Earlier this year, in May, thumri queen Girija Devi arrived in the capital to pay her respects to Kishori Amonkar, who had passed away only a few days before. In a tribute concert organised by SPICMACAY at Nehru Park, with many musicians from the city — including Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Pt Rajan and Sajan Mishra in attendance — Girija ji was brought on a wheelchair. Draped in a white cotton sari, she gingerly climbed up the lofty stage as her students held both her hands, and settled herself.
She began with a simple bhajan, ‘Hey Govind Gopal,’ then told the audience, “Chhoti thi mujhse, aur jaldi chali gayi,”. She was younger than me, but she went away before me.
Girijia ji was talking about Kishori ji, her “younger sister,” who had never cared about genuflecting before either senior musicians or maestros, instead brutally describing them as commercial, untrained and even untalented. But she called Girija Devi “Appa ji,” her soul sister. “You listen to me,” she would tell her disciples, “I only listen to my mother and to Appa ji.”
As she spoke about Kishori Amonkar, Girija ji’s voice, mellifluous even at 87 years of age, had none of the sharpness that would otherwise adorn her thumris and dadras.
Girija Devi’s passing this year isn’t just the demise of the country’s thumri queen, the person who brought thumri — evocative love poetry with a hint of eroticism and drama — to the frontlines of Hindustani classical music. It is the demise of a great artiste whose career spanned more than half a century, who brought thumri out of the ‘kothas’ to the proscenium stage and insisted it be given respect, even when it was being sung by a reticent woman and not Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.
Yes, Girija Devi sang and performed at a time when classical music was far more respected and much better understood. Certainly, it’s one thing to sing and another to live an art form, which by nature and design is marked by ‘adaa’, flair, and perhaps even a mild flirtation. She raised the standard of this art form, which has been described as “semi-classical” for decades. When she passed away last week, she had had several performances lined up in her calendar.
Girija Devi was born to Ramdeo Rai, a zamindar in Banaras, and grew up singing ‘shaadi ke geet’ for her doll’s wedding. Her father taught her, after which she trained under Sarju Prasad Misra and Chand Mishra. Not allowed to sing for Nawabs of the time by her husband in Varanasi and Kolkata, because upper-class women simply didn’t sing in public, she began to sing for All India Radio and at conferences, where she was enormously appreciated. Her audiences, over the decades, included Dr S. Radhakrishnan, Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1989 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2016.
I simply cannot forget the dadra, ‘Deewana ki ye shyam, kya jadoo dara,’ with which Girija Devi entered my life. She was on TV, in an off-white Banarasi sari and a tight, thin plait of silver hair hanging down her the back. She would flash a smile, all the while crooning this dadra in Raga Gauri Bhairav. She could have been anybody’s grandmother.
And then, with Ustad Zakir Hussain on the tabla, she began to sing, ‘Deewana ki ye shyam, kya jadoo dara…’ Now she was Radha, mourning and miserable because of Krishna’s infidelity; her beloved had enchanted her and made her miserable and he was now mocking her by ignoring her. The ‘Purabiya’ lilt in her music was lovely and had those in attendance — Ut Vilayat Khan, composer Anil Biswas, sarangi Nawaz Pt Ram Narayan and Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma — utter “wah!” at regular intervals.
“Thumri daad maangti hai,” she’d say. There was never a dearth of it, from connoisseurs or us, commoners.
Now the term “thumri” is derived from the word ‘thumakna’, which means to walk with dancing steps while the ankle bells can be heard in rhythm. Appa ji was the heart of it. I remember meeting her in one of the green rooms, where a young man in his twenties said he wanted a photograph with her. She flashed a toothy smile, wiped paan stains from near her mouth and readily permitted. But the moment he sat next to her on the sofa, her expression changed into that of a funnily angry grandmother. “Are neeche baitho. Hamare bagal mein thoda hi baithoge. Jaante ho kitne bade hai tumse? (Hey, sit on the ground. You won’t sit next to me. Do you know how much older I am?)”
The kid obliged, even pressing her feet in alleged remorse. It’s a lovely image to be left with. Of her laughing, getting angry at the small things, teling me how much she hated cooking — something women of that age generally take pride in.
It took her away from her singular concentration, her ‘sadhana’ of music, she said. “That’s the only non-grandmotherly thing about her,” one of her students once pointed out.
Vinod Kapoor, her patron in Delhi, once told me how it all began : “I was in Rae Bareli and hosted a small baithak for her. This gorgeous woman began to sing and I was just lost.”
In a conversation with Rasoolan Bai and Siddheshwari Devi, someone once asked them about the thumri’s future, afterwards, after them. “Girija hai na,” pat came the reply from Siddheshwari Devi. Girija is there, isn’t she.
She’s gone now. There was only one Girija Devi. She sang for us and has now returned to the river she worshipped.
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