Sonic Saturday

Listen: These duets by thumri singers Nirmala Devi and Lakshmi Shankar are rare gems

Despite being popular when they were released, these recordings have faded into oblivion

Hindustani music recordings made several decades ago continue to attract music lovers to this day. But there are some that seem to have fallen into oblivion even though they gained popularity soon after they were released.

Duets recorded by noted thumri singers Nirmala Devi and Lakshmi Shankar belong to this category. The two studied under the same guru, Abdul Rehman Khan of the Patiala gharana who also taught several playback singers from the world of Hindi cinema. Their recordings reveal experiments at various levels.

For one, they demonstrate a deliberate manner of presentation that involved singing in unison as well as individual elaborations that were precise and contained, rather than being flexible as would be the case normally with Hindustani recitals. Perhaps the fact that they were singing duets required some measure of arrangement, although this was not really the case with other duets that had been recorded. It is equally likely that the fact that they had learn from the same guru allowed them to explore this possibility. The compositions they recorded were creations of their guru, who probably also supervised their rehearsals and recordings.

On the musical level, the compositions do not conform to conventional melodic lines that are heard in the raags that they are based upon. The musical elaboration deviates from the original raags, a treatment that is allowed in thumri, dadra and allied forms, using ornamentation that is typical of the Patiala style. But at no point does the elaboration become too ornate. The song-texts are not similar to conventional thumri texts and the vocalists also do not necessarily treat them as in the traditional manner typical of thumri renditions.

The first track features a thumri based on Parmeshwari, a raag prescribed for the morning introduced in the Hindustani system by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. The composition is set to Kaherva, a cycle of eight matras or time-units.


The second composition set to the six-matra Dadra taal is a dadra that borrows heavily from Jogiya, a raag prescribed for the morning.


The tabla is played by Nizamuddin Khan, a maestro acknowledged widely for his accompaniment to thumri-dadra recitals. He intersperses the rhythmic canvas with crisp and initimable laggi passages in quadruple tempo.

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