Updated: October 25, 2017 10:19:54 am
‘Baabul mora, naihar chhuto hi jaye.’ Almost two months ago, thumri queen Girija Devi, wrapped in an off-white Banarasi, sat at a private baithak in Central Delhi, and sang what is known as the song of despair. This thumri in Bhairavi was penned as a lament by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh when he was deported from Lucknow by the British and used the allegory of a bride’s bidaai from her father’s home, equating it with his own displacement from Lucknow to Calcutta. Devi’s sapaat taans, the unique sharpness in her mellifluous voice, came to the fore as she brought out the pain in the piece. Just after ending the thumri, she said with a smile, “Bahut accha laga aap sab aaye. Ab pata nahi dobara aa paungi ya nahi. Nabbey ke hone ja rahi hoon (It feels great that all of you have come. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come again. I am about to be 90)”.
Girija Devi, one of the foundational figures of Banaras and Senia gharana, who brought thumri from the courts and kothas onto the proscenium stage, died on Tuesday after a cardiac arrest. She at 88. She was rushed to BM Birla Hospital in Kolkata but died hours after being on ventilator. Minutes before she concluded the Wajid Ali Shah thumri in Bhairavi, she was bringing alive musical flirtations and the pain of unrequited love in the more sensuous thumris. The Purabiya lilt in place, the laughter in tow. Shekhar Sen, chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, sat alongside her to accompany her on the vocals. Girija Devi, while introducing him, asked gently, “Ye Shekhar hain, Beta kya karte ho tum?” Everyone laughed. She was unfazed and asked again. Sen eventually managed, “Kuch nahi, Appa ji,” Girija Devi laughed along, then let the laughter die down before taking a paan out of her silver paandaan. After putting it in her mouth, she began to sing ‘Humse najariya kaahe pheri re balma’. As the audience let their appreciation show, Girija Devi responded with a smile and a glance. The diamond nosepin flashed, playing havoc with the hearts of those present.
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Girija Devi was born to Ramdeo Rai, a zamindar, and grew up in Banaras, singing shaadi ke geet for her doll’s wedding. Her father taught her, after which she trained under Sarju Prasad Misra and Chand Mishra. She told The Indian Express once that she would sometimes get so busy perfecting her taans that she would forget the chapatis on the stove, burning many in due course. “Kabhi mann na laga hamara chulhe chowke mein” she said. Not allowed to sing for Nawabs of the time by her husband in Varanasi and Kolkata, as it wasn’t appreciated if upper-class women sang in public, she began singing for radio and at conferences where she was much appreciated. Her musical journey found Dr Radhakrishnan, Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in the audiences in the 1960s and 70s. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1989 and Padma Vibhushan in 2016.
After her husband’s demise, she forayed into devotional singing, giving another dimension to her music and putting the prism of Purabiya lilt to them without being a prisoner to the style. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who performed with Girija Devi in sarod and vocal jugalbandi, said, “She was my elder sister and an institution in herself. It’s an irreparable loss.” Just before she sang a tribute concert to vocalist Kishori Amonkar in Delhi earlier this year, she had said, “Mujhse chhoti thi aur pehle chali gayi.” Girija Devi’s death is an abrupt end to the strains that followed post that sentence — the compositions that were as powerful as they were intimate, and the music that flowed like the endless Ganga that she prayed to.
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