In Marwari, 78-year-old Leela Somani’s mother tongue, there is an old saying: When times change, only two aspects of a culture remain — its bheent (monuments) and its geet (songs).
In the 1950s, however, as recorded music began to catch on across India, Somani realised that this might not hold true for Rajasthani folk music.
The vast repertoire of songs she had grown up with, sung largely by women and passed down orally, was disappearing.
So Somani, then a young mother of four, set about to learn, record and preserve Marwari folk songs. Since then, she has documented nearly 500 songs through three anthologies and 17 recorded albums.
“In Marwari culture, women had songs for every occasion, from festivals to childbirth and even regular household chores,” says Somani, who now lives with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren at Napean Sea Road. “When the younger generation began playing amplified film music at family functions instead of singing folk, I realised that all these songs would be lost if they were not preserved.”
Somani’s life, work and the musical culture of Marwari women are now the subject of a biography, Voices from the Inner Courtyard, written by city-based author Nita Mukherjee and Kolhapur-based educationist Nandini Patodia, Somani’s daughter.
Born to wealthy landowners, Somani grew up in a large haveli in a village in Rajasthan’s Nagaur district. Her earliest memories, she says, are of the Gangaur festival, when young girls would decorate the walls of the courtyard with cow dung and flowers while singing a series of songs in praise of the Hindu goddess Gauri.
When she was 20 — six years after she was married into the family that owns and runs the Somani Group of Industries — her older sister Kamla encouraged her to document and preserve traditional Marwari songs, and the two began learning songs from Langas, a tribe of professional Rajasthani folk singers.
“I also studied Hindustani classical music to improve my singing and to understand the ragas on which many folk tunes are based,” says Somani. In traditional Marwari families, however, women were not allowed to sing in public. So Somani’s first album of folk songs — which she sang with a few relatives and was compiled on an LP record by the Somani family trust — was ‘released’ at a family wedding in Mumbai in 1965. “Everybody loved it and began asking for more records at other functions in Marwari circles,” says Somani.
Over subsequent years, whenever she visited Rajasthan, Somani would invite folk musicians from various Marwari castes and communities — from henna artistes to cooks and dancers — to her home so that she could learn and document their songs.
“She would write the lyrics by hand and memorise the tunes. Because the folk songs were not always formally set to music, she would sometimes compose tunes herself,” says author Mukherjee, 67, a family friend for 40 years.
A songwriter herself, Somani has also written hundreds of Marwari and Hindi poems filled with Rajasthani folk themes and imagery. Recently, she had a small recording studio built at her Napean Sea Road home, where she teaches folk songs to youngsters.
Today, Somani continues to document and compose tunes for Marwari folk songs. “Age has no significance for me. I have no plans to retire,” she says. “I will keep writing as long as my hands allow.”