For Girija Devi, music was an expression of emotion

Some years ago, already in her 80s, Appaji had me sit in a music class in her home in Kolkata. She was teaching a small group of dedicated students, getting them to do the basic sapat/taan (warm up exercises for the voice) and joining them in this rigorous riyaaz before she formally began teaching them a thumri. The music room had such an intense, peaceful atmosphere, it was a beautiful morning of sadhana: practice with passion and dedication.

I had often asked her what it meant to take to the thumri as her chosen form, given that it had a ‘reputation’ attached to it, especially the time when she was learning her music.

She merely said her father liked music and was open to the idea of her singing. The gurus he brought home to teach her were impressed by her talent and from then on, she did not look back. But given her rigorous taleem in khayal as well, I was still intrigued and asked her whether she found it limiting that thumri was sung only in a handful of ragas.

Stunning answer

Her answer was stunning in its simplicity: “Thumri ko chhote chhote kayee angon me dikhaya jaa sakta hai — sham ke khamaj me bhairavi daal do, ya paraj jod do — baat bhaavnaon ki hai [you can break a thumri into many small parts — sing an evening melody in Khamaj, bring some Bhairavi or even Paraj into it — it is all about expressing an emotion.]

She did not particularly want to engage with the sociological/academic discourse around it. However, like most ustads, she too loved sharing anecdotes about her life and initial years of training — of how she grew up playing and practising her music with the other legend, from Indian Cinema: Nargis.

She was in awe of Nargis’s mother Jaddan Bai and loved how she was even called ‘Jaddan Khan’ because of the grandeur of her music.

Key cultural centre

The richness of Girija Devi’s music was inspired by her childhood influences, the music that she learnt and grew up with.

Benares, where she came from, was an important cultural centre. So, listening to legends like Siddheswari or Rasoolan Bai in mehfils was not uncommon.

She would reminisce about listening to greats like Salamat Ali Khan, Roshanara Begum, Abdul Karim Khan — all on records.

Thumri, Chaiti, Kajri, Hori — this music is about love, a robust expression of myriad emotions. Girija Devi was all of this. A true performer, she was loved by her audiences.

However, one of her most important contributions to the music she loved was a second line that she created. She made an institution of the Purab Ang Gayaki.

A large-hearted guru, Girija Devi encouraged several of her students to pursue this music with similar passion, created opportunities for them to perform and now leaves behind a legacy that ensures the genre continues to be nurtured.

Along with Rasoolan Bai, Badi Moti Bai and Siddheshwari Devi, Girija Devi ji completes the quartet that defines the very essence of thumri, drenched in pathos, desire, longing and love.

Appaji, you will be missed.

(Vidya Shah is a musician and the author of Jalsa)

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 11:11:05 PM |

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