In 1999, UK-based rock artist Sting was the headlining performer at the annual World of Music Art and Dance festival in Wiltshire, England. The opening act for his concert was by a lesser-known band. During their 20-minute slot, they put up a power-packed performance that combined Hindustani and Carnatic classical music.
By the end of their act, the crowds had almost broken through the barriers near the stage to cheer them on. The best was yet to come: Sting came on stage and said, “Could you play some more, for me?” The musician even referred to them as the ‘Indian Spice Girls’.
“My vision was blurred with tears and I couldn’t believe my ears,” recounts Anuradha Pal, convener and lead composer for Stree Shakti, the all-female classical band. The band was established in 1996 by Pal to create a platform for female artists to perform. It also features Charulatha Ramanujan (Carnatic violin), Sharvari Nagwekar (Hindustani vocal) and Deepika Sreenivasan (mridangam), among others.
“I was lucky enough to have had opportunities to break into the male-dominated space of classical music. I wanted to extend those opportunities to other talented women who have dedicated their lives to music,” says Pal. A symbol of the struggle for gender equality, Stree Shakti will perform in the city this weekend, to celebrate International Women’s Day.
The child prodigy
Hailed as the first professional female tabla virtuoso in the world by the Limca Book of Records (1991), Pal started performing when she was barely 10. She was just 15 when she accompanied her late guru, the renowned tabla exponent Ustad Allah Rakha Khan at a concert at St Xavier’s College. “I was young and nervous. But when I saw Khan saheb looking at me confidently, all my anxiety vanished,” recalls Pal.
Pal has since performed with maestros such as Ustad Amjad Ali Khan (sarod), Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute), Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma (santoor), and Ustad Zakir Hussain.
Decades later, Pal is still unsure about what attracted her to the tabla. “I can’t tell. I wanted to learn Hindustani vocals because my mother used to sing at home. My brother played the tabla, and, one day, I just picked it up,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Despite showing potential as a tabla player, Pal spent a major part of her childhood fighting cynicism. “People had no faith in the fact that a woman could play the tabla. It requires the energy of a man, tum toh ladki ho [you’re just a girl], they said,” says Pal.
Even in the face of criticism, Pal managed to break cultural stereotypes, something she attributes to the support from her parents and the blessings of her guru. “I never expected my gurus to be lenient towards me because I am a woman. I remember telling Ustad Alla Rakha: ‘Please treat me like you would your sons when teaching.’ He was impressed by that,” shares Pal. She went on to become the only female Indian musician to have performed at the Woodstock Festival in 2008.
For women, by women
It was during her struggle to find a footing in the industry that she realized the need to take a stand against gender discrimination. Pal convened Stree Shakti in 1996 — a collaboration with women who were proficient in classical music from both the streams of Indian music: Hindustani and Carnatic.
“We wanted to bridge the gap between the two genres, in addition to taking a stand for women’s empowerment,” says Pal. The group went on make its mark at international festivals such as WOMAD and continues to be the only band of its kind.
This March, the band will celebrate its 20th anniversary and will tour Europe with a few new compositions.
“We have come up with an anthem. We will perform it at the upcoming Women’s Day event. It’s called Khud Ko Tu Pehchan De (know yourself). It is a clarion call for women to fight against discrimination and social evils and empower themselves through education,” says Pal.
Stree Shakti will perform on March 4, at 6.30pm , at Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point
Call 6622 3737
Tickets: Rs 250 onward