Why are there very few women composers in India? This stock question, frequently asked of women musicians, comes loaded with the suggestion of a gender bias tilted in favor of male composers. There is no simple answer to the question, but to begin with, it could be mentioned that in the absence of any data to prove that this is indeed so, we would be relying largely on conjecture. More importantly, it would have to be stressed that in order to reach any conclusion for or against the inference, an examination of diverse forms and genres of Indian music would be required. Reaching a conclusion based almost entirely in the context of film music, where indeed, women composers have been a rarity, would not be an acceptable solution. And the moment one looks beyond Bollywood, things begin to look considerably different, because an inexhaustible treasure house of women’s songs from different regions, in styles ranging from folk songs to protest songs from the women’s movement, in a mind-boggling number of languages and dialects confirm that women compose prolifically as they have possibly always done. It is possibly a consequence of our own inability to look beyond Bollywood that we neglect this treasure, and do not consider the women who created these songs “composers”.
In the context of Hindustani classical music, there seems to be no serious dearth of women composers. Gauhar Jan, one of the first Indian musicians to be recorded as early as 1902, was also a composer in her own right, or so we learn from her pen name “Gauhar pyari” or “Gauhar, the charming” that she wove so elegantly into some of the classic compositions that she recorded. Mogubai Kurdikar, Naina Devi, Prabha Atre, Shruti Sadolikar Katkar, Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, and Alka Deo Marulkar are all women performer-composers, to name just a few. We are also told that Begum Akhtar routinely composed many of the ghazals that she immortalized, and I could keep adding more names to this fast swelling list of women composers, but am compelled to raise another question.
Is there anything that distinguishes a composition made by a woman from that made by a male composer? And if there isn’t, then what’s all the fuss about? Is it at all possible to listen to a musical work, and be able to guess whether or not it has been composed by a man or a woman? Is there a gender tracer embedded in each composition that actually provides pointers? Not that I come armed with any data to prove the point, but I doubt if it would be possible for anyone to sit back, close their eyes, listen to a melody and decipher the composer’s gender.
Song texts and lyrics may, in some instances but not always, offer some clues. But then what of compositions meant for instruments? Compositions written for instruments like sitar, sarod, sarangi, flute or tabla would not contain any textual clues that could reveal the gender of the composer. How then could one decipher feminine or masculine traits in the composition? Thankfully there is no such method available or else the very creative process of composing would fall prey to a stereotypical typecasting. All compositions by women composers would have a common feminine style and vice versa. I think we are better placed in a tradition of androgenized creativity where male qawwals with robust, distinctly male voices ecstatically sing verses like “Chhaap tilak sab chheeni re…” adopting a woman’s stance; and an Ustad Faiyaaz Khan, masculine both in appearance and gravel laden timbre of voice could sing “na maanoongi, na maanoongi, na maanoongi” with a conviction that transcended gender.