For over five decades now, the septuagenarian’s contribution to this field is as much for restoration and revival, as it is by taking it a step further with her own creations.
She is modest about her achievements, saying, “I have done nothing special, achieved nothing great. All that I have done is merely passed on the musical wealth that I inherited.”
Author Dr. Nita Mukherjee, well reputed for her biographical writings, has justified the reason for this book, beyond finding a place in posterity for Leela’s work. She notes: “what Leela has done is tobridge the gap between the literate and the oral tradition and bring a literary quality to the folk songs (of Rajasthan) by her own compositions.”
The intensely researched, artistically designed book takes the reader on a journey not only through Leela’s life, but narrates the evolution of the Marwari community’s identity, its changing lifestyle and the gender issues it faced – details which might have been obscured by time and perhaps unknown to many, especially the younger generation, within the community itself.
Punctuating this historical and sociological perspective with the way folk songs evolved and theirtranslations, the book aptly opens with Leela Somani’s popular Vinayak wedding prayer to the Elephant God Ganesh, invoking his blessings. It begins:
May your temple rise high, Lord Ganapati…(At) Your holy abode in Ranthambore… Oh Ganapati…
And ends: Bless the groom and bride with eternal happiness, I pray to lord Ganapati, with all my heart.
The dearth of writings by Marwari women further strengthened Mukherjee’s case for documenting Leela Somani’s contribution. She highlights how Leela initially focused on wedding songs because “a wedding is one of the most beautiful, happy and auspicious occasions of our lives.”
Her numerous anthologies and compilations go beyond, for each occasion from birth to marriage and various festivals and religious ceremonies While researching, preserving and writing Rajasthani folk music, besides the new generation of Marwaris in India, Leela also kept in mind the significant Marwari and Rajasthani Diaspora worldwide – and their need and desire to adhere to their traditions and roots.
Born in 1934 into the wealthy Kabra family in Kuchaman in Rajasthan, Leela was bought up in a joint family headed by her father, the patriarch. Babasa was a very progressive gentleman. Leela and her sisters were sent to a convent school and given a ‘finishing school’ training at home. The seeds for Leela’s vocation were sown by her mother Gendi Devi. Leela’s fascination with music started withsongs from Indian movies. Her initiation into folk music was thanks to her older sister, Kamla Somany, another good singer, who also became her first ‘teacher’. But singing was not allowed by women in the joint Somani family – so they would lock themselves in thei rooms to sing and listen to music.
Leela was married at 14, considered ‘late’ when child marriages were prevalent. A rarity for the times was that her groom, VO Somani, actually went to see her before he married her!
It was only after she and her husband moved to their own home in Bombay (Mumbai) that she started her musical journey – by singing at family functions and weddings along with two sisters-in-law and her daughter Nandini. This led to Leela writing her own lyrics and setting them to music – and the next step was recording on HMV records.. Leela says “Music and poetry is the best way to get away from one’s pain and sorrow. It restores one’s calm and equilibrium. When you are writing, you are full of dreams and that makes you young and happy.”
Perhaps it’s her never-wilting zest for life that has kept her spirit so young. And her egoless self has made her reach out to constantly learn from anyone who has greater knowledge than her on any topic, be it an equal, or even a techno-savvy grandson.
The turning point in Leela’s life was in 2002 when on Dusshera day her family set up an entity called Inner Courtyard (www.innercourtyard.com). This has become a platform to promote new talent, giving Leela yet another aspect to her music – mentoring young talent. The launch was marked by a performance by Leela’s brother famed guitarist Pt. Brij Bhushan Kabra.
In conclusion, the author has done absolute “justice – to the subject and to the opportunity”.And in retrospect, co-author Nandita, Leela’s daughter, sums up her mother’s life symbolically: “She lives her life like a song…