One of my earliest aural memories is of listening to the mesmerizing sounds of traditional north Indian music, from an old phonograph in the vast Baithaki in my grandmother’s house. Next to this magical instrument sat a black leather box containing a prized collection of His Master’s Voice records. Among the noted singers who had cut these discs, was one Gulab Bai. Her Dadra … ‘Nadi naarey na jao Shyam’…sung in a husky, alluring and somewhat nasal voice had made her famous. At the mention of her name though, the elders wrinkled their noses, ‘oh that Gulab Bai? She is a Nautanki Wali Bai from Kanpur’. The phenomenon of the Nautankiwali Bai in India has suffered greatly from such faulty culture bound evaluations. But in this unputdownable biography of Gulab Bai, the author, Deepti Priya Mehrotra does not aim at judging these previous evaluations, nor does she claim that what she has culled out from her own field studies and theatre lore, is nothing but the truth: In telling the story of Gulab and the story of Nautanki, it will be difficult—often impossible—to demarcate fact from fiction. Gulab Bai left no written records. The truth may lie somewhere in the interstices of the various versions as I recorded a vanished past, we may perhaps salvage something. Deepti Priya has managed to salvage rather a lot with her painstaking research during the course of which she visited Gulab Bai’s natal village as also her later residence in Kanpur, met up with her family, her colleagues and various admirers of Nautanki and Gulab Bai, both as an artist and the woman she was.
Nautanki as a musical art form, reigned as one of north India’s most popular forms of theatre for nearly a century. Gulab, a twelve year old girl from the Bedia community, joined it in 1931 and rose to be one of its brightest stars.