Remembering Girija Devi, the Artist Who Immortalised Thumri

“Every time Appa ji took to the stage, the audience responded with thunderous applause. Such was the allure of her music,” reminisces Aastha Goswami, a nostalgic student of Girija Devi. It is a sentiment shared by many, many others, we discover, as we look back at the life of the eminent Hindustani classical singer who passed away in 2017.

Her awards and accomplishments stand testimony to the Herculean talent she was. In a career spanning over six decades, she released hundreds of music albums, earned seven doctorates in literature and music, performed extensively in India and abroad and was honoured with every award there is for music. This included the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1977), the Padma Shri (1972), the Padma Bhushan (1989) and the Padma Vibhushan (2016).

Few people know that Girija Devi also acted in a film titled Yaad Rahe where she played an untouchable girl. Besides a deep inclination towards arts and music, the Thumri Queen was also fond of collecting dolls. Those who know her well say that collecting dolls was Appa ji’s second love after music.

If her music was ethereal, her personality was equally striking. Girija Devi wore resplendent Banarasi sarees, her shiny silver plait lying across her back. She donned a diamond nose pin and her paan-stained teeth glistened every time she performed on stage.

A Journey Unlike Any Other

Born to a zamindar father and a devadasi mother, Girija Devi was a first-generation musician. She wasn’t born into music but started training at the tender age of five on the insistence of her father. Ahead of his times, Girija Devi’s father not only initiated her into singing, but also encouraged her to learn a gamut of other activities such as archery, swimming, and horse riding.

When she later married Madhusudan Jain – a businessman who was 20 years her senior and a connoisseur of arts and music – she was extended support and encouragement from him too. He objectedd to her performing in private mehfils, although he didn’t stand in the way of her public performances.

Girija Devi’s life was transformed by an intense musical sojourn in Sarnath. Her career took off in 1949 when her first performance was broadcast on a radio station in Allahabad.

Girija Devi came to be recognised in the same league as her predecessors – like Rasoolan Bai, Sidheshwari Devi, Begam Akhtar – in a very short span of time.

The jolt in an otherwise smooth-sailing career came in the form of her husband’s demise in 1975 which left her heartbroken. Slowly and eventually, she found her way back to music – this time, to never look back.

Today happens to be Girija Devi’s first birth anniversary, a befitting occasion to talk about Thumri – the form that over the years she became synonymous with.

Thumri: Striking a Balance Between Purism and Populism

For the uninitiated, Girija Devi’s student, singer and disciple Aastha Goswami explains:

"Thumri is the most popular form of north Indian semi-classical music. It has evolved over a period of more than 200 years, synthesising the vital aspects of both classical music and folk music."

The origin of Thumri can be traced to bhajans composed during the 11th century by saint poets like Surdas and Meerabai, with themes centred on Lord Krishna. This perhaps explains the devotional tilt in several thumris which continues till today. Thumri evolved over the years, but it was during the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh in the 19th century that it flourished.

It developed under the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah and came to be used as an accompaniment to Kathak dance with all its dramatic gestures (abhinaya), subtle eroticism and beautiful poetry.

But it was in Banaras where Thumri acquired the status of a heavy classical form –largely due to the efforts of Bhaiyya Ganpatrao, a scion of the Gwalior princely family. Thumri lyrics are usually in Hindi dialects, such as Awadhi and Braj bhasha due to its earthy origins.

The playfulness between Radha and Krishna, Krishna’s antics and his courtship with the gopis – the themes of love, longing, desire and separation are a part of the large repertoire of Thumri. The erotic Shringar Ras predominates Thumri, giving it its characteristic sensuality, not devoid of the elements of spiritual love.

"There are sub-categories of Thumri like Dadra, Chaiti, Kajri, Hori, Jhoola, Saavan. All these songs contain references to the rainy season, to the plaintive cry of the cuckoo, the pangs of separation, the playful antics of Krishna and so on." - Aastha GoswamiGirija Devi Was the Last of the Best, and Best of the Last

The doyen of Banaras and Senia gharanas, Girija Devi became synonymous with the Purab Angi style of Thumri. 

To think of a genre so vast, varied and interdisciplinary and Appa ji’s unfathomable mastery over it only fills one with awe. Not only was she proficient in Thumri but also sang the supposedly weightier Khayal, Dhrupad, Dhamar, Tappa, Prabhandh, Gul, Naksh with equal dexterity. In fact, she was known for opening her performances with Khayal recitals before moving on to the thumris.

Appa ji mastered the nuance of Thumri – the grammar, the emotion, the lyrics –creating a fine tapestry of moods woven with the right emotions every time she took the stage. In fact, a lot of credit must go to Girija Devi for changing the composition of Thumri and for bringing it from the courts and kothas onto the proscenium stage.

The octogenarian performed till the very end, the metallic quality and candour of her voice belying her age. Not only did she mesmerise audiences with her singing and childlike glee, but also passed on her knowledge to several others who wanted to learn from her.

She wanted the younger generation to take forth the legacy of the gharana and Hindustani music – which is perhaps why she devoted a large part of her life to teaching. Girija Devi worked with the Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata and the Banaras Hindu University, passing on her penchant for precision and practice.

A stickler for training and hard work, Girija Devi was vocal about her dislike for reality shows as they catapulted young children to instant fame – in the process disappointing those who failed to make it to the top.

"The prize money of such reality shows should be used to train not one, but many children under the tutelage of able gurus. This way we will take forth the legacy of music." - Girija Devi in an interview to DD news in 2015

I never met Girija Devi but her music conjures several incomprehensible emotions in me. This is perhaps the power of her music, the potency of the unparalleled legacy she has left behind. She may have gone, but through her music she lives on.

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