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Spotlight On The Women Artists In The 14th Annual LearnQuest Music Conference

Shuchita Rao

Spotlight on the Women Artists in the 14th Annual LearnQuest Music Conference

Four prominent women artists are being featured in the 2019 LearnQuest Music Conference to be held on March 29, 30 and April 1 at Regis College, Weston. Violinist Lalgudi Smt. Vijayalakshmi, and vocalists Begum Parween Sultana, Smt. Sudha Raghunathan and Smt. Pooja Goswami Pavan will perform during this year’s music festival. In addition, as a proud member of Learnquest faculty, I will give a lecture on “Thirty Influential Women Performers” on Saturday, March 30 at 10:30 AM at the Regis College venue. Renowned female composers, vocalists, instrumentalists and musicologists of yester-years who paved the way for women to adopt music as a noble profession will be profiled in this presentation.

In a country where Saraswati, the venerated Goddess of Knowledge, Arts and Music is a female deity, it has taken an unusually long time for women musicians to come to the forefront and to be recognized as well as acknowledged for their contribution to the arts and society. It is only approximately in the past 100-120 years, after remaining in the background as the primary caretakers of home and family that Indian women composers, performers and teachers have been accorded the rightful respect they deserve as professional artists.

Literature about independent professional women artists before the 18th century is scant. During the late 17th century, 18th and up until the early part of the 19th century, women artists were looked down upon. In Northern India, sophisticated courtesans known as â€œtawaifs” (nautch-girls) catered to the pleasure of the nobility during the Mughal era and to the British troops and Nawabs during colonial times. Many of them were skilled artists contributing to music, dance, theatre and the literary tradition. As independent women artists, they held performances on a regular basis in their own private salons known as kothas or balakhanas. Similarly, in parts of Southern and Eastern India, up until 1947, talented female musicians and dancers known as “devadasis” (female servants of the divine) or joginis dedicated their life to the worship and service of a Hindu deity or temple. They did not have the legal right to marry. In 1947, the Madras Devadasi Act (Devadasi Abolition Bill) reversed this practice and made it illegal to dedicate girls to Hindu temples.

It took courage and concerted effort on part of women artists to rise above the negative image of the courtesan/devadasi culture and to earn respect as professional artists. They began traveling outside home to give public performances and fought to be paid fees for their work. Over the last hundred years, women have finally come to be recognized and respected for their contributions to arts, culture and the society. Social stigma against performing women musicians that once was rampant has finally lifted.

Here is biographical information compiled by Smt. Satyavati Rao and Dr. Akash Deep about the women artists who will perform in the 2019 LearnQuest Music Festival.

Hindustani Vocalist – Begum Parween Sultana

Begum Parween Sultana was born in Assam to parents from Afghanistan and Iran. Her mother spotted her potential; her father was her first guru. He was strict, permitting her to only listen to Lata Mangeshkar and established Indian Classical vocalists. Even today, Begum Parween Sultana says “I think even God must be a great fan of Lataji’s voice. I have been listening to her since childhood, and I’ve learnt a lot from her…..her expressions and voice are exceptional. Many classical singers want to imitate her.”

Parween received early training from her grandfather, a Pathan. She later learned music from Sangeet Acharya Pt. Chinmoy Lahiri of Bengal, at whose home she met her next guru – and husband – Ustad Dilshad Khan of the Patiala Gharana. Her first stage performance was at the age of 12. At 25, she was conferred the Padmashri by the Government of India. In 2014, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan. Along the years, she has gathered many awards including the Gandharva Kalanidhi, Miyan Tansen Prize, and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

Begum Parween Sultana has sung iconic songs for films including ‘Kaun gali gayo Shyam’ (Pakeezah) and ‘Humein tumse pyaar kitna’ (Kudrat), which earned her the Filmfare Best Female Playback Award.

Carnatic Vocalist - Smt. Sudha Raghunathan

The prime disciple of the legendary Carnatic vocalist, the late M.L. Vasanthakumari, Sudha Raghunathan’s voice enthralls listeners from around the world. Among the first in her generation to receive many prestigious awards including the Padmabhushan and the Sangita Kalanidhi, her mastery over vocal techniques and complicated styles makes her one of the most sought after artists. Her authentic renditions of ‘krithis’ and refined elaborations of ‘raagas’, the élan with which she breezes through the ‘kalpana swaras’, her command over the octaves and her supremely confident stage presence combined with unstated humility has given her an enviable pre-eminence in the world of Carnatic music. Sudha has performed a range of concerts and festivals worldwide, and has released over 200 albums with leading recording companies like AVM, INRECO, Vani and Amutham. She is a top ranking artist for Prasar Bharati, All India Radio, and the Doordarshan, and was the auspicious voice at the first live broadcast at the National Program Series of concerts hosted in Chennai. Sudha also has the unique honor of rendering ‘Vande Mataram’ at the Central Hall of Parliament, New Delhi on 27th January 2000 to mark the completion of 50 years of the free Indian Republic.

Carnatic Violinist Smt. Lalgudi Smt. Vijayalakshmi

Fifth generation musician in her family, Smt. Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi grew up in an atmosphere of rich music. At the age of six, Smt. Vijayalakshmi commenced her lessons in music under the watchful eye of her father, the legendary violinist, Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman. At age thirteen, she accompanied her father on stage for the first time.  She, along with her brother, Shri Lalgudi GJR Krishnan, is a leading exponent of the Lalgudi style, which is characterized by boundless innovation while strictly adhering to tradition and eloquently capturing the mood and essence of compositions. Her musical excellence, melody, rhythm style and diligence with which she has gone about maintaining the stylistic grandeur is a corner stone of her success. Smt. Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi has won several awards and travelled widely on concert tours both in India and abroad.

Hindustani Vocalist – Dr. Pooja Goswami Pavan

Dr. Pooja Goswami Pavan is a Minneapolis, MN based performer, composer, teacher and scholar of Hindustani music. She was born in a musical family and received her early training from her father Sri. Surendra Goswami and currently from her older brother Dr. Shailendra Goswami. Pooja has a Ph.D. in Music from the University of Delhi for her thesis on the life and music of Pandit Amarnath, one of the prime disciples of the iconic Ustad Amir Khan.

Pooja is also trained in semi-classical music by Shanti Hiranand, a successor of Begum Akhtar. Pooja is extremely versatile as evident in her Thumri, Dadra, Ghazal, Bhajan and various folk inspired genres such as the Hori, Chaiti, Kajri and Sawani.

Pooja has received National Scholarships in Hindustani classical music in India and has performed at prominent venues around the world. She has lectured at several academic institutions in the U.S., is an active composer, and frequently collaborates with music, dance and theater organizations in the U.S. Pooja is an adjunct faculty at the School of Music, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and Macalester College, St. Paul, where she teaches courses in Indian music and culture.

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