July 30 marks the birth anniversary of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, father of the sensuous thumri. A walk down an ancient lane in Lucknow in search of its origins.

My quest for Thumri’s roots has brought me to a narrow lane with ramshackle little houses on both sides in the Hussainabad area of Lucknow. The lane is buzzing with children, galli-cricket, goats, a chai shop, a paan-cigarette kiosk, and elderly men sitting on a charpoy engrossed in discussion.

The one-room house has definitely seen better days. I am sitting across Gafoor Mian, he on his cot, me on a metal folding chair hurriedly brought from the neighbour’s house. Gafoor Mian is 83, but his eyes glisten like a child’s.

“There are different opinions on the origin of Thumri,” says Gafoor Mian in chaste Urdu. “There is a mention of Thumri in Faqirullah’s 17th century book in Persian called Risala-i-Raga Darpana. But the popular belief is that Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh contributed to the birth of the thumri in the 19th century.”

Tea arrives from the tea-stall down the lane, along with khara biscuits. I look around the near-naked room, at walls where plaster has given way to reveal the bricks. Gafoor Mian’s voice startles me.

“Have you seen the film Shatranj ke Khiladi?” he asks. “Yes,” I say. “Do you remember the scene where Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was forced by the British to leave his palace, his Lucknow, for good?” “Yes,” and I sing out loud, “Jab chhor chali Lukhnow nagari.” “Yes, yes,” says Gafoor Mian, exhilarated, and continues, “It is the Nawab’s own composition, one of his many. And he used the pseudonym of Akhtarpiya.”

“Tell me more,” I plead. There’s no Thumri without Wajid Ali Shah, and there is no Wajid Ali Shah without the cadence of Thumri. Though a Shia Muslim, the Nawab was a devotee of Lord Krishna. In fact, he went quite overboard on that count — dressing up as Krishna complete with peacock feathers tucked in his turban and dancing with his gopis. It’s because of his devotion that Thumris are mostly composed on the exploits of Lord Krishna.

Born in the court of the Nawab of Awadh, the Thumri travelled on the wings of a gentle wind to spread both in the east and the west. Varanasi and Gaya, along with Lucknow, became the hubs of the purab ang or eastern form; while in the west, it became the Punjabi ang. However, the soul of Thumri in both is steeped in sringar rasa (or the sensuous). True to its association with Krishna of Vrindavan, Braja-bhasha — the language of Braja, the region of Mathura and Vrindavan — became its primary diction.

As Gafoor Mian is lost in nostalgia, I can hear Girija Devi singing Maai kaise kheloon holi…“How did you get involved in thumri?” I sneak a question in.

Gafoor Mian’s gaze wanders across time and space, through the resplendent music halls of ornate havelis, across garden houses and concert halls. I feel certain that he is living again the strains of the sargam in the yearning of the ragas popular in Thumri compositions — Kafi, Khamaj, Pilu, Bhairavi; in the vocal embellishments of the meed, gamak, and murki. His fingers, which were resting on his knees, start moving with the rhythm of the thumri that’s playing in his head.

Gafoor Mian is a tabla player. Though his professional accomplishments are rather limited, in his day he was on sangat (accompaniment) with many reputed Thumri singers, if not always at the concert, then at their regular riaz (rehearsal). When he finally shifts his gaze from the wall and back to me, he breaks into a smile.

“My father was also a tabla player. I was immersed in Thumri from the time I was an infant. My father used to tell us stories about the great exponents.” He talks of how the popularity of thumri increased through the courtesan culture, the mujras. Its lilt and eroticism gave it an air of disrepute. It was this grey side that drew people into its fold. For the first time, people were hearing something other than the puritanical rendering of Dhrupad or the intricacy of Khayal.

“Thumri is lighter,” says Gafoor Mian, “it is flexible and the emphasis is on the sweetness, the yearning, the allure in its rendering.” He hums a few lines that I recognise... Mora saiyan bulaawen/Aadhi raat/Nadiya bair paari (My sweetheart beckons me in the middle of the night/The river between us plays spoilsport).

“So where and how did the transformation happen from a not-so-respectful history to the pedestal of classical culture?” I ask.

“Great musicians began to sing thumri along with khayal in classical concerts. The great Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, for instance,” says Gafoor Mian, touching his right ear as a mark of respect. And, interestingly, thumri soon became a form of expression for both the tawaifs (court dancers) and the saintly. “Heaven and hell met and danced to the melody of Thumri,” says Gafoor Mian with his toothless smile.

From somewhere outside, a strain of sarangi wafts in. “That is Maqbool’s son playing,” Gafoor Mian says.

As an accompanying instrument, the sarangi enhances the thumri, even bestowing the counterpoint at times, but never leaving the melody. It is almost the alter ego of Thumri.

“Maqbool had a promising career in sarangi, but it was cut short by arthritis,” Gafoor Mian is saying. Then he suddenly lights up, straightens his back and says, “You know, Maqbool wanted his son to go to college and take up a job. But Sauqat refused and took up the sarangi. Sauqat is a brave boy.”

“How many Sauqats are there in the world of thumri today?” I ask. Gafoor Mian is silent for a while, then says, “There is some resurgence happening. But thumri is still sung only as a postscript to a khayal recital. There are very few thumri concerts.”

I ask him to sing a thumri before I leave. “Kya gaaun? I am a tabla player.” I insist. He laughs and the furrows on his forehead soften. “Theek hai, let me sing aprachalith (traditional) thumri.”

Kaun gali gayo Shyam…(To which lane did my Shyam go?) The melody follows me as I leave the lane.