Songs my Mother Taught Me: Archiving the history of family music from across India

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Songs my Mother Taught Me: Archiving the history of family music from across India

Songs my Mother Taught Me: Archiving the history of family music documenting oral history 30stades

Like in many Indian households, at the rear of Ritu Mathur’s home is a wooden cupboard jammed with contents that appear in sepia: disintegrating notebooks, a harmonium, and a tabla consisting of its two drums, the daayan and the baayan. The notebooks, their dog-eared, thumb-printed pages slowly turning to dust, hold traces of oral history – songs, for every festival and occasion. Uma Krishna, Ritu’s mother, a trained classical music singer, created these records diligently over six decades, categorizing them based on the festival, the season, the Raga. These songs were typically sung as a chorus, always with family – they represent what Ritu calls ‘family music.’

Characteristically, in Indian families, women were the keepers of this intergenerational musical archive.

When listened to closely, such songs reveal insights into their everyday lives and perspectives.  Family occasions provided the platform for compositions, some of which were of a high calibre.

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Joint families – the performers and the audience

Because of the joint family system, families would be the singers and they would also be the audience. It was known that during the fixing of marriages, the best family singer would be put on display with the accompanying members giving choral support or happily playing the table or harmonium.

Younger children would be put to task to turn the pages of the songbooks and no one attended a family function without their precious diaries. Typically, though, women who had studied music or the arts did not get a larger stage to express themselves.  

Women have been the keepers of intergenerational musical archive. Pic: Family Music Archive 30stades
Women have been the keepers of intergenerational musical archive. Pic: Family Music Archive

The stage was therefore the family functions and the songs tended to capture the events of the times. Songs were composed around the affluent ‘Government’ relatives, around gifts which came for a newly born child from London, on the acquiring of a car and other social occasions. Songs also became bolder in expression when the women would consider the occasion appropriate to tease the menfolk in an otherwise patriarchal setup.

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Ritu inherited her mother’s deep love for music. And during the isolation of the pandemic, it started simply, by revisiting the cupboard. She began to sing every day, moving through each notebook – and over time, when she had forgotten a tune, or couldn’t read some lyrics, she began calling relatives, asking for recordings.

During the pandemic, when older people were the most vulnerable and anxious, Ritu’s music project -- Family Music Archive -- became a source of collective joy and survival and so she began collecting songs she hadn’t heard before.

As word got around, and she circulated the recordings on WhatsApp, she began to receive hundreds of songs. Thus began her family archive: ‘Songs my mother taught me.’ 

“The history of family music is an oral history – and little is being done to preserve it,” says Ritu.

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“This archive aims to be as broad as possible, and hopes to collect a diverse range of family music from different religious and class structures in India,” she says.

Rather than reinscribing the role of women in the domestic/religious sphere, the archive recognizes them as guardians and orchestrators of collectivity. “The so-called ‘glue’ that kept us all together,” says Ritu. 

Songs from every home

Songs of several talented women have been preserved, thanks to Ritu’s musical project.

One of the recordings is of Premlata Jhawar. Born in 1925, she was an extremely talented singer. She was supported by both her family and the Jhawar family of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in pursuing her music. Back in 1947, when she got married, women would only sing in family functions and within the community but none of them could take music up professionally.

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Premlata overcame this obstacle in a very unusual manner.

For 65 years she sang like a pro at her family weddings. This included the weddings of her 11 children and 10 grandchildren.

At that time, she became a household name amongst the Marwari community in Calcutta.

At one of her granddaughter’s weddings held in the 1970, all her songs were recorded. After her passing, the memory of her music slowly faded. However, 19 of her amazing songs were shared with the project by her son RK Jhawar. This archived music has now been preserved and is available for all to hear.

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Sushma Seth, the well-known veteran theatre and film actress, has also been the custodian of her family’s musical heritage.

She and the singers of her family professionally recorded songs that they have been singing for generations. These were private albums that were circulated in the extended family.

Sushma Seth shared these songs sung by her family to Ritu’s project archive. At the same time, some songs were recorded by Sunita Srivas who belongs to the Kanpur dehat region. “To our surprise, we found that some of the songs shared were common. There is a common thread in family music that grounds all of us to our roots and our culture,” says Ritu.

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Sushma Mathur from Patiala has a rich heritage of family songs. She also learned Indian Classical Music. Pic: Family Music Archive 30stades
Sushma Mathur from Patiala has a rich heritage of family songs. She also learned Indian Classical Music. Pic: Family Music Archive

Zaboors’ as a form of family music is not so well-known. When Ishnita Nayantara Keshkar heard of this attempt at preserving music she shared these songs and their amazing history with the project.

These Zaboors were metrical translations of the Book of Psalms from the Bible and originated in the late 1800s when they were translated from English to Punjabi.

“She felt the need to preserve this fading musical heritage for future generations,” Ritu says.

Shubh, Sushma and Subodh Mathur belong to Patiala. They have a rich heritage of family songs that were written for Mathur weddings in Urdu. Ritu says that in the family, the menfolk were educated in Urdu and English and the women in Hindi and Sanskrit. “These four languages thrived in their home and produced an extremely diverse, creative and multi-faceted family culture. Their family songs have a unique aesthetic that one does not hear today.”

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Poonam Consul shared a recording of her wedding songs, recorded by her mother 45 years ago. Poonam traced the history of these songs to her great grandfather who brought up his family in the Hamlet of Kurwar, Uttar Pradesh in the 1930s. “The fact that these songs are still sung by the family today is inspirational. A study in how Family Music can bind families together for so many generations,” she says.

Uma Krishna knew as she made dozens of notebooks filled with songs, that she was not just archiving family music. It represented to her the essence of collectivity. “Family music being discovered now provides us with an entry point into the emotional landscape of women’s everyday lives from 1920 onwards. As a historical project, it has very urgent implications in today’s world, where we find ourselves further distanced from each other - our differences amplified, and our similarities obscured,” Ritu says.

“Through forms of collective artmaking - we might be able to see beauty in diversity - to let ourselves be curious and to learn to sing along again,” she adds.

Our mothers would be proud. 

(Dakshita Das is a retired civil servant specialising in public policy and gender issues; Vasundhara Mathur is a researcher and writer based in London, specialising in feminist archives.)

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