Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A musical journey

My Story, Oct '13
Transgender activist Amitava Sarkar writes about her lifelong pursuit of music, leading to the Songs of the Caravan, the first musical album of its kind in India cut by nine trans women from different parts of the country; a joint initiative of Jeevan Trust, a Delhi-based NGO that works with art and media for social welfare; Abhivyakti Foundation, Delhi; and PlanetRomeo Foundation, The Netherlands.

Music is an eternal and universal medium that brings peace of mind. My journey with music started a long time ago when I was a child and my mother appointed a music teacher for me to learn Rabindra Sangeet. My mother had a great impact on my life. She used to tell me there were no human emotions or feelings that Rabindranath Tagore had not talked about. She could not complete her own music course because of higher studies and family responsibilities. But the values and love for music that she inculcated in me seemed to help her fulfill her dreams. I was also enthusiastic to know what music was all about and why Tagore was so important.

My music teacher used to stay in the same locality as ours and came to teach me twice a week after I came back from school. My uncle gifted me a harmonium for my learning. Unfortunately, because of the pressure of studies I could not continue my music lessons for long. Moreover, we had to change our house and there was no music teacher in our new neighbourhood. There was a pause in my music learning but it could not finish the zeal inside to go further.

I started to dress like a girl when I was in the fourth standard. As I said, my mother had a strong influence on my upbringing. I started to consider myself a girl right from childhood and would love to wear my mother’s clothes. I often emulated her as a teacher while playing make believe with my friends. At that point of time I did not have any words to explain what I felt, and it was much later in life that I realized about being male-to-female transgender or a trans woman.

I had to face many problems in establishing myself, and it took me a long time to be in the position where I am today. All these years Tagore’s songs helped me regain my composure whenever I became upset. I could relate to his songs with my entire being and that helped me overcome many problems as a trans woman. Transgender people have to deal with many challenges because of their non-conforming gender orientation, and Tagore’s songs can help them towards self-realization and overcoming mental stress. There are many songs written by Tagore that give hope and courage to everyone. At every turn in my life I found his songs as close friends, providing me constant emotional support.

Photo credit: Songs of the Caravan

My love for Tagore’s songs amplified day by day and I was lucky during my school and college life to find so many veteran Rabindra Sangeet exponents (most of them are no more today), each with a unique style of singing. This left a deep impression on my mind and nourished the interest to start learning again this beautiful treasure of emotion and feelings created by Tagore.

During my higher secondary and graduation studies I got many opportunities to attend a variety of musical programmes where legendary artists like Suchitra Mitra (who later became my music teacher) and Gita Ghatak used to perform. I use the word ‘perform’ instead of ‘singing’ for a reason. The presentation of music is a form of art, and singing a song goes beyond paying attention to the tune or musical notes. It is also about imbibing the essence of the song and then presenting it with proper understating and emotion so that it can touch people’s hearts.

When I used to learn Rabindra Sangeet from my late guru Suchitra Mitra, she emphasized that I should read a song again and again, as that would help me grasp its essence. This is one of the main techniques for learning any kind of music, but more so Rabindra Sangeet, which relates to human emotions so closely and is therefore able to cross linguistic and geographical barriers.

Suchitra Mitra continued to influence me beyond school and college days. I respect all singers, but yes, if it is a matter of choice, then no one other than her comes to mind. Her dedication and bold style made Rabindra Sangeet popular among so many of us. My dream came true when after finishing graduation I joined her music school Rabitirtha for a five-year diploma in Rabindra Sangeet. She used to take classes for the fourth and fifth year students at Rabitirtha. Our paths crossed often and my respect for her kept growing. Finally the time came when I entered the fourth year and for the next two years, I learned many techniques from her to sharpen my musical skills.

Even after getting a first class diploma from her institution, I continued to attend her classes for the seniors for the next couple of years. In this period, I got many opportunities to perform under her guidance, and I treasured these occasions. Some of us also formed a small group to continue these efforts at various levels. Under the supervision of our classical music teacher, we used to perform at various places using innovative ideas and received quite a bit of appreciation. Our group also received an invitation from Dhaka University and that was an awesome experience. Bangladesh has many talented Rabindra Sangeet singers and performing before true music lovers helped me raise my confidence. But by now my work as a transgender activist started growing and I could not continue with my singing as before. I still sang at small events, but not much more.

In 2012, I met Anubhav Gupta, Director, Jeevan Trust who was planning a pan-Indian musical album called Songs of the Caravan involving trans woman singers. Since my work was mostly about advocacy for trans women, I had to say yes to singing for the album. Music can be a great means of reaching out to people and sensitizing them. I introduced Anubhav Gupta to other transgender colleagues and friends who were singers. For my own contribution to the album, I chose two of Tagore’s well known songs Jodi Tor Dak Shune Keu Na Ashe Tobe Ekla Cholo Re (If to Your Call None Come Forth, then Alone Move on) and Prano Bhoriye Trisha Horiye (Fill My Soul, Quench My Thirst). The logic behind my choices was to emphasize the need for self-esteem and optimism among trans women.

A total of nine trans women have recorded 13 songs for the album in various Indian styles and languages. Apart from me from West Bengal, Akkai from Karnataka, Ankur Patil from Gujarat, Hansa from Rajasthan, Kalki Subramaniam from Tamil Nadu, Kalyani from Maharashtra, L. Kanta from Manipur, Madhurima from Andhra Pradesh, and Rani from Delhi have contributed to the album. Songs of the Caravan (www.songsofthecaravan.in), announced in May 2013 but yet to be released in the market, is an important milestone in my life and for trans woman communities as well. After all it is the first music album of its kind in India where all the singers are trans women. We hope to spread the message of equality though this unique musical effort. Cheers for music and cheers for equality!


Amitava Sarkar is an advocate, trainer and filmmaker on health and development concerns of trans women in India, and music is one of her passions.

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