Rani Nina Ripjit Singh 1935-1953

(Selected extracts from “NIlina’s Song” by Asharani Mathur)

After the wedding in Calcutta in 1935, Nina arrived in Simla which was the summer capital of British India. It would be her first encounter with her father-in-law and the patriarch of the family Raja Charanjit Singh who had not been pleased with the marriage and had very grudgingly given his consent. Raja Charanjit Singh was the son of Kanwar Suchet Singh, the youngest brother of the ruler of Kapurthala. He was an enigmatic figure, an autocrat, held in awe by his family and feared by most of them. But part of his hostility melted away as he saw the petite, pretty figure in front of him, clearly a well brought up and well-spoken person of politeness and refinement. She was intelligent and graceful, and would shape into a most presentable official hostess for his social obligations.

Raja Charanjit Singh was an Anglophile and a stickler for detail. He entertained with great frequency and lavishness. Raja saab was known for his fine table, reputedly the one of the best in the whole of the Punjab. The food served was the kind of Anglo-European cuisine found in the highest echelons of Simla society and it was pegged to achieve a consistent standard of excellence. Nina was plunged into this world almost from the time that she arrived; for her, it was a completely new experience and a daunting one, from the bewildering array of silverware and glassware on the table to the seating by precedence at the table and the correct placing of name cards. The finer points of etiquette, all the formalities of being an official hostess and the art of polite conversation had to be mastered. Her facility for instantly absorbing and learning came to her rescue. They were qualities that stayed with her all her life and served her well on more than one occasion.

But in all her endeavors, it was her husband who helped her most in dealing with the newness of her situation and coping with the demands of his father. Kanwar Ripjit Singh, or ‘Rip’, was a tall, good-looking man who was warm and affectionate. He loved the outdoor life, doted on his wife and guided her through the social thickets of life and friendship she was about to encounter in a variety of places. Simla, very formal and very Anglicized; Lucknow and Awadh, with it’s rooted high culture; and the farm at Lionelpur, which was to become their own special idyll. But there was one area where he could not help her and where she remained inconsolable. Gone were those carefree, music-filled days of Lily Cottage. Here in her husband’s home, singing was not considered a suitable art for a lady of good family; it was the domain of prostitutes and kept women. So embedded was this taboo that she was not allowed to sing in the house. Elsewhere, it was restricted to the confines of the women’s area and only for an audience of women. Her music practice was conducted secretly and it was possible only in the deepest recesses of their private apartments.

Nina and her family moved into ‘Chapslee’ in the summer of 1940, two weeks before her first son and third child, Ratanjit, was born. Chapslee was one of the oldest houses of Simla(now Shimla). and became the house where her children grew up when they were in Simla during their summer holidays. It was the home from where their most vivid memories of their grandfather, whom they called ‘Papaji’, came. Chapslee was where Raja saab entertained senior government officials of British India including the Viceroy, Indian royalty and other distinguished guests, during ‘the season’ and where the rigidity of protocol was the order of the day. It was here that Nina was required to perform her duties as hostess which ranged from planning guest lists, elaborate menus and table seating plans and all the trappings of royal hospitality.

In the winter, living in the new city of Delhi was a necessity for Raja Charanjit Singh, due to his appointment as a Nominated Member of the Council of State since 1921. At least part of the winter was spent in the house on Akbar Road, a spacious bungalow set in ample grounds, where Nina once again performed her duty as his official hostess. Here again, the Chapslee standards of formality were maintained. Eventually, the Delhi house was sold and the family looked to its other properties.

While Chapslee was entirely formal, the real relaxation for Nina, Ripjit and the children only came when they visited their farm at Rajanagar in Lionelpur situated between Sitapur and Shahjahanpur on the National Highway from Lucknow. It was Nina who drew the rough sketch for the plan of the house they would build. She was not an architect, but she was guided by a very clear vision of what she wanted and her unerring aesthetic instinct. Finally, by 1940, the house was ready. it was a very compact yet luxurious house with well-appointed spacious rooms and was set like a jewel surrounded by beautiful gardens.

If Chapslee was Raja Charanjit Singh, Rajanagar was entirely Ripjit Singh; for his children it remained forever the happiest memory of their childhood because they were all together and had their parents all to themselves. But more than that, Rajanagar was freedom, a place where they could run around barefoot, unfettered by formality, or walk through seemingly unending fields of cane and mustard or splash across inundated paddy fields. There were no restrictions as there were in Chapslee. Here they could do whatever they liked and the times spent at Rajanagar were blissful for them.

Awadh. Rajanagar, Lucknow and the house at Outram Road were all places whose links were embedded in family history having been purchased before the events of 1857 by Kanwar Suchet Singh, Ripjit Singh’s grandfather a great friend of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s brother. For Nina, the very atmosphere in the Lucknow of the 1930s and 40s, the grace of its etiquette and courteous manner of speech, the experience of life lived once again amidst music, was almost intoxicating, the slaking of her thirst. She enjoyed their visits to the city; there was an air of nazakat, delicacy, to everything, not forgetting food. Nina’s heart, so conditioned by the influence of her grandfather Keshub Chandra Sen, responded to the syncretic nature of the legacy of the Nawabs, who understood that Muslim practices and Hindu practices could be harmonized. Nina revelled in this city, which seemed to be an echo of her own being with its spiritual wealth of temples and mosques, its imambaras raised by Shia rulers. She found herself increasingly attracted to its Islamic traditions, the mystic faith of the Sufis with its message of peace to all, its inclusivity and the devotional music of the ecstatic qawwali heard in the dargahs. Yet here also was the music of shringar: the worldly romance of the thumri, the dadra, the ghazal, with their haunting cries of love and yearning; expressed also in the poetry and dance that were part of the life of Lucknow.

In the house in Lucknow she sought to revive an old tradition of music, the private concerts, where the famous baijis of Lucknow would entertain a male audience with their singing and dancing. During each performance, Nina would listen intently from behind the chilman, soaking in every nuance of the rendition of songs, the gestures and expressions. And after the performance, she would send for the baiji and speak to her, noting down the essential details of all the songs: the words, the ragas, specific textures and colours that determined when and how they would be sung, the names of the poets. Her alert ears were quick to pick up and replicate the subtleties of Urdu diction, the degree of weight or lightness of syllable and vowel from which meaning was drawn. And the sweetness of Purabi, language of the heartland, for a variety of seasonal songs, the amorous languor of chaiti of the early summer and the sorrowful separation of kajri when heavy rains kept lovers apart. A large part of the repertoire that she carefully built up over the years and used for her own performances, and then later taught her students, was sourced from these occasions.

Such performances probably sparked off what was to be her life-long interest in the figure of the the tawaif, the baiji, the courtesan. We could certainly question why she, a lady from a privileged background, would concern herself so deeply with women completely outside her social ambit. But she herself gives a passionate explanation in a paper that she wrote: “…Thumri is more suited to the female voice, perhaps this is the reason why this form of music was practised by courtesans, Tawaifs and Baijis from Banaras, Lucknow and Gaya. It enabled them to musically emote the overwhelming injustice of their third class status as artistes and human beings , and also act as spokeswomen for their more economically privileged sisters imprisoned in the zenana, whose menfolk come to the kothas for an evening of diversion and entertainment “.

Her husband must have seen how Nina blossomed in this atmosphere and how these informal exchanges of music satisfied a kind of hunger within her that nothing else could. And surely that is precisely why he encouraged her to record music with the Columbia Record Company, which she did, cutting her first record with two Dadras. It was inconceivable that she recorded under the name of Rani Nina Ripjit Singh or that her father-in-law had any knowledge of this and so she used the name by which the world would later know her: That of “Naina Devi.”

But these wonderful days were too good to last and her life would soon change forever. For some time, Rip’s health had been causing concern and was undergoing treatment in Calcutta where they quietly celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary. The very next day a message came from Rip’s father saying that he wanted them to return immediately to Simla. It was decided that Nina would leave but Rip would stay on for a few more days. Back in Simla, Nina received a telegram saying that Rip had taken ill and that she should come to Calcutta. Alarmed, she left for Delhi from where she flew to Calcutta. But it was too late. Rip had already passed away due to a cerebral haemorrhage caused by a massive and sudden rise in his blood pressure.

Nina’s world turned upside down and she was a widow at the age of thirty two. After the shock and pain, her first thought was for her children, her daughters Nilika and Rena who were in school in Lucknow, her older son Ratanjit (Reggie) at the Welham Preparatory School in Dehradun and her youngest, Karanjit (Kenny), who was only three years old.

Nina continued to live in Rajanagar which once had been her happy rural idyll with Rip, but being a stand-alone estate, it was no place for a woman on her own. She began to realize that her life was all in her own hands, it was she and she alone who had to chart her future and that of her children, and it could not be here in Rajanagar. Finally she went to Delhi to meet her old friend, Sharda, whose husband, C B Rao, was the Director General of All India Radio, and a connoisseur of music. Both husband and wife had heard Nina sing at the very rare private and impromptu mehfils held for a limited inner social circle, and both had appreciated the quality of her voice, its sweetness and clarity. She auditioned successfully for All India Radio and travelled from Rajanagar to Delhi for recordings.

On one visit to Delhi, Sharda Rao had introduced her to a friend, Mrs Sumitra Charat Ram, who was about to set up a cultural institute in the capital and looking for a Director to manage it. It was a perfect fit for Nina and now at last it was time for her to move out and move on......