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The purab also rises
If we think of a classical Hindustani concert as a grand feast, the thumri would be akin to dessert - delectable certainly, but always adjunct, not entrêe. It was to change this notion that impresario VS Kapur started the Purab Ang Gayaki Utsav, an annual festival for young thumri singers held in Varanasi, Delhi and Kolkata.
"Thumri may have lost centre-stage but it still has a huge number of fans, " says Kapur, a Delhi entrepreneur whose classical baithaks are known to feature artistes rarely heard in the capital's star-struck circles. "I was taken aback by the surge of people at the first festival we held last year. It occurred to me that showcasing the genre at a large event and giving thumri singers a central platform could put the spotlight back on this form that many think is dying. "
Having completed its Delhi leg, PAGU, as the festival is affectionately called, will now travel to the other two cities. The festival's name is a nod to the geographical origins of thumri, a form of music associated with the eastern belt or purab. It features 24 young and talented singers, the best of whom will be selected for the Girija Devi Puraskars, an award that includes a mentorship under the grande dame of thumri, Girija Devi, and experts like Manjari Sinha, Rita Ganguly, Meena Banerjee and Purnima Choudhury.
Most of the young singers are trained in khayal singing but are fascinated enough by the possibilities thumri offers to explore it in greater detail. "Khayal is an intellectual exercise, thumri on the other hand is heavy with bhav (emotion) and sringar (romance), " says Astha Goswami, a singer in Vrindavan who has trained under Girija Devi at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata and performed at PAGU last year. "They are equally fascinating but offer distinct creative possibilities. In khayal, the rules of raagdari (raga system) are strict, but thumri allows you languor, the right to wander off for a bit, create a mood. I would prefer to devote my time equally to both forms. "
Scholar Peter Lamarche Manuel in his much-quoted book Thumri, in Historical and Stylistic Perspectives, describes the form as "amatory". The themes often revolve around love, longing and Krishna's dalliance with Radha and could also be linked to the moods of the seasons. Almost always, though, as Manuel points out, the songs are sung from the female perspective. Unless the vocalist is able to master these characteristic nuances, he or she cannot do thumri justice. Which is why a rigorously trained classical singer does not automatically make for a great thumri singer.
"I believe that if you are rooted in khayal singing you have an advantage. But on stage I would give equal importance to both forms, " says Moumita Mitra, a singer who has trained under Anjan Majumdar. A festival like PAGU, she says, could encourage younger thumri singers to invest more time and interest in the form.
Interestingly, over 80 per cent of the young thumri singers at the festival are from Bengal. The primary reason for this is that the giants of this form are based in Kolkata - Girija Devi who is with the ITC SRA;the incredibly talented Purnima Chaudhari;and Ajoy Chakravorty of the Patiala Gharana, which has a strong tilt towards thumri. These teachers have a dedicated following and have managed to turn Kolkata into a thumri stronghold, far from its original homes in Varanasi and Lucknow. All six winners of last year's event were Bengalis, as were 11 of the 12 finalists. Kapur has another theory about why the city dominates the thumri scenario. "Thumri at the turn of the last century had been condemned to a corner in the eastern states (what is now Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) because it was associated with the tawaifs (courtesans), " he says. "This music was too romantic for 'respectable' women to sing. But Kolkata was more liberal, and it welcomed thumri. "
Vocalist Meena Banerjee has pointed out in an article that the last Nawab of Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was exiled in Metiaburj, a Kolkata suburb, and he could well have brought thumri with him. It became a great favourite with Rabindranath Tagore, she adds, but remained in the confines of the jalsaghars (music rooms) of the zamindars, sung only by courtesans including the great diva, Gauhar Jaan. But once the great ustads began patronising the style it became acceptable to the middle class as well.
However, thumri singers from north India point out that since thumri lays great emphasis on the lyrics, which are framed mostly in Bhojpuri, Avadhi and Brajbhasha, a Bengali inflection could pose a problem for non-Hindi speakers. "Bengali singers do run into a problem with pronunciation, " admits Goswami, "but I have noticed that appaji (Girija Devi) is very particular that her students get their accent perfect before she moves on. "
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