Young classical vocalist Pelva Naik lets nothing come between her and her passion for dhrupad, a genre that has largely been performed by men.
For Pelva Naik, a 31-year-old classical vocalist, art is something that transcends differences. In interviews, one of her favourite responses to the question of being a rare female dhrupad performer is that “gender dissolves once the tanpura starts”.
She points out that her legendary guru, Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar, had “some very feminine qualities, all throughout my study with him. I still haven’t figured out that how people say that dhrupad is a masculine art form, or where that idea comes from.”
Still, the fact remains that Pelva is one of the very few women performing this particularly abstract form of Hindustani classical music today. “Dhrupad is all about the nature of the note; and I was always interested in detail, in description,” she tells us. When Pelva met her guru, during a workshop at school, she realised dhrupad “matched my element.” It was the art form most suited to her personality, and “felt like a rediscovery.”
She might have chosen from several others. Pelva grew up in an creative family in Ahmedabad, with a father who wrote and made films, and a mother who practiced Bharatanatyam. She studied kathak and khayal, was interested in miniature painting, and enjoyed literature in English, Hindi, and Gujarati.
After school, Pelva went to study at the Dhrupad gurukul near Panvel, Mumbai, where she still lives. Her parents never let her feel insecure about the decision not to go to college, and she threw herself into years of rigourous training, which led to her public debut in 2012. Since then, Pelva has been performing regularly. She also began teaching students at a relatively early age.
Rather than dwell on her position as a “woman dhrupad vocalist”, though, Pelva insists that there have always been women who have practiced the art. “It’s just that on the public platform, men had more exposure,” she says. “But I have heard stories from my ustad about his mother—and ustad’s grandmother was a veena player. She used to practice veena at home, and teach the children.” Pelva considers these women maestros; for her, “it is more about what kind of practitioner you are—what kind of routine you have. Do you wake up in the morning, and practice, teach, think about your work, talk about your work?”
Pelva is glad that now the number of women on the stage is growing, and that more people are discovering dhrupad thanks to the Internet. For her, there has never been a question of what comes first. “Even today, when some people say, ‘Oh, now I’m married, I have children, I don’t have time’—you can understand that to an extent, but I would not support that point,” she says. “When you’re in love, you call it love. You just go for it. When you’re in a relationship, you are committed.”
This article is part of a series of stories written by freelance journalist and editor Sonal Shah and photographed by Abhinandita Mathur on the occasion of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8.