New generation of women instrumentalists in Indian Classical Music 

Indian classical music’s instrumental sphere has been lacking in woman torch bearers, however this generation is changing the fabric. We bring to you stories of these six women instrumentalists who are brewing the winds of change in this traditional space.

There are countless greats in Hindustani classical tradition; when you think of the top instrumentalists, whose names come to mind? Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Shahid Parvez; as you may or may not have realized, there is a noticeable lack in female names. The entire instrumental sphere of music, particularly percussion, has typically remained untouched by female artists. This is due to many reasons including misinformation, religious beliefs, conservative mindsets, and the general patriarchal path that the instrumental tradition holds. However, this generation is changing the fabric, though it may still take some time for these artists to come to the forefront of the music scene and become household names. Here are a few of the upcoming generations’ talented and knowledgeable female instrumentalists that you should know.

Anupama Bhagwat (Sitar)

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Her family came from South India up to North India, bringing various music influences into her playing. She often states that her musicality is also owing to her family’s musical traditions – her father’s violin playing or her grandmother’s veena skills, and the fact that music was always playing in her house, leading to an atmosphere of music. Reminiscing of a time speaking to her guru, Pandit Bimalendra Mukherjee, “at that point, I knew it was not something I was going and learning something and coming out of it- it was something really deep.”

Jayanthi Kumaresh (Veena)

jayanthi-kumaresh-veena

This musician comes from the lineage of several female musicians as it is; in fact, her mother, Smt. Lalgudi Rajalakshmi first began training her when she was just 3 years old. Her powerful strikes and musicality please listeners and musicians alike, and she has performed with a great many artists, even going so far as to form a group titled “The Indian National Orchestra” to experience music with different types of artists. Apart from being an accomplished musician, she often speaks about music and music history in her videos, spreading knowledge in many different ways. She carries on her tradition boldly and with the knowledge that she has opportunities that the women before her did not have the opportunities that she has now, citing a great deal of experiences of her aunt, Padmavathy Ananthagopalan, “[at that time], women in India were not even expected to perform publicly.”

 

Rajna Swaminathan (Mridangam)

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Female percussionists are incredibly rare, but Rajna Swaminathan has unapologetically thrown herself into the study of the Carnatic instrument, the mridangam. On top of this, her training was undertaken by some of the top musicians of the classical world, and apart from this, trains herself in other fields as well. Though she has toured at many festivals with various musicians, including TM Krishna, her work does not stop at the stage. She identifies, like many other musicians today, as not just a performer, but an artist-scholar, and often aims to incorporate themes of politics, ethics, and discussion of gender into her study… The endeavours which she has undertaken include writing soundtracks for dance shows, conducting workshops at prestigious academies such as the Banff International Jazz and Creative Music Workshop and the Percussive Arts Society International Convention.

 

Mita Nag (Sitar)

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Mita Nag also comes from an established musical family; her father and grandfather were both well-known masters of the sitar, exponents of the Vishnupur Gharana. Through her training, which began at the age of 4, she began to develop more of her gharana’s qualities, which features the calm and powerful notes of the dhrupad vocal style. Earning several fellowships and awards at an alarmingly young age, she not only played at many famous festivals, but also began studying the history of her gharana, which is almost 300 years old. Not afraid to share her opinions, she remains critical of today’s society that requires that artists play for popularity, instead of purity. “I believe that artists are capable of changing the society.” Creativity and purity in aalaap are the trademarks of her style, as well as the dhrupad characteristics that are specific to the six generations of the Vishnupur Gharana that she descends from.

Nandini and Ragini Shankar (Violin)

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These two young artists descend from a family of violinists, first receiving training from their grandmother, the renowned Dr N. Rajam. They both started performing around the age of 10 and have been on an upwards journey ever since, thanks to the training and guidance of their mother and grandmother. Nandini Shankar shares that they “have been encouraged since a young age to listen to have an open mind and explore all things that are beautiful in music.” She is involved in many projects including Kaushiki Chakraborty led project, ‘Sakhi,’ an all-women ensemble of classical musicians. At such a young age, both Ragini and Nandini Shankar are extremely accomplished and are being called to several music festivals, including the Saptak Festival music, Dover Lane Festival, Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Festival, and many more. In fact, the entire family of musicians often performs together in a complete cross-generational show of the feminine firepower.

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