It is the 1940s. In Varanasi, a tremendously talented young woman from a zamindar family is trying to carve a space for herself in the world of music, the domain of tawaifs or courtesans. Everything is loaded against her ambition: her upper caste and class, her good looks and the conservatism of her city and society. She succeeds anyway.
Girija Devi’s early life and career are a story of personal and professional struggles so dramatic that only a woman of her courage could have lived through it. The thumri diva, who died on Tuesday night at 87, had a full-throated voice and strong stage presence that sprang from the confidence with which she fought the odds in her life.
Two years ago, her students put together a documentary on her, Girija, A Lifetime in Music, in which she spoke with disarming candour of her fight to find the balance between music and the demands of a family life – of her struggle to make sure that she got her bhaaji tarkaari recipes right to please her mother, didn’t let the roti burn in her husband’s home, and cared for her infant daughter even as she desperately sought for a quiet space to practice.
There were three factors, personal and historical, that helped her stay the course.
An unusual father
Babu Ramdas Rai must have been an oddity for his times, a father who insisted on a rigorous regimen of fitness training for his daughters. “He would drag us out of home at 4 am for lessons in archery, swimming, and horse riding,” Girija Devi once recalled. “In summers he would take us swimming, me in half pants and a towel around my waist. I would wear kurta pajama, he brought me up like a son.”
A singer himself, Rai noticed his four-year-old hum around the house and appointed her a music teacher, Sarju Prashad Mishra. Girija Devi said that by age eight, she had became obssessed with music. None of this pleased her mother.
“She said stop this music, she would say ‘what will you do with this saregama once you get married?’ But my father and guru didnt give up. My father would buy me one doll every time I learnt something new. I had a cupboard full of dolls.”
She made peace at home by learning what her mother wanted – sanksari geet or ritual songs for wedding, birth and so on. In villages around Varanasi, she picked up the rich treasure of music of the purab ang: kajri, jhoola, chaiti, baramasa and hori and put her classical training to give them a different face.
Marriage was inescapable, but Rai made a decision that might sound tyrannical today: he picked her an already married man, businessman Madhusudan Jain, a connoisseur of music who promised not to put a stop to her singing, pretty much a given in those times.
Married to music
“He said sing but don’t agree to those private mehfils in royal courts and homes of rich,” Girija Devi said. “Pick big music conferences, sing on the radio, he said. Since my first guru was no more, he appointed me another teacher Srichand Mishra who brought a new luminosity and steadiness to my music.”
Being the second wife probably meant domestic hostilities, but Girija Devi made no mention of it. All she said was that after a while Jain set her up in a home in Sarnath, a historic town not far from Varanasi, where she stayed with her little daughter.
“The city wasn’t conducive to music, the jhanjhat (chaos) of living together as one family, left me with no time for music,” she recalled. “I needed solitude. I asked my husband for a home in Sarnath and we moved. I would meditate on music here, this steady concentration taught me strong breath control and how to use it to stay on a taan. It was like I was intoxicated.”
In a poignant recollection of how she negotiated for time and space for music, she spoke of the kitchen work that took up her whole day. “Watching a roti become brown, puff and then turning it – I would think it was such a waste I could do so much with my music in that much time.”
Then one event changed her life forever. Jain’s insistence that she sing only on prestigious public platforms worked. At the music conference at Ara in 1951, she was asked to perform instead of the great Omkarnath Thakur, whose car had broken down en route to the venue. Girija Devi, the youngest artiste at an event starring giants like Hirabai Badodekar and Vinayakrao Patwardhan, remembered the tremendous ovation she received that day.
“I actually earned Rs 500, a big sum in those days and with some money from my husband held a grand initiation for my guru,” she said.
Her successful debut made her a staple on the conference circuit, giving the opportunity to perform to celebrity audiences in Delhi. This was no mean achievement because she could now earn from her art. To the end of her life, Girija Devi continued to support a large clan.
The rise of radio
“Life was tough for Girija and women like her in those days – people would talk behind them,” said Rajan and Sajan Mishra, both from Varanasi, in the film.
Along with music conferences, Girija Devi’s career took off on another track. She debuted on radio in 1949 from the Allahabad radio station. More support came unexpectedly from another quarter in the 1950s.
At the time, the legendary BV Keskar, often accused of being a high-handed puritan, was the minister for information and broadcasting. Keskar, who had banished harmonium from All India Radio, held tawaifs responsible for “decay” in Hindustani musical traditions and decreed that women from “disreputable” backgrounds wouldn’t be allowed to perform on AIR.
Keskar and Congress leader Vallabhbhai Patel ensured that women whose “private life was a public scandal” wouldn’t get a toehold on national radio, said scholar Amlan Das Gupta in his essay Women and Music: The Case of North India in Women of India: Colonial and Post Colonial Periods.
But what this exclusion did was that women like Girija Devi, who were seen to be respectable backgrounds, found a paying platform to forge their musical careers at a time when old and feudal avenues for performers had shut down.