Shruthi Vishwanath

Arts Practice
2016-2017

Grant Period: over one year

Shruthi Vishwanth is a musician, educator and composer based in Pune. With a background in both the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions of music, she has also trained in abhangs and performed extensively on individual and collaborative music projects. Her interest in arts education gave her an opportunity to work with Junoon Theatre in Mumbai and the Rhapsody Music Foundation in Chennai. Currently, she is involved with the Agastya Foundation in designing arts curriculum for children in rural Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. This grant enables Shruthi to musically interpret and bring into performance the abhangs of women warkari saints.

Abhangs are spiritual poetry especially dedicated to the deity Vithoba or Vittala of Pandharpur. Mostly sung in the north Karnataka-Maharashtra regions, these songs are integral to the warkari pilgrimage. It is typically a journey of 21 days from Dehu or Alandi to Pandharpur, undertaken in the months of June and July. The warkari movement began in the late 13th century with the saint-poet Gnyaneshwar and continues to this day.

Shruthi’s connection with singing abhangs goes back to her childhood when she participated along with her mother in group sessions where she learnt and sang the compositions of saint poets like Tukaram, Namdev, Eknath, Gyaneshwar, Chokhamela, Kanhopatra and others. However, it was in 2015, that her engagement with abhangs was rekindled when she met Jacqui Daukes, scholar and researcher from SOAS, London. Jacqui was doing her doctoral work on the women warkari saint poets and had brought out new translations of poems written by these women. Her work revealed that although compositions of women saints exist in print, they are hardly performed by the warkaris themselves.

Inspired by the work of Jacqui, Shruthi began to study the works of about 20 women warkaris composed over the centuries. A few songs of Muktabai and Janabai were being sung and some singers were faintly acquainted with Kanhopatra but they had never heard of composers like Aubai, Limbai, Gonabai, Bahinabai and a dozen other women poets – all of who had been well documented in written texts. Jacqui in her thesis wrote, ‘it seemed to me that female poet-sants were marginalised as addendums to the male poet-sants and as footnotes to history.’ In all of this, Shruthi says, the identity of the women and their spirit are lost, and so is the essence of their compositions.

Like a lot of women’s voices from across the world, the poems of the warkari women also have several characteristics that make them both endearing and challenging, Shruthi observes. There is a simplicity and rawness to the poetry that is endearing; and an outspokenness that makes it challenging to translate or to sing, she writes in her proposal. For instance, there is an abhang where Gonabai, mother of Namdev, is reprimanding her son for not taking care of worldly matters. Another abhang by Janabai, in unabashed tender and sensuous tones, talks of her intimate relationship with Vittala. Although these compositions are in praise of Vittala, they are fiercely feminist and are vocal about bodily processes and bodily desires. Such pieces offer Shruthi immense scope for musical explorations, in terms of finding appropriate idioms for their expression, choosing ragas sensitively and breaking existing metre to attempt alternative rhythms and movements.

This grant will enable Shruti to compose some rare abhangs of the women saints and bring them into the public domain through performance. The project will commence with an intense period of research that will involve travelling to Alandi, Dehu, Pandharpur and other warkari sites across Maharashtra. Shruti will meet warkari communities to understand further the context of women composers and what they mean to practitioners in contemporary times. The highpoint of this travel will be her Pandharpur yatra along with the warkaris in June and July where she will meet several groups of abhang singers.

The research will inform her choice of 10 to12 abhangs that she will create as musical pieces. Translations of all these songs will also be made available. In cases where translations do not exist, Shruti will translate them with advisory help from experts. Some of these songs will be composed and performed in collaboration with other artists as well. Shruti’s collaborators on this project include Kathak dancer Sanjukta Wagh, Tabla player Shruteendra Katagade, singer and multi-instrumentalist Vedanth Bharadwaj and Sarangi player Yuji Nakagawa.

The project will result in two performances that will include musical and dance presentations of these abhangs, one in either Pune or Mumbai and another in Alandi or Dehu. Six songs will be studio recorded and made freely available online on youtube or soundcloud. Shruti’s deliverables to IFA will be translations of the chosen songs, audio recordings of the studio recorded songs and video documentation of the performances. The budget is commensurate with the proposal. 

IFA’s decision for making this grant comes from our desire to support critical and challenging work in the field of music. Over many years, IFA has made several efforts to solicit music projects that address the frameworks of IFA’s programmes, without much success. Thus, this project is perhaps one of the very few music projects in practice that IFA has ever supported. It is hoped that this project will open new approaches, methodologies and creative possibilities in music, while also connecting us to the ground realities of the field.