Queens of hearts

Queens of hearts

Orchestrating a group of vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers is a feat that the all-women band Sakhi has managed with aplomb, writes Surekha Kadapa-Bose


I would rather we be known as the best ensemble of Hindustani classical performers who are all women than being known only as an al women Hindustani classical musical band’!’’ emphasised vocalist Vidhushi Kaushiki Chakraborty from Kolkata, talking about her five-year-old musical band Sakhi.

There are many all-women musical bands not only in India (Tetseo Sisters, Pais and the Petticoats etc), but also in many other countries (Fanny, The Runaways, Civet etc). But what sets apart Sakhi is that it’s completely a Hindustani classical music band made up of six highly talented women performers who are individually blazing their own trail in their respective form of music and hail from illustrious musical lineage. Besides Kaushiki, the band has percussionists Mahima Upadhyay on pakhawaj, Savani Talwalkar on tabla, instrumentalists Nandini Shankar on violin, Debopriya Chatterjee on flute, and a kathak dancer Bhakti Deshpande all residing in different parts of the country. Kaushiki is from Kolkata, Mahima is from Odisha, Savani from Pune while Nandini, Debopriya and Bhakti are from Mumbai.

Experimenting streak

Kaushiki, in her late 30s, is one of the most popular vocalists ruling the world of classical music at present. Belonging to an illustrious family of musicians, her father is the famous Pt Ajoy Chakraborty of Patiala Gharana, she was always given a free hand to think out of the box in the world of music. And this is the reason why one finds Kaushiki experimenting with fusion with performers from other fields but never veering away from the purity of classical music.

In fact, it is her streak of trying something different but unique that was the reason for the foundation of Sakhi.

“When I was growing up, thoughts always came to me as to why only Lord Krishna plays the flute, why not Radha or why any percussion instrument is played only by men and not women. Even in our mythology, old sculptures or paintings, it’s always men who are shown playing these instruments. And the reason why I wanted to form a band where we had women performers who had opted for these instruments very successfully,’’ recalled Kauhiski for the reason of forming her band. She didn’t find it difficult to find her team. Aided by her father’s friends in the field of music and her own popularity as a superlative young musician, she started approaching musicians whom she wanted to join the band.

Mahima is one of the very few women performers of pakhawaj and the only girl performer from her gharana.

“For a layman, pakhawaj and mridangam (the percussion instrument used mainly in Carnatic-style of music) may look similar but pakhawaj is more majestic,’’ says the 15th generation performer of Upadhyay musical gharana from Bihar.

Daughter of the famous pakhawaj player, Pt Ravishankar Upadhyay, Mahima loves being with the group. She, like others in the band, enjoys preparing for concerts, loves exchanging ideas as all of them come from different musical gharanas and learn new things while on tour to perform.

Sakhi has performed in many cities in India and also in different countries like Japan, Nigeria, USA, UK etc.

Performers all

“With Sakhi, we have got a large new family and when we perform on stage, the audience can feel our bonding. Where else can the audience get to hear and watch six different performers — vocalist, percussionists, instrumentalists and also get a visual delight of a dance performance!’’ says the young violinist Nandini Shankar whose musical lineage starts from her mother Dr Sangeeta Shankar and maternal grandmother the Padma Visbhuhan awardee Dr N Rajam. With her sister Ragini Shankar, they form the violin sisters of Mumbai.

Another point in favour of Sakhi’s popularity with the audience is that in their repertoire they have 12-15 pieces of 10 to 15 minutes duration. So the audience gets to hear and see a range of pieces like Tarana, Kanjari, Rudrani, Radha Rang, Samanjasya, Hansini, Lokranjini and many more in one session.  

“Not all pieces are performed by everyone. Though throughout the concert, all of them are always on the stage, I am the only one who, when not dancing, moves backstage,’’ elaborates the kathak dancer, choreographer and actor Bhakti.    

Kaushiki knew both Debopriya and Bhakti but sounded them of her idea of Sakhi when, “We crossed paths at the Janfest programmes and started talking,’’ recalls Bhakti. Since 1973, Janfest is a popular Indian music festival, organised annually by St Xavier’s College in Mumbai.

Coming together

Being a daughter of vocalists and composers Robin and Krishna Chatterjee from Allahabad, who are friends with the Chakraborty family, flautist Debopriya joining the team was easy. “What I like about Sakhi is that though it’s Kaushiki’s baby, we are all equal partners. She never forces her views. We are all open to suggestions from even the youngest member, Mahima, as we accept the mastery of every performer in her sphere,’’ explains Debopriya who along with her sister Suchismita are famously known as the `flute sisters’.

The most difficult part of performing for Sakhi is time management. As all six of them are busy with their individual concerts, getting their dates together is a mammoth task. And preparing for the concert is another problem.

Though they all decide together which pieces to perform for a particular concert, they meet a day before the concert. And practice the whole day to fine-tune the final product.

“Through Sakhi we hope to inspire more women to be independent, and also like Indian classical music,’’ signs off the band Sakhi