Rasoolan Bai was a leading vocal musician of the Hindustani classical Music tradition. Born in a poor family in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, it is said that she nonetheless inherited the musical legacy of her mother Adalat Bai. Belonging to the Benaras gharana, she specialized in the romantic Purab Ang of the Thumri musical genre. She learnt from Shambhy Khan, Ashia Khan and Maju Khan.
Saba Dewan’s fascinating film, The Other Song, derives naits name from a similar instance of doubling, of a repressed erotic self. Told by a respected Banarasi musician called Shivkumar Shastri that Rasoolan Bai had once recorded a different version of her famous Bhairavi thumri “Lagat karejwa mein chot (My heart is wounded)”, Dewan set out in search of the lesser-known variation. As she asks musician after musician (and later, tawaif after tawaif) if they’ve ever heard the version that goes, “Lagat jobanwa mein chot (My breasts are wounded)”, without success, we begin to see glimpses of a hidden world, a world whose frank sexuality and often joyful bawdiness were pushed deep below the surface, often by its own practitioners. Song after song turns out to have had its lyrics altered to suit ‘respectable’ tastes – from soibe (sleep) to jaibe (go), choli (blouse) to odhni (veil).
Rasoolan Bai gave up the mujra – the expressive, sometimes suggestive kathak-based dance that accompanied the tawaif ’s music – in 1948. At the same time that she moved out of her kotha and into a gali ka makaan in Banaras, the woman whose aching songs were perhaps India’s most famous renditions of the thumri stopped performing in her own city. The timing is remarkable. As India and Pakistan entered independent nationhood, the thumri was taken out of the kotha. A musical genre whose very form — intimate, expressive, always sung in a first-person female voice — had emerged from the courtesan’s salon, had, in order to survive in the bright light of modernity, to move into the concert hall, the radio station, the cinema. And in order to be heard in this new world, the tawaif herself had to become a ganewali or – in even more Sanskritised form – a gayika.
Rasoolan Bai rose above the 'tawaif' or courtesan tradition women musicians were considered only capable of. The film "The Other Song by Saba Dewan", featured her and her famous song, 'Lagat karejwa ma chot', a 1935 Gramophone recording. She was also known for her chaiti, dadra, hori and kajri.
She sang on All India Radio and Doordarshan till 1972. Her last public singing was held in Kashmir. She was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, India's highest musical award, in Hindustani Music (Vocal) in 1957. Despite an illustrious musical career, she died in penury, running a small tea shop next to, ironically, the All India Radio