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Indian Women Seers and Their Songs - The Unfettered Note (With CDs Inside)

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Item Code: NAH840
Publisher: Indira Gandhi National Centre For The Arts, Aryan Books International
Author: Subhadra Desai
Language: English
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 9788173055812
Pages: 364 (24 Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch X 7.0 inch
Weight 850 gm
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Book Description

IGNCA, through the various research projects under its different programmes explores knowledge in multiple dimensions and at different levels. One of the research projects initiated through our Kalakosa Division was dedicated to the comprehensive study of the songs of women seers of India. The present volume entitled Indian Women Seers and Their Songs I the unfettered note, is the result of study done by Dr. Subhadra Desai.

The mystical poetry has enchanted the human mind through times immemorial. The Sruti, i.e. the heard word has remained eternal and immutable in the Indian tradition. Against this, the written word has changed and it has also been subject to variations and at times inaccuracies too. Vedas were perhaps the first, attempted at transcribing the most complex system of orally accented verses which were transmitted through oral intonation into a written textual form. It is, therefore, important to note that in the Indian tradition, the heard word has remained primary and the written secondary. Vedic intonation is a precursor of both theory and practice (sastra and prayoga) of the arts, in their original framework of interrelatedness.

It is well known that the Samaveda Samhita contains the earliest reference to music in India. Samavedic hymns have been practised traditionally through millennia in various recensions of the Samagana, known as sakhas, which have come down to the present times. In the present research, the earliest hymns attributed to women seers of the Vedic era were identified and their chanting/singing traditions in the present-day Samavedic sakhas were analysed. It was thus ascertained that the earliest songs ascribed to Vedic women seers continue to be sung in the living tradition of Samagana.

In this work, Dr. Desai has explored the subject from dual perspectives of musician and academic. The thread that links the seer-poetesses of India, whose lives, songs and song-traditions are collated in this book, is the message of transcendence, sublime surrender and expression of the deepest feelings and spiritual yearnings of these women in the form of songs.

The present work also explores the women seers and saints from the multiple sources of the Bhakti era beginning around 6th century CE, and their songs. Emerging from different regions and largely preserved through oral tradition, the songs of these women seers and saints are composed in their own respective languages representing various regions of India. The present research carried out by Dr. Subhadra Desai with dedication and hardwork has found that these songs are still practiced in a traditional manner all over India.

Under this project IGNCA has recorded the songs by traditional and contemporary singers, who sing these songs in the present times. These recordings are a part of the archives of IGNCA and can be used for future research. The two DVDs attached with the present volume contain selected songs from the recordings.

We are pleased to dedicate this volume to the women of India and the women world over who have been torch bearers of the global cultural heritage.


As a student of Hindustani classical m'1sic I have had the good fortune of being part of the lineage of the legendary musician Pandit Kumar Gandharva, who transformed the devotional music scene in the Hindustani classical music genre. This was by virtue of my being a disciple of Pandit Madhup Mudgal, Padmashri, who is one of Kumarji's most illustrious disciples.

From childhood I heard songs of the great saints of India in Kumarji's inimitable voice. Songs of Kabir, Macchinder/ Matsyendra, Gorakhnath, Malukdas, Tukaram, Surdas, Tulasidas, Mira bai, Chandrasakhi and others came alive to us in his matchless svaras. Through this captivating exposure, almost unknowlingly, I developed an intimate association with the philosophies of these saints and a deep attraction for their songs; this was nurtured in a home that valued both music and devotion.

My interest in women spiritual seekers and their songs began with Mira bai, the celebrated saint poetess of northern India, whose songs I heard and sang through many years of my musical upbringing. This pursuit progressed as I came across a publication of Advaita Ashrama, at Mayavati, on a related subject, named Great Women of India,' in which I read about many women saints who composed and sang in Sanskrit and several regional languages of India. As documented, these songs appeared to be spontaneous outpourings of women who were deeply engrossed in divine love. Although they belonged to different times and space, religious sects, castes and faiths and sang in different languages, their songs had endured across ages and were still sung and cherished by devotees, laymen, and musicians across all genres, all over India in the present time. The 'songs' and their 'seers' or composers, who lived over centuries through them, fascinated me immensely.

Who were these women? What made them different or special from others? What made them leave behind the mundane and seek something that transcended the ordinary? What was behind the extraordinary spirit that led them to express their innermost feelings and experiences through songs in public? How could they discard the protective shelter of home and family? These questions lingered as I explored their songs. The more I came to know about the lives and songs of women seers and saints hitherto unknown to me, the more I got drawn to them.

As a woman musician and a student of literature, I felt a sense of affinity with these women. I was naturally attracted to know more about their contribution to Indian culture and heritage and wished to explore the subject. This curiosity was fuelled further by an opportunity to present a performance of devotional songs and hymns by saint poetesses of India in New Delhi in the year 2002.

My desire to explore songs of women seer-saints of India received an opportunity of fulfillment when I was asked to study and work on the subject as a project under the aegis of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (lGNCA), New Delhi.

I consider it a privilege I that I was assigned a research subject that I had wished to do for many years; I am grateful to IGNCA for this.

During the span of three years assigned for the project, not only did I come across the lives and songs of many women seers and saints of whom I had not heard earlier, but also had the fascinating experience of interacting with several scholars, singers, folk artists and poets who helped and supported me in this endeavor.

Through the period of study, based on the research underway, I presented three complete performances on 'Songs of Women Seers', in the prestigious 'Bhakti Utsav' organized by Seher (2011), at the HCL Concert Series (2013) at Habitat Centre in New Delhi, and at IGNCA on the International Women’s' Day (2013). I presented inspirational songs of the women seers of India from the Vedic and the Bhakti era, in more than eight languages.

The diverse traditions of the lives and songs of women seers and saints who were identified for the project, were studied in some detail. The material was collated from various sources such as published work in Sanskrit, English and various regional languages and from individual scholars, musicians and devotees.

As the study progressed, the variety and scope of the study material collected in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, Kashmiri, Oriya, and Assamese appeared formidable. The ever-increasing scale and range of the project looked daunting. The material could not be easily accessed or deciphered without assistance for each language.

In this struggle of collating and deciphering texts, as if by fortuitous arrangement, I received immense help from scholars, musicians, lay-men and devotees, who guided me through the gamut of unknown languages, traditions and culture. I am grateful to numerous people who came forward to extend help and support. The feeling of enthusiasm shared by them has been overwhelming.

As the scale of the study grew I began to realize that I was being exposed to a powerful medium of self-expression in the form of songs, shared by women who belonged to different times and spaces in India. Their songs, which left a profound impact in their own time, continue to do so even today. The songs of these women constitute an invaluable literary and musical legacy which bear the message of transcendence, sublime surrender and sometimes even assertion of women's freedom. For this, these women deserve to be our present-day heroes, whose inspiring lives and work need to be more widely remembered and cherished.


Literature and Music are two of the principal mediums employed to fulfil the fundamental human needs of leisure, reflection, exploration and expression. Thus, in many ways, literature and music define life as it is known.

In India as elsewhere in the world, music and literature have often converged since the earliest times. In the hymns, songs and intonations through millennia, India inherits a remarkable legacy where exceptional literature finds inspiring voice. The songs also serve as significant reflections of the culture of these times.

This tradition of the synthesis of literature and music germinated in India in the Vedic Age, and has remained live and vibrant since then through the centuries. Saint-poets of medieval India in the so-called 'Bhakti period' - Kabir, Surdas, Tulasidas, MIra bal, Tukaram, Gorakhnath and others - adopted music as a medium of expression for their devotion as well as deepest realization of Truth. The content of the hymns and songs was often eulogies addressed to the Vedic gods in the Vedas; and for the Bhakti- poets, primarily the narrative and commentary of their spiritual journey: from the tribulations of the quest, to its ecstatic conclusion.

In the interregnum between the Vedic and Bhakti Periods, India was under Hindu Puranic and Buddhist and Jaina influences; tangible evidence of poetry set and sung as music during these periods is almost non-existent.

The first section of the project is dedicated to the women seers of the Vedic era, the hymns attributed to them in the Rgveda Samhita, Samaveda Samhita and Samagana Samhita; the various sakha or schools of Samagana (prevalent in the present time), which have preserved the legacy of the most ancient singing traditions of these hymns. These hymns are the earliest known poetic expression of humanity; some of these are also the first 'songs' of women seers.

The second section explores the seers and saints from the multiple strands of the Bhakti period from the 6th century to the 20th century.

Spirituality has engaged India's attention since the earliest times as a panacea to the intractable problem of the ephemeral character of life. India has also been unusually fortunate to witness a succession of individuals and groups who validated and taught the spiritual ideal, and have always been welcomed and cherished by its people.

Spiritual wisdom as communicated through hymns composed by Rsis of the Vedas and Upanishads, and songs by seers and saints of the Bhakti period, constitute the spiritual foundation of Hinduism of the modern times. Although the term 'seer' as commonly understood denotes a person rich in spiritual wisdom, in the present study, the term 'Woman Seer' is used in the broadest sense to define women composers in Indian traditions who are widely held in regard as one of the following:

1. Preceptor of super-sensuous truth;
2.Practitioners of one of the acknowledged sacred traditions;
3.Creators of exceptional poetry
This is justified with the following definitions from different sources (in Sanskrit and English). Terms such as (Rsi) Rishi, (Rsika) Rishika, Seer, Sage, Saint, Mendicant, Devotee, Poet, Kavi, Saint-poet/ poetess, Sant and Mystic are defined by scholars from the perspectives of their own culture, language and traditions. In the spiritual tradition of India each of these words are related. The women seers whose lives and work are being considered in this project thus cannot be represented by any other uniform term as each one is unique and distinctive.

1.Seer: A prophet; a person who sees visions; a person of supposed supernatural insight. DK, Oxford English Dictionary.

2. Rishi: 'Rsayah Satyavacasah, Rsanti jananti', Aamarkosha. 'Rishi are speakers of Truth, they are the bearers of knowledge.'

3.Rishi: 'Yasya vakyam sa Rsih ', Rk Sarvanukramani (1.9.5) by Katyayana. (4th cent. BC) 'Rishi is one who speaks (the Truth)'.

4.Rishi: 'Saksatkrtadharmana rsayah babhuvuh' (Nirukta, 1/20) 'Those who have experienced dharma, the Ultimate Truth are Rishi'.

5. Rishi: 'Rsirdrasta. Rsayoanagatamavartamanarthavedinah). Arteh tanotesca Rsisabdo nirucyate' Vedarthadipika by Sri Shadgurushishya (12th century), (Quoted from Nirukta: 2.11) 'Rishi is a seer who is a knower of past, present and future ...'

6. Rishi: A poet is one who is a se r, a prophet who sees visions and possesses the additional gift of conveying to others, less fortunate, through the medium of language, the vision he has or the dreams he dreams. (History of Sanskrit Poetics, p. 348-349; Professor Kane.)

7. Rishi: Whatever, however, be the correct etymology of the word, the concept Rishi has all along been taken to include ideas relating to poetic and prophetic vision, super sensual knowledge, righteousness and ecstasy. (The word Rishi in the Veda, Prof. Rahurkar, BDCRI, Pune, vol. 18. 1957)

8. Rishi: A singer of sacred hymns, an inspired poet or sage, any person who alone or with others invokes the deities in rhythmical speech or song of a sacred character. (Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Monnier Williams; p. 226).

9. Sage: Wise man; any of the ancients traditionally regarded as the wisest of their time; wise especially from experience; indicating wisdom. Dorling Kindersley, Oxford English Dictionary.

10. Saint: A holy or canonized person regarded as having a place in heaven; A very virtuous person. DK, Oxford English Dictionary.

11. Mystic: A person who seeks to obtain unity with the deity by contemplation, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truth that is beyond understanding. DK, Oxford English Dictionary.

12. Mystic: One who aspires to an intimate union with the Divine.

13. Devotee: A pious person. DK, Oxford English Dictionary.

14. Poet: A writer of poems; person possessing high powers of imagination or expression. DK, Oxford English Dictionary.

15. Kavi: (Poet) 'Kobi, tobo monobhumi Ramer jonmosthan ajodhyar cheye sotyo jeno', Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindra Racanavali, Vol. III.

'O Poet,
as truer still
your own mindscape
Land of Rama's birth.'(Translation: Siddhartha Mitra)
Tagore addresses this eulogic tribute to the Adikavi: Valmiki, the firsrt great poet of India.

16. Sant: Mystics of India, who strived to unite with the Object of their devotion, through the path of renunciation, love and compassion. In the course of their lives, many had to endure great suffering, but steadfast love and devotion for their personal God helped them attain individual spiritual aspirations. They expressed their innermost feelings through poetry or songs, which survived through several centuries and are sung and cherished even today as priceless legacy of India's culture.

While Rishi (Rsi) in (Vedic) Sanskrit is the closest synonym of Seer or Sage in English, Rishika (Rsika) is its feminine form. From time immemorial the Vedic Seers were known as Rsi and Rsika. He/ she is the 'drasta': the 'seer', one whose, 'sees', or one whose vision is the 'vakya' or the 'vital word'.

Prof. Rahurkar provides a comprehensive observation on the term Rishi thus- 'Whatever, however, be the correct etymology of the word, the concept Rishi has all along been taken to include ideas relating to poetic and prophetic vision, super sensual knowledge, righteousness and ecstasy.'
(The word Rishi in the Veda, Prof. Rahurkar, BDCRI, Pune, vo1.18. 1957)

A Seer or Rishi thus mayor may not be a saint, but is certainly a seeker of Truth, principally a spiritual seeker, who has 'prophetic vision', whose experiences are expressed in the form of poetry or song.

From the traditional Indian perspective and usage, a 'Saint' need not be a 'canonized person regarded as having a place in heaven' as defined in DK, Oxford English Dictionary, but is surely a 'virtuous person' who 'strives to unite with his/ her Object of devotion through renunciation, love and compassion'. The term 'Sant' as defined above may be closer in meaning to 'Seer' as intended for the purpose of the present study.

The objective of the present thesis is to identify the women seers and saints of India, and trace their spiritual and individual background, their personal journeys, their songs, the singing tradition of their songs, and the manner in which they are sung today.

The selection of the term 'Seer' in this work is deliberate, as it implicitly means one who possesses numinous insight.

The women studied in this project may be alluded as seers, saints, sants, mystics, mendicants or devotees: as anyone or all of them in amalgam. They lived in different centuries, belonged to different social set ups, led lives which were dissimilar; spoke different languages, were often not only seers but spirited women who dared to question parochial social structures of their times, faced innumerable personal hardships and challenges; but their single-minded devotion and intense love for God, transformed them into spiritual heroes of their times.

The commonality of all the seers of the present study is that they are all exceptional women poets whose works have endured, and they still continue to be 'regarded as sacred personages.

The Bhakti-poets are united in their apparent relative disregard for the material world and focused absorption in a divine ideal. Their expressions of pain and divine joy, in the form of songs, have endured for centuries in the voices of common people.


  Foreword v
  Preface vii
  Acknowledgements xiii
  Notes on Diacritics xvii
  List of Illustrations XIX
  Introduction xxi
  Definitions xxii
  Vedic Era xxv
  Bhakti Era xxviii
  Objective xxxii
  Scope xxxii
  Women Seers and Saints of India: Vedic to Modern xxxiii
I Vedic Era 1
  Women Seers of the Rgvedic Era 1
  Vedic Women Seers with Reference to Samaveda and Samagana 2
  Development of an Oral Tradition to a Musical Form 7
  Observations 28
II Bhakti Era 35
  Women Seers/Saint-poetesses (of Bhakti era) and Their Songs 39
  Tamil Seers 45
  Kannada Seers (Virasaiva Women) 65
  Kannada Seers (Haridasa Women) 82
  Telugu Seers 111
  Marathi Seers 128
  Rajasthani and Gujarati Seers 149
  Women Seers of the Hindi Belt 181
  Assamese Seers 185
  Odiya Seers 189
  The Saint-princess of Manipur 198
  Kashmiri Seers 202
III Notations 235
  Sarna Notations and Contemporary Classical Notations of Hymns Ascribed to Vedic Women Seers 235
  Musical Notations of Songs of Women Saints of the Bhakti Era (as sung in the present times) 237
  Conclusion 267
  Appendices 275
  Appendix I: Field Work 275
  Appendix II: Well Known Women of Rgveda 278
  Appendix III (a): Anandamayi Ma (1896-1982) 284
  Appendix III (b): Songs of Tarigonda Vemgamamba 285
  Appendix III (c): List of Songs of Saint-poetesses of Maharashtra 289
  Appendix III (d): Songs of Saint-poetesses of Gujarat 297
  Appendix III (d2) 299
  Appendix III (e): List of Songs of Haridasi Women Collected during the Research 301
  Glossary of Musical Terms 307
  Bibliography 311
  Index 317


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