Thumri queen — the term has become synonymous with Girija Devi and is a beautiful ode to who this wonderful artiste was and what her contribution to music has been. The doyenne from Banaras gharana had the temperament needed to present this beautiful genre. There was the nakhra, the adayegi, shringaar, the pukaar, that expression which could make so many fall in love with the music that resulted in it. Then, there was the concept of words and the right way of presenting them.
She just nailed every aspect of it, presenting a genre that thrived in the courts of kings and pleasure houses. Bhaav nikalna chahiye, tabhi thumri banti hai. Why don’t we see too many young singers attempting thumri? A lot of people have the right heart, riyaaz and headspace to sing thumri, but it’s the presentation that is responsible for the success of a thumri session. Therefore, there aren’t too many who did justice to the genre the way Girija ji did. Shobha Gurtu was someone who delivered some flawless pieces but the way Girija ji kept the tradition alive is a feat in itself.
What was also interesting about Girija ji was that she was not just a doyenne of thumri, she could also present the more ‘classical’ khayal with great finesse, and that was something so interesting and intriguing. The taans and the alaaps soared high with much ease and hung around us. A lot of our artistes present thumri even today, including me. But Girija ji’s mellifluous voice, those kajris, the tappas, the sharpness in them, will not be forgotten for times to come.
My association with Girija ji goes back to a concert in Banaras in 1965, where I was performing. She was present in my concert and also singing later. Since she was there, I deliberately presented a thumri. It was in Raag Tilang and she really enjoyed it. She came up to me later and told me, ‘Bada achha gaati ho’. I still remember that conversation.
In the later years, we met a few times, but whenever we did, the warmth and the earnestness was so endearing. Appa ji, as she was fondly called by her students and audiences, was one of the finest artistes from the country. Those like her are rare. I hope thumri can stay alive the way she intended it to.