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Girija Devi: Tappa and more


The grand dame of thumri on why she doesn't like fusion or the instant fame of TV reality shows.

Girija Devi is the oldest surviving woman vocalist from the Banaras gharana. The 82-yearold singer is especially known for her thumris. With a rich repertoire of semi-classical genres like kajri, chaiti, tappa and hori, Girijaji is also adept at khayal and Indian folk music. Now in the winter of her life, Girijaji lives with her daughter in Kolkata. Despite undergoing bypass surgery, she still travels all over the country and promotes purab ang gayaki.

Girija Devi recently performed at the 64th Shankarlal Music Festival in the capital, organised by the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Dressed in an off-white sari accessorised with diamonds, Girijaji was her charming best, flicking her long plait in between the performance as she indulgently encouraged her students to sing along. She spoke to TOI-Crest about her long and eventful life as a musician and how she feels let down by the UP government.

Purab ang gayaki is mostly known from the Banaras gharana rather than the Gaya gharana. What's so special about this style of singing?

Khayal, dhrupad, dhamar, tappa were all sung in their pure form in the Banaras gharana. It didn't have any dilutions as compared to other gharanas. Like, for example, before Swami Hari Shankar Mishra, there was only alaap (singing without words). Slowly, it became smaller and words were added in place of Om, Nome, Hari Om and Hari Narayan. Khayal singing came to Banaras from Mohammad Shah Rangeela's kingdom (55 km from Banaras). Since it was pure classical in long notes of the ragas, it was later moderated to smaller versions which further got attributed with shringar and vatsalya ras and came to be called thumri. Since thumri was not sung anywhere else in those days, it became popularly associated with the Banaras gharana.

Critics normally say that purab ang gayaki is not pure classical like khayal. Similarly, thumri too is viewed as semi-classical. Do you agree?

Khayal, tappa, thumri and popular folk songs were always part of the Banaras gharana. Our gurus added classical notes to thumri, kajri, chaiti and hori (forms of folk songs) which were originally sung with simple words. Besides, in earlier days, since the culture of chhoothpaat (untouchability) was prevalent, most gurus did not delve into folk. As they travelled to other cities for their performances, they'd usually sing khayal (pure classical) and that led to classical gaining more popularity over thumri. But essentially, thumri too is classical, just like kajri, hori and chaiti which are all raga-based.

How did you popularise thumri at a national level?

I used to explain the difference in styles of singing from earlier times to the current style in all my performances. Issi tarah ek se ek gyarah hotey gaye. From Bihar, Maharashtra, Bengal, Kashmir to abroad, I continued spreading the thumri style.

How is tappa a Banaras gharana style of singing given that it originated in Punjab?

In earlier days, as our gurus travelled to different cities, they'd indulge in exchange of their craft so as to further enrich it. They were not closed about their art and believed in sharing. Tappa came to Banaras through this exchange of gayaki styles. Ghulam Rasool of Punjab brought tappa to Banaras. Similarly, Banaras' thumri went to Punjab. Today, there are tappas from Banaras, Patiala, Bengal and Gwalior.

Coming to Banaras thumri, what has been
your contribution to it, taking on from singers before you like Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai and Pandit Mahadev Mishra?
Swar is the same. During the times of Siddheshwari Devi, Pt Hari Shankar Mishra, Chand Mishra and Pt Mahadev Mishra, more prominence was given to the raga than the words. They would usually sing in one-two words. Ragon ke upar akar zyada thaa (the emphasis was more on ragas). When I came across words like Ras ke bharey torey nain, I felt that these cannot be attributed to one gopi and one gopal as I saw the emotion differently with different people. I felt that the same bandish can also be sung by a mother, sister or friend - each resonating with a different emotion. Therefore, my contribution to the earlier style of thumri would be adding words and a range of emotions. My research is still continuing. However, I can't give such varied emotions in half-hour shows on radio and TV. But I do explain it in detail at my performances.

You must have sung it (in different emotions) in the earlier days.

There was a time when Banaras had a culture of all-night singing. It was usually in baithak format with artistes and listeners sitting on the floor and we would delve in all these emotions with a simple one line - like Hori khele Nandlal.

I would sing it depicting Krishna playing holi as a young child, a son, friend, lover and guru. All these emotions would come in one bandish. Today, who has the time to spend long hours listening to such varied emotions? The world has changed and changes have been added to these classical songs. Just like you have a Chevrolet, Mercedes and a Nano all co-existing, similarly, classical music has become a mixture of all kinds of genres. Those who stuck to their gharanas were left behind as they refused to change with the times. But it's also true that today no one will not get a Baiju Bawra, Tansen or Haridas.

A current trend of changing times is fusion or mixing of ragas. I don't approve of that. I've heard that even my horis and kajris have been subjected to fusion. I can't do a thing about it. Where, what platform, and how do I raise objections to this at my age? But people like me who're in their 80s, 70s and also 60s do not approve of fusion as it's killing the essence of classical. I take great pride in being known as thumri samraagi (doyenne of thumri). I'm grateful for this recognition and believe it's because of the blessings of my gurus and elders. However, even at this age I feel I'm a student and make an effort to continue to learn. I still sing khayal, tappa and thumri without the help of my book as I remember over 200 bandishes. This is all due to the blessing of my guru.

What are your views on music-based television reality shows?

I don't like them at all. In such shows, you pick one student and pay him lakhs. That very act ruins that child's future because he thinks he's achieved something very great. The knowledge that one gets rewarded for a few weeks of singing kills that child's journey in music. Others too follow the winner lured by money and fame. What happens to true knowledge? It cannot be achieved overnight. These shows are not genuine talent hunts. A genuine talent never rests even after mastering the art. I'd recommend that the same prize money should be given to 10 to 20 students of music or dance to further their quest for knowledge rather than on one person who'll never learn after winning the title.

You still teach in the guru-shishya parampara.

I teach my students like my children. They live with me, take care of me, massage my head and feet, organise my clothes etc. And I, on my part, impart all the knowledge that I have to them. I pay for those who cannot afford to learn music. For girls, I even teach them how to cook, how to keep the house tidy and instill in them all the values that I learnt while growing up. My students should be adept at running their homes and nurturing their love for music. I have one message for all my students - vidya ko bator ke rakho aur dheerey dheerey kharch karo. (Keep the knowledge intact and spend it frugally).

Who are your favourites in the field of music?

Sarvpratham (first of all) my guru, then I like Amir Khan, Badey Ghulam Ali, Ali Akbar Khan, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Pt Ravi Shankar, Pt Jasraj who're all like my brothers. Also Pt Mani Ram who was like my elder brother. I have great respect for all of them.

Any concerns you'd like to share.

Yes, despite the Padma awards (Padma Shri in 1972 and Padma Bhushan in 1989) I have got, I regret the fact that the Uttar Pradesh government failed to recognise my contribution to classical music. Look at how many awards the Madhya Pradesh government bestows on artistes. They have over six to seven awards including the Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar awards. I'm not saying give an award to me, but at least recognise my gurus like Siddheshwari Devi or Pt Haridas. Kisi ke naam se nahin dete. (They don't give an award in anybody's name). Only recently, the UP government started a youth award after Bismillah Khan, that too after his death.

Reader's opinion (3)

Arvind SinghApr 29th, 2011 at 10:33 AM

I have great respect to these classical singers. They are god. I also belong to Banaras and used to travel every alternate weekend from Gurgaon to Banaras. For classical music Banaras is heaven. You must visit Santak Mochan Sangeet samaroh, held every year after Hanuman Jayanti for 5 days.

Yashodeep SenguptaApr 16th, 2011 at 18:00 PM

One should come up with a brainstorm to make Indian classical music become more popular in our country.

Yashodeep SenguptaApr 16th, 2011 at 18:00 PM

One should come up with a brainstorm to make Indian classical music become more popular in our country.

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