Free Press Journal

Nilina’s Song: The Life of Naina Devi by Asha Rani Mathur- Review


Book: Nilina’s Song: The Life of Naina Devi
Author: Asha Rani Mathur
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Pages: 201; Price: Rs 595


The book is an engaging biography of musician, Naina Devi, whose life took her through fundamental changes of environment and fortune. Each turning point reflected significant shifts in history, as well as, geography, from post-Renaissance Bengal to the glamour of Viceregal Simla; from the glittering social life of royalty in the Raj era to the elegance of Nawabi lifestyles of Awadh and Rampur; and finally to a newly-independent Delhi.

Through extensive interviews with her family and friends, the author traces the saga of a woman who reinvented herself and her persona, from the young Nilina, grand-daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, steeped in the philosophy of the Brahmo Samaj, to Raja Nina Ripjit Singh, wife of an aristocrat of Punjab, and then, as circumstances changed to Naina Devi, seeker of music, who found her peace and her vocation in the world of the performance arts.

The book is divided in to three main chapters beginning with Nilina Sen. In the second chapter, ‘Rani Nina Ripjit Singh’, Nilina’s (now Nina’s) father-in-law Raja Charanjit Singh in a curt telegram gave his consent (to Ripjit Singh’s wedding to Naina) grudgingly and coldly but gracelessly withheld his blessings. A para in that chapter speaks of the difference between Nina’s Calcutta home and the atmosphere at her in-law’s place: “Gone were those care-free, 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.”

Also, the stark difference in the ambience at Charanjit Singh’s place (Chapslee) and their own (Rajanagar) can be seen in the following paragraphs, which highlight the impact on their children: “Life in Chapslee was regimented, pretty much like Charanjit Singh’s own life… In the late morning, they (children) would be taken to meet their grandfather and they were trained to bow respectfully low and fold their hands as they greeted him. Any kind of noisiness or boisterousness befitting their age was strongly discouraged. The lawn was a favourite place because here they could sing nursery rhymes and play little games though presumably they were not allowed to shriek or roll in the grass or engage in any form of spontaneity which comes so naturally to children.”

Another para goes on to say: “Chapslee was all formality and the real relaxation for Nina, Ripjit and the children only came when they visited their farm in Lucknow… If Chapslee was Charanjit, 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… Rajanagar was freedom, a place where they could run around barefoot, unfettered by formality… sliding down haystacks, trotting on ponies, enveloped in the warmth and affection of their parents.”

After Rip’s sudden demise, life took an ugly turn for Nina. Concerned that Nina may get remarried, her father-in-law Charanjit Singh tried to gain custody of her children. After she learnt that Charanjit Singh feared that she might try to poison him, she decided to move on. Nina had no money so she went to Delhi and met her friend Sharda Rao, whose husband was a Director General in All India Radio (AIR). The Raos had entered her life as guardian angels, to guide her.

In the chapter Naina Devi, it is mentioned how in 1965 when Indira Gandhi was Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Naina was asked to work on performing arts programmes for AIR and later Doordarshan, then the only TV channel in the country. Nina had earlier said that she adopted the pseudonym ‘Naina Devi’ as she could not sing under her own name and she did not wish to offend her family.

It has been said that life comes full circle. Naina’s father-in-law, Charanjit Singh, was in a state where his daughter told Naina to take over since she couldn’t handle him anymore. When he finally wrote, “Nina I need you,” she went to meet him. He had treated her shabbily but she refused to dwell on the past and instead chose to respond with kindness, which speaks volumes about her. Her contribution to the cause of performing arts and music, in particular, brought her public recognition through the award of the Padma Shri in 1974.

Now, age and health were not on her side. One day she called a friend, Uma Sharma, to her place and they listened to an old tape recording of Naina singing all the forms she was so famous for. A few hours after her friend had left, Naina passed away due to a fatal stroke. Her friend felt Naina wanted to share her music with her, as a way of saying farewell.

For Naina herself there could have been no better way to go, listening once more to her own voice in its pure and flawless prime, floating out of life on sublime clouds of music. Apart from Nilina’s evolution, the book is a treasure chest of music and musical instruments, has a lot of historical info and rare evocative B&W images of India from the age of the Maharajas till the 1990s, etc. All in all, a well-rounded book.