Girija Devi’s incisive voice invariably rang strong and true when she took to the stage, carrying with it the wisdom and experience of a lifetime spent with music.
At the age of 88, the iconic vocalist Girija Devi had a hectic concert schedule and many performances lined up in various parts of the country when she passed away last night in Kolkata. Those who had the opportunity to hear her in concert in the recent past will vouch for the fact that despite the natural silvering of her braided hair and the occasional ill-health that accompanies the process of ageing, Girija Devi’s incisive voice invariably rang strong and true when she took to the stage, carrying with it the wisdom and experience of a lifetime spent with music. Retirement has no meaning for such voices and musical temperaments. They live to sing, and quit only in death.
Girija Devi’s music won her countless disciples and followers, and several accolades and awards. A slew of Padma awards – Padmashri, Padmabhushan and Padma Vibhushan – honorary doctorates and titles paid homage to her artistry. So, instead of mourning the passing of an artiste who lived a full life, received adoration and recognition, and sang almost till her last breath, should we not be celebrating her life and her music?
My intention here is not to downplay the emotional wrench and irreparable sense of loss that a final parting brings. But the passing away of Girija Devi robs Indian music not only of an iconic singer; it also brings us a step closer to the finality of another death and loss – that of Purab Ang thumri as it was sung in the 20th century. (Note that I do not mark her demise as the death of thumri itself, for thumri will live, albeit in the often insipid, or worse, lame and flippant renderings that are so often passed off as thumri now.)
What made Girija Devi’s rendering of thumri so iconic were several musical elements of her style. First, her craft itself was so well-honed and burnished that there was an ease in the rendering that comes only from having developed a deep intimacy with the idiom. When she sang a thumri in Khamaj or Bhairavi, Khamaj and Bhairavi were her close companions whom she knew inside-out. When she chose to move out of Khamaj and Bhairavi as per the license given by thumri-gayaki, she knew the exits and points of re-entry like the back of her hand. After all, she had a spent a lifetime with them and with the pantheon of ragas in the Hindustani system.
The rhythmic canvas, too, provided by taal, was one she traversed with utmost ease, with no fearful sidelong glances as the tabla player accompanying her moved into the fast laggi sections typical of thumri. As for the bol, or lyrics, which form such an integral part of the bol-banaana technique characteristic of thumri, she sang them with a mouthful of paan, with the Banarasi brogue that is inimitable even for her many non-Banarasi disciples to whom she taught the dialect. You have to be born to it, to get its true ring. Both the sensuality of thumri and the pain and longing that it often speaks of, were delivered by her unabashedly and full-throttle in a voice that carried a metallic edge to it. Not for her the syrupy softening of the voice, the winking, lip-biting and curling of the lip that accompanies thumri renderings these days.
I first heard her at close quarters in Allahabad where I grew up, just about 80 km from Varanasi, her home turf. My memories of her are of a pleasant, rotund lady in traditional attire sporting a large bindi on her forehead, chewing paan, who came on stage with her pallu covering her head. But as she smiled and settled on stage for a performance, the flash in her charismatic eyes established that here was someone in control of her art and her life. And of course, with the very first breath she drew on stage, she established her strength and supremacy.
In the initial concerts that I had the fortune to witness, Girija Devi wore the trappings of matrimony on her person – sindoor, bindi, glass bangles et al. But some years later, after the passing away of her husband, I witnessed a performance by her in Maihar, the town in Madhya Pradesh that musicians journey to as a pilgrimage on account of its association with the great Baba Alauddin Khan of the Maihar Senia gharana. This time Girija Devi was dressed in stark white, and on her forehead the dark stain of the vermilion that she had worn for years, was covered only partially by the white of chandan, or sandalwood paste.
She sang with characteristic strength and commitment, and concluded with a Meera bhajan – ‘Bala, main bairaagan hoongi (for you, I will renounce the world)’. The sense of loss and detachment that her singing conveyed was disturbing to my young ears, which at that time knew neither viyog nor sanyog. I believe it is this ability to communicate and express that is common to great musicians. It allows craft to be transformed into art, perhaps not in each rendering but in moments of inspiration.
During her lifetime and at the time of her passing, Girija Devi was hailed universally as the queen of thumri. Yet she herself wanted to establish that the music of Banaras was not confined only to thumri and its allied forms. She invariably started her recitals with khayal renderings, also rendering other forms like the tappa. Like her, many musicians of the Banaras gharana labour to establish the supremacy of Banaras, almost suggesting a lower status for thumri in a musical hierarchy where dhrupad and khayal supposedly enjoy a superior class status. But music invariably has its way and the final word. And for the world, Girija Devi immortalised both thumri and herself by rendering it as only she could.
Shubha Mudgal is a Hindustani classical vocalist.