For the Love of a Goddess

Last week, on Monday the 4th February, students of the Journalism stream at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai were treated to an illuminating documentary called Music for a Goddess. This film was made by an American lady named Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, along with her husband Nazir Jairazbhoy, who is no more with us. Amy is a Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), USA. She teaches the subject “Music of Bollywood and Beyond”. A few months every winter, for as long as I can recall, she visits India to explore further the music forms of our culture. Every self-respecting musician in India has at least heard of her, if not known her. So much so, that if you are a serious musician in India and haven’t even heard of Amy, it argues yourself unknown. Before we go further, just in case you didn’t know, ethnomusicologists do look at musical instruments, their sound and construction, and where these instruments can belong–in the firmaments of an orchestra for example—but they go beyond that. They study the origins of musical instruments and the people who play them. They trace the social and cultural lives of specific people associated with music systems, and consider the folksy merit of such peoples’ dance and music forms.

Music for a Goddess plots the amazing story of an Indian Goddess called Renuka, which is her name in southern parts of Maharashtra, or Yellama, as she is known in parts of northern Karnataka, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. This Goddess has perhaps half a million devotees, mostly endemic to these regions. She is the goddess of the Dalit devadasis and their families.

In the patriarchal society that we live in, giving birth to boys is a great thing, while the reverse is true if a girl is born. In some parts of India, particularly in economically deprived sections of society, births of girls lead to them becoming devadasis. What happens is this: when girls achieve puberty, they are “married off” to God, which means they cannot marry any mortal being. But relationships are fine, there’s no taboo there. So they are in effect traded to the best bidder, who maintains them to begin with. Soon enough, they end up having multiple partners, effectively making them prostitutes. All this before they even begin to understand sexuality. Has the practice been outlawed? Of course it has, from immediately after Independence. But in India’s babel of anarchy, the Devadasi Abolition Bill has been enormously watered down to effectively render it meaningless. However, there is much more to the devadasis than selling their bodies. They have their rituals. And they have their music. Which is where Amy and her husband come in for us.

Fascinated by the music, dance, culture and social lives of the community, ethnomusicologists Jairazbhoys toured deep into the regions of southern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka. They met with hundreds of devadasi families, interacted with them, looked at their music and dance, examining all that from up close. They filmed much, and in the film used the concept of fictive documentary, the technique involving the Goddess Renuka/Yellama herself speaking to us, telling us about her origins and how she came to be. As also how she came to get so many followers.

The Goddess has followers called Jogtas and Jogtis—boys and girls who have been ordained by society to dedicate their lives to the service of a God. Such people sing and dance in praise of this Goddess. The main instrument these followers play is called the chaundka—also called chaundke—which is a single stringed variable-tension chordophone. Imagine a cylindrical container, typically about 6 inches in diameter and 8 inches in height, with a base but no lid. Make a hole at the bottom of the base, push a gut or metal string through it and tie it around a wooden cross-bar outside the base. Take the upper end and fasten it to another wooden cross-bar, which will become the handle. Next, tie a bunch of ghunghrus to this handle. The string now becomes about 10 inches long. The instrument is ready once you hook it up with a strap which will go over your shoulder. You hold the drum between your arm and chest, with your non-dominant hand holding the wooden handle. As a finger of the dominant hand plucks the string, it sounds a pulse, which resonates in the chamber. If now the non-dominant hand pulls and relaxes the string, the pitch rises and falls respectively. With the ghunghrus also getting into the act, the aural experience becomes very nice to hear.

The chaundka sounds similar to the damru, the hand-held twin drum associated with Lord Shiva, but more commonly used by street performers like monkey trainers called madaris. Thus, even some percussionists get confused when differentiating between the sounds of the two instruments. Our cinema has used the chaundka in several songs, of which here are some:

  • Hum kheton ke maharaj (Geeta, Rafi, Pushpa Hans/Nazim Panipati/Vasant Desai/Sheesh Mahal, 1950)
  • Gehri gehri nadiya mein bahi chali jaoon re (Lata/Shewan Rizvi/Shivram Krishna/Surang, 1953)
  • Teen deep aur chaar dishaayen (Lata, unknown male voice/PL Santoshi/Shivram Krishna/Teen Batti Chaar Rasta, 1953)
  • O balle balle din dhale hawa jab chale (Kishore, Shamshad/Rajinder Krishan/Madan Mohan/Ilzaam, 1954)
  • Shivji bihaane chale palki sajaaya ke (Hemant/Sahir/SD Burman/Munimji, 1955)
  • Tum sang preet lagaayi rasiya (Lata/Shailendra/Shankar-Jaikishan/New Delhi, 1956)
  • Meri chhoti si behen dekho gehne pehen (Geeta, Lata/Bharat Vyas/Vasant Desai/Toofan Aur Diya, 1956)
  • Aika ho aika dada (Suman Kalyanpur/PL Santoshi/N Datta/ Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke, 1957)
  • Itne bade jahaan mein aye dil tujhko (Lata/Shailendra/Shankar-Jaikishan/Kathputli, 1957)
  • Dupatta mera malmal ka (Asha, Geeta/Rajinder Krishan/Madan Mohan/Adalat, 1958)
  • Such kehta hai Johnny Walker (Asha/Farukh Qaisar/Roshan/Aji Bas Shukriya, 1958)
  • Meri dulhan Bareilly se aayi re (Asha, Usha Mangeshkar/Khumar Barabankvi/Ravi/Mehndi, 1958)
  • Kaise bijli chamak gayi (Manna Dey, Asha, Rafi, Chaand Kumari/Majaaz Lucknowi/Ghulam Mohammad/Do Gunde, 1959)
  • Mera naam Raju gharaana anaam (Mukesh/Shailendra/Shankar-Jaikishan/Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, 1960) 
  • O chhalia re chhalia re man mein hamaar (Asha, Rafi/Shakeel/Naushad/Ganga Jamuna, 1961)
  • Zara si aur pila do bhang (Rafi, Asha/Sahir/Ravi/Kaajal, 1965)
  • Wo aa rahe hain saamne se (Usha Khanna/Rajinder Krishan/Madan Mohan/Ladka Ladki, 1966)
  • Gore gore mukhde pe matwaari akhiyaan hain (Krishna Kalle, Rafi/BD Mishra/SN Tripathi/Shankar Khan, 1966)
  • Patthar patthar par likh do re (Mahendra/Pradeep/Shivram Krishna/Veer Bajrang, 1966)
  • Bus yehi apraadh main har baar karta hoon (Mukesh/Neeraj/Shankar-Jaikishan/Pehchaan, 1970)

There is another instrument the Renuka/Yellama devotees play, that can get remarkably close in sound to the chaundka. It is called tuntuna. But that is most often used as a secondary instrument, ie, in addition to the chaundka. The tuntuna is also a drum, open at the top, But it has a long rod stuck to the inside of the drum, typically rising about 12 inches from it. The top of this rod is where the string is tied, while the bottom of the string is tied to the cylinder’s base as in the chaundka. Because you cannot pull or release the string while playing, the pitch cannot be varied, thus we hear just a drone to accompany the singers.

For clearing the confusion in my mind as to which songs had the damru and which the chaundka, I owe a deep thank you to Deepak Borkar, arguably the country’s leading percussionist. Thanks to Amy and Nazir, I now know what a tuntuna is too. That takes me to Tuntun, the fat comedienne in old Hindi films. Wonder where she got her name from.


Published on page 13 in DNA Jaipur on 10th February 2019

Featured image: Two chaundkas