Strange as it may sound, musically semi-literate and orthodox minds can agree on some matters. Knowledge, experience and common sense take a back seat on such occasions and what emerges instead is a misconstrued notion of the past and present and a desperate fear about the future. For instance, some members of both groups agree on a categorisation of musical genres as classical, semi-classical, and light, when in fact none of these labels existed traditionally. They are quick to slot genres like dhrupad and khayal in the classical category, thumri-dadra in semi-classical, and ghazal in light. It is proven beyond doubt that the classicisation of Hindustani music was a phenomenon that was very much a part of the movement for cultural nationalism. Semi-classical and light are probably terms we have been stuck with thanks to their use for decades on All India Radio.
Of course, there is no doubt that the Hindustani vocal music genres dhrupad, khayal and thumri exhibit clear distinguishing features. But to say that one is more or less classical merely based on the fact that the song-text may play a greater or lesser role in one or the other, and that the manner of handling the grammar of the raag enjoys more or no flexibility in one or the other, is an oversimplification, to put it mildly. When some, if not all, khayal gharanas have believed in laying great importance on the song-text, how can one then conclude that khayal does not lend itself to the exploration of the latter?
Similarly, not all thumri singers present a wild medley of raags in their renditions. The handling of melodic contours is done with special care, something that cannot be done without a firm grounding in the grammar of raags. That there may be vocalists who would do otherwise is beside the point.
Unfortunately, care for detail and grounding in the history of performance practice seems to be sorely lacking when one comes across sweeping statements like the ones I mentioned earlier. Such snobbery without any musical logic is particularly disturbing when the same voices speak in favour of being inclusive in the larger social context.
To establish this point, I have deliberately chosen two thumris sung by vocalists who are iconic khayal singers from two different gharanas, but are equally known for their consummate musicianship that allowed them to bring an eclectic flavour to their concerts and recordings. I might also add that the beauty of their renditions of the thumris, per se, have even inspired instrumentalists to include these compositions in their performances. Today’s episode also features two such instrumental interpretations.
The first track is a bandish ki thumri in the raag Khamaj sung by the illustrious Agra gharana vocalist Faiyaz Khan. Set to Teentaal, a rhythmic cycle of 16 matras or time-units, listeners will note that the maestro does not deviate from the main raag, and yet, lends so much expression that takes the narrative of the song-text forward. Importantly, Faiyaz Khan’s special handling of song-text is even clearly noticeable in his khayal expositions, but that does not make them thumris.
Dr N Rajam, one of the country’s senior-most violinists, presents an instrumental interpretation of the same thumri. Needless to say, the absence of the song-text in any instrumental recital takes away something that is integral to thumri. Yet, the flavour of thumri is retained through the main melodic line of the original composition and the treatment of the raag. She is accompanied on tabla by Vinod Lele.
The next track contains a thumri in the raag Bhairavi immortalised by the virtuosic vocalist and chief representative of the Patiala gharana Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.
The final track features shehnai wizard Bismillah Khan presenting a faster-paced interpretation of the same thumri.