as well. Well known Delhi-based poet-couple Lakshmi Shankar Vajpayee and wife Mamta Kiran think in Hindustani, write in Hindustani, castigate and appreciate in Hindustani. They are a strange mix of likable arrogance and obstinacy. It’s an attitude that is born out of loyalty and commitment to quality in a regional language, in the time of popular adaptation and vapid verses—when contemporaries prefer presenting “shabdon ki chaat” (a platter of sensational, sumptuous words) to earn appreciation, and the stress on comedy is heavier than the concern for serious poetry.
The couple feel jittery about the survival of Hindi and Urdu poets in the Northern belt owing to the sad state of affairs of kavi sammelans.
Vajpayee says, “Kanpur, Allahbad, Faizabad and Unnav were the hub of Urdu and Hindi sammelans during the 1970s and early 1980s. Poets like Dinkar and Shivmangal Singh Suman don’t exist anymore. The few good ones are losing out owing to the glam factor sammelans want.” Mutual belief in quality led Mamata Kiran to struggle to spruce up the literary pages of regional newspapers she edited with prose, poetry, songs and verse from well-known and not so well-known poets during the 1980s and 1990s. She also continued to scribble free verse and ghazals. “Initially we tried our best to not let people know I was the poet Vajpayee's wife. I had wanted to make my own mark. My husband understood this so well. I appear at sammelans only when I am invited to perform separately,” she says.
Violence and art are strange bedfellows, like the late Safdar Hashmi and Mala. She still performs her murdered husband’s genre, part as tribute, part as reviving his silenced voice. Kashmir’s dark shadow is not far away from the music of Delhi-based santoor maestro Pandit Bhajan Sopori and wife Aparna Sopori’s. For more than two decades, they supported young Kashmiri students in their musical and artistic quest, in spite of “warnings”. The Soporis, who had shifted to Delhi in 1990s, continue to promote sufi music, Kashmiri literature, folk songs and music tirelessly. Pandit Bhajan Sopori says, “Violence was on the rise in Kashmir and we decided to move to Delhi.” Aparna says, “Life was tough in Delhi. He would work for very long hours at the All India Radio, sometimes, without food and sleep and compose music endlessly. He would never compromise on quality. There are still times when I have to check on him during the night over his riyaz. He can sleep sitting with his santoor after a tiring day and gets cracking after a nap.”
OUT ON THE STREETS
Culture couples are rarely separate from their mutual gestalt. When theatre director Arvind Gaur first performed his take on the well-known play Agra Bazar, in the 1980s, his wife Sangeeta Gaur stood on a rickety metal platform with a pregnant belly performing the songs for the production. Life for Sangeeta is still as adventurous. “We met in Delhi University. She was studying music. We got to know each other over theatre productions for Asmita, where she would contribute music and help train the actors.”
Arvind Gaur, known for his activism and participation in civil society movements like Anna Hazare’s, does not believe in holding back views and issues. From labour issues with plays like Honda ka Gunda, to performing classics like Karnad’s Tughlak and his perspective on Ambedkar and Gandhi in an eponymous play, Gaur has helped young minds think and act. Shocked and stumped over Hazare’s move—of disbanding Team Anna, Gaur is busy generating awareness—at Metro stations, buzzing markets and pavements, schools and colleges. Sangeeta hopes to revive “Hindi geet” and her songs of sawan is a monsoon musical delicacy well attended every year.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
The globalisation of art is evident in the works of Ruchin Soni and Nidhi Khurana, Delhi-based artists and graduates from the Baroda Art School. Khurana’s detail ridden maps and mosaics adorn tony residencies and galleries. She is presently working with cloth, paper and varrk, juxtaposing textures, influences and cultural symbols over “maps” of cities associated with her life. Soni, an artist, illustrationist, logo and storyboard designer is making inroads into less travelled territories, like workshops for children at well-known art galleries and Chhattisgarh villages. The couple set a trend, displaying a series of works at their home space early this year, as a prelude to a bigger exhibition at a Mumbai gallery.
Nidhi says, “Ruchin and I married in 2001. We work in a joint studio, which is also our living space where we discuss ideas freely.” The nature of their work requires they display work in different spaces, but that has only brought them closer as artists.
SAVING THE MUSIC
In the end, a culture couple is all about fusion. Subramaniam was in the middle of multiple feats, performing varnams in the 15-beat-cycle—considering exceptionally unthinkable owing to the rhythmic complexities and limitations involved—when his father and guru V Lakshminarayana passed away. Grief made him keep his violin aside. Vijayalakshmi, a well-known Carnatic singer herself, was the one who put him on the road to recovery. “Viji was behind me all the time. She was the one who prodded me time and again to write music for orchestras, to perform, to study and to brave criticism. One recording was leading to another, and collaborations lined up back to back. I did not have the backing for experimentation and she was all for it. She, along with my father, helped me form the language of global fusion. Her death created a void.” Kavita mended the broken bridge between his loss and his creativity. The maestro says, “Meeting Kavita was like meeting a voice. It was a turning point for both of us and our collaborations.”
Kavita says, “There is so much of positivity in the music I am doing with the family that I do not feel the absence of offers to sing for the film industry. I think I have to do a lot to help keep the Subraminams’ violin tradition alive.” The partnership is now moving to a different level, working with Bollywood singers like Shaan, Sonu Nigam, Suresh Wadekar and Lucky Ali. “Commercial” music may begin to sound a lot more melodious very soon.” Marriages are said to be made in heaven, but these culture couples are making heaven on earth with their art, music and inspiration. The influence they wield, solo and together is shaping the aesthetics of the times we now live in.