Banaras gharana exponent and renowned thumri singer Girija Devi died in Kolkata on Tuesday evening at the age of 87. Though she included khayal and a host of other genres in her concert repertoire, she will always be remembered for her superlative thumri renditions.
Seniormost practitioner of the Poorab ang thumri, Girija Devi’s recitals were marked by an inimitable voice that was bold and strident, albeit with a sharp metallic edge and a nasal twang. Incorporating the essence of the Poorab ang, her melodic elaboration of the thumri had a poise and dignity matched with the pukaar, a vocal device that reflected the yearning of the naayikaa or the female protagonist in the song-text. Her singing was a lesson to those in the present generation who treat the thumri-dadra genre as an afterthought to their training in khayal or as a form that needs no special training.
She was equally known for her sparkling renditions of tappa, a form that demands immense vocal dexterity as it involves swift and unpredictable melodic passages.
Her recitals included several folk forms like chaiti, kajri, and jhoola, all of which have always been part of the concert repertoire presented by Banaras gharana practitioners. The significance of understanding the cultural context of musical forms and the ease with language and the layers hidden within the song-texts, were palpable when she sang these forms as they were very much part of her milieu.
She spoke about her life and work in this interview recorded for the Rajya Sabha channel.
Like all students of Hindustani music, I too had heard Banaras gharana exponent and renowned thumri singer Girija Devi on recordings and radio broadcasts. But I think the first time that I saw and heard her at close quarters was when she performed at a concert hosted by my guru and illustrious tabla maestro Nikhil Ghosh for his music school. I was probably in my teens then and had the opportunity to experience the music seated right behind my guru as he accompanied her on tabla then.
Little did I know then that I would have the privilege of accompanying Girija Devi, known to those close to her as Appaji, several years later. My earliest performance with her was a private concert in South Mumbai. I was by then regularly accompanying Shobha Gurtu, also an eminent exponent of the thumri-dadra genre and a contemporary of Girija Devi. But despite this being my first experience as her tabla accompanist, Girija Devi did not make it appear so. She made me feel comfortable on stage and encouraged me during the recitals.
I had occasion to accompany her again in Mumbai, but it was during my concert tour of the UK with Shobha Gurtu that I had met and observed Girija Devi offstage. The tour had been organised by the London-based Asian Music Circuit, and Girija Devi and Shobha Gurtu were successively featured as soloists in three concerts. Girija Devi’s sense of humour and bonhomie during this short trip was memorable.
For present-day Hindustani music aficionados, the thumri-dadra renditions of the Banaras greats like Siddheshwari Devi and Rasoolan Bai are available on few recordings that are with record collectors or with the All India Radio. But for most listeners, this musical lineage was best represented by Girija Devi in recent times. One can only hope that her disciples will take this lineage forward.