Stree Shakti: Celebrating Women in Music

“Because it is 2019,” Manoshi Chatterjee said with a cheeky smile when talking about why Raag-Mala Toronto was inviting an all-female trio to perform in September.

Chatterjee, who is on Raag-Mala’s programming committee, was alluding to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response in 2016, which delighted her when he was asked why an unprecedented 50% of his inaugural cabinet was made up of women.

Most organizers who tour South Asian artists to North America are men, and many of them are tabla players, Chatterjee added. While they sometimes tour with senior female artists, they rarely take women accompanists – a phenomenon that is not limited to the Indian classical music scene.

“To redress a glaring inequity – the lack of opportunities for female artists to showcase their talent, is something that the Raag-Mala board has been grappling with,” said Chatterjee.

With only two events planned this year featuring women-only artists, these concerts will not come close to the 50% mark of Trudeau’s cabinet when it comes to featuring female performers in Raag-Mala’s roster.

However, it is a start. And a great start it is, with the exciting vocalist Arati Ankalikar Tikekar taking to the stage at the Aga Khan Museum, accompanied by Mukta Raste on tabla and Shubhada Joshi-Athawale on harmonium.

Recognized as one of the top vocalists of her generation, Aratiji has performed at all prestigious conferences such as Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav in Pune and Dover Lane Festival in Kolkata. She has traveled extensively in India, US, Canada, UK, and UAE.

She began her training with Late Vasantrao Kulkarni of the Agra Gwalior gharanas, and has subsequently received training from the greats: Late Gyansaraswati Kishori Amonkar (Jaipur-Atrauli gharana), Late Pandit Dinkar Kaikini (Agra) and Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, one of the foremost exponents of Gwalior gayaki.

Aratiji is a perennial favorite among aficionados of raag sangeet. She is no stranger to Canada, having performed many times on the Raag-Mala stage. In 2013, these words were used to introduce her concert in Toronto: “Aartiji performance is akin to a lioness on a hunt. She starts with a slow, deliberate alaap, as if the lioness were stalking her prey while being hidden in the bushes. This is followed by a very controlled and focused chase through the vilambit, to the final kill in the fast, drut section.”

Some might say that the description is an overkill (pardon the pun), but Aratiji’s distinctive singing sets her apart from her contemporaries. Her tone is raw in its emotional intensity, and her raagdari (the way she develops and unfolds a raag) is deeply nuanced and steeped in tradition.

What makes the upcoming concert even more special is that Aratiji will sing raags linked to female deities, as well as self-composed melodies and those composed by other female singers.

Aratiji will be accompanied on harmonium by Shubhada Joshi–Athawale, a promising musician who was born into a family with a rich musical legacy; her father and first guru is the late Pandit Kamalakar Joshi, one of the senior vocalists of Gwalior gharana. Shubhada has accompanied eminent artists such as Pandit Vidyadhar Vyas, Vidushi Manjiri Alegaonkar, and younger artists like Raghunandan Panshikar, Anand Bhate and Sanjeev Abhyankar.

Tabla artist Mukta Raste is a rare female performer in a field that is dominated by men. She credits her guru, the late Pandit Arvind Mulgaonkar, with the encouragement and support she received over and above the taalim that a shishya is expected to receive from her guru.  Mukta will come to Toronto very soon after taking further lessons from the tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussein.

So, why was the concert series called Stree Shakti and not just Shakti, which is after all the divine feminine creative power in Hindu belief?  The obvious answer is that the name Shakti was co-opted by a very famous band (made up of men only!), and using just Shakti could have caused confusion.

“The other reason was to raise awareness of the dearth of female performers with a title that would make people sit up and take note,” said Chatterjee. “The Board wanted to make concrete what is implied in the term Shakti – that it is not just an esoteric and imagined female creative power, but one that is made real by the fact of the women’s presence on stage.”

This is heady stuff for a group that is run on volunteer steam and a tight budget. So far, the September show has been enthusiastically received, and Raag-Mala is seeking partners for what it wants to be an annual series.

Says Chatterjee, “We want Mukta to return to Toronto in October with Prakriti and Sanskriti Wahane, a sitar and santoor duo from Ujjain. Stay tuned for more details.”


Mohamed Khaki
President, Raag-Mala Toronto

When and where?
Saturday, September 7th at 7pm
Aga Khan Museum Auditorium
Information Manoshi: 416-276-5616