Siddeswari Devi with daughter Savita Devi, photo courtesy of Susheela Misra in her book Great Masters of Hindustani Music

Mataji, Vidushi Siddheswari Devi taught vocal technique and repertoire at the Kathak Kendra during the latter years of her life. In retrospect it seems inconceivable that an artist of such magnitude would teach a beginner such as I was, when I arrived at the Kathak Kendra in summer 1967. Yet she was fascinated by the musical sophistication I had acquired during thirteen years of professional training in western flute and piano, combined with my perfect vocal pitch and utterly unmodulated voice in terms of Indian vocal technique. I was a blank slate. I naively accepted the gifts Mataji gave me, whether a thumri in rag Jog or food which she cooked, while I cut onions in her kitchen on Sundays. Senior students and artists including Rita Chatterji graciously accepted my inclusion in Mataji’s circle of art and love.

Mataji Siddeswari Devi

Mataji’s full-throated, ungirlish range and daring flights up and down the raga shook me physically and shaped my aesthetic during those joyous moments when I sat with her – in the classroom, in her Pataudi House living room, and on stage in Lucknow and New Delhi. Since concerts at which she sang often lasted from early evening until early morning, I often heard other great artists such as Ustad Bismillah Khan.. For me Mataji embodied generosity, vulnerability, devotion, complex simplicity and artistry. She is joined by her daughter Savita in the on-stage photo of her typical singing position – her left hand covering one ear and the right hand extended toward the audience. When she gave me her tiny portrait – the second image of this unpretentious and open-hearted genius, she asked me to guess what was in her mind when it was snapped. Finally she said quietly —- OM.