‘If music be the food of love, play on’—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.
Bani Basu’s Gandharvi (Original Bengali Gandharbi) narrates the story of Apala, her life and her musical journey. The crests and falls of her life mirror the high and low notes that she is able to sing with equal elan; however, unfortunately, the notes of her life do not have an equally happy ending. The original Bengali version of the novel had been published in 1993, the English translation makes its way into the market 24 years later. A lot has changed in this period of post-liberalization India. The urban Indian landscape of 2017, while holding on to some aspects of the past is now syncretically different than in the 1990s. A protagonist like Apala, with limited self-agency would be much more common and ‘acceptable’ in the 1990s than she would be today.
Brought up under the strict guardianship of her ‘Jethu’ (father’s elder brother) after the death of her father, Apala lives in a family that has little appreciation for her talent and passion for classical music. The first seeds of conflict are sown when Apala, after winning a prestigious scholarship, wishes to go to Lucknow to study under the great Nazneen Begum, who is dismissed by her guardian as a ‘tawaif’. He wants to marry Apala off to the first family that shows interest in her—ironically because they saw her perform at the same function and her husband to be ‘decided’ to marry her.
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In Abhimaan style, Shibnath and his family have no issues with Apala singing for All India Radio and Doordarshan, as long as she can fulfil her duties and responsibilities as a ‘model’ housewife. Subjected to marital rape, and bearing three children in quick succession, Apala finds her links with her musical world stretched to the limits, with music tuition her only link to this world. Soon after, that too snaps, as she loses her voice and ultimately her life. Bani Basu eloquently portrays the tragedy of Apala’s life—where, like that of many women shackled by patriarchy, their inherent talents and qualities are learnt when it is too late. In the epilogue written by her daughter, she acknowledges her mother as a true artist, who, when she lost her voice, turned to paintings to depict her music.
Along with Apala, other characters and the ups downs of whose lives are inextricably linked with Apala play an important role. Her kindly elderly tutor Rameshwar Babu, posited as a contrast to her guardian recognizes her talent and wishes the best for her. His wail after her death highlights the divine nature of Apala, and his own failure, like others to give it its due.
Travelling through the maze of music, if a heavenly Gandharvi, absent-minded, loses her path to reach this earth, then she has to go through insufferable pain. She gives all that she had to, wants to give even more—but we, the human Gandharvas? How much do we understand of that? In what capacity can we hold back the divine? (p. 256)
Apala’s contemporaries at Rameshwar Babu’s class—Soham, Mitul and Dipali—all go through their own conflicts and trials—Soham when he has a nervous breakdown, and is nursed back to health by Apala’s music, Dipali, who is in love with Soham, and Mitul, whose links with music stretch beyond the classical to the more contemporary and extends to other spheres like dance. Both Soham and Mitul achieve fame and fortune, however, quite fittingly perhaps, they achieve it singing contemporary songs and in dance. The world of the classical belongs to the specially endowed ‘Gandharvi’—Apala. No one can take her place in this galaxy. Other characters, like Mitul’s dancing partner Shekharan are more superfluous. Perhaps the most complex, an almost Jekyll and Hyde, character in the novel is Shibnath—Apala’s huband.
The translation by Jayita Sengupta is lucid, except in a couple of minor instances. The musical elements of the novel are well explained by the glossary at the back, and the significance of the title is elucidated in the preface by the musicologist and music critic, Meena Banerjee. Basu has succeeded in capturing the world of the arts succinctly—the world of music and Apala integrate as one—as well as the typical Bengali middle-class society and milieu. It is an easy, entertaining read, filled with idioms of classical music. The connoisseurs of music and the arts will surely enjoy the novel, and may even find common intersections between their lives and Apala’s.
Madhumita Chakraborty is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Zakir Husain Delhi College (Evening), University of Delhi.