A Maddening Sweet Utterance

A Bhairavi thumri, as sung  by the reclusive Anjanibai Malpekar, the unsung queen of the genre, who taught many later stars of the Hindustani classical world, including Begum Akhtar, Kumar Gandharva and Kishori Amonkar

Raja Ravi Verma, A lady playing the Swarbat. Credit: Wikimedia

Raja Ravi Varma, A lady playing the Swarbat. The lady was modelled on Anjanibai Malpekar. Credit: Wikimedia

रसके भरे तोरे नैन, मोरे सांवरिया तोहे गर्वां लगालूं
आजा संवरिया, तोहे गर्वां लगालूं, रसके भरे तोरे नैन
दिन नाहि चैन, रात नाहि निन्दिया, आई रात नाहि निन्दिया
तरपत हो तरपत हो बिन चैन, रसके भरे तोरे नैन

These are the simple lines of a thumri in raga Bhairavi. The field of emotion created by these lines – the gamut of loving, yearning and waiting – is explored over ten to twenty minutes by the singer. An expert singer unencumbered by time could stretch this lament for transient love to a good half hour.

In translation, these lines sound as banal and clichéd as the sighs that any lovelorn person utters irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, language, caste, class, nationality, memory, culture or food habits. There’s no great imagery here other than ‘eyes brimming with love’ and ‘arms aching for an embrace’. It is the singing that makes all the difference. Each word, each phrase, is broken up and conjoined, and rolled over again and again; each syllable and every vowel massaged with music and held breath, coming to mean something special each time it is uttered. Restated as unique, the mundane universal becomes art.

In this rare recording of 7 minutes and 26 seconds, a fragment that seems to hang frozen in time, we have the unsung Anjanibai Malpekar giving taleem, or training, to Begum Akhtar.

Anjanibai, a Kalavant devadasi from Goa trained in Bombay’s Bhendi Bazaar gharana style, was known for both her beauty and music – she was Raja Ravi Varma’s muse and model from the ages of about seventeen to twenty-three. Oddly, these virtues kept her away from the spotlight. Forced to be a courtesan and mistress, Anjanibai was both sexually harassed and patronised by the rich. It is said that she survived an attempt on her life in 1923, but the laced drink affected her throat for years. At 40, she became a recluse in the most densely populated city in the world, preferring to sing for herself rather than perform, and to teach. Her disciples included future masters such as Kumar Gandharva, Kishori Amonkar (who says she owes her meend, which one could translate as the ‘glissando’ of Western music, to Anjanibai) and Begum Akhtar, who announced herself in 76 rpm gramophone records as Akhtari Bai Faizabad before she became the begum of the thumri form. Anjanibai’s reclusiveness was unlike, say, in another part of the subcontinent, M.S. Subbulakshmi. M. S. was also a devadasi of great beauty and natural talent, and was harried by lascivious patrons – but she made peace with the brahmin establishment.

In the lesson that Anjanibai gives Begum Akhtar, she takes a rather khayal-like approach to the thumri with her pupil, and then complains of her voice being tired. Begum Akhtar takes over at about 4.40. The first word that the begum gently throws at us is the last word of the first line – nain, eyes – and, listening, we hold our breath until the end of the recording. She lingers upon nain before offering us the line in full: raske bhare torey nain. This time, the angle at which she arrives at nain is acute. She lands with supreme grace at nain on a dissonant vivadi note in the all-embracing scale of Bhairavi.

You must listen to the same lyrics rendered by the great Siddheshwari Devi, and also to Hari Devi Mishra interpreting them for the movie Gaman (Muzaffar Ali’s debut film before he made Umrao Jan), to which Mira Nair pays a remixed tribute in Monsoon Wedding. There is also a crass version of the thumri in Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha.

Barkat Ali Khan, younger brother of the better known Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, addresses the eyes as not just nain, but nain-wa, adding an endearing entreaty to the lament.

There are some who change sanwariya (सांवरिया) to balamva (बालमवा). Such changes – a word here or there, or an additional line – are common from singer to singer. Despite these changes, the emotions stay the same. The thumri is a meditation on the absent lover, about being one with the other even when the other is ever-absent (and the ‘other’ could well be the socialism that failed Faiz – socialism is as good an excuse as you can get to speak of lost love!).

Eyes, your eyes, welling with desire, my love
Your eyes brimming with me, my love
Love brimming your eyes, my love, your eyes
I’m the grief filling your eyes, your eyes
Your eyes filled with the grief I give
You’re the joy filling my eyes, my love
Your eyes are full now, O your eyes

Love that eludes my arms, let me hold you now
Let me float you in the sea of my eyes
The wait welling up in your eyes
The breath swelling up in your eyes
The high of love dilating your eyes
Your eyes waiting, unfulfilled, your eyes waiting
Come now, love, my arms are done waiting
Come, be the meaning of this wait
Come now, love, let my love see some light
Let this wait have a respite, come to my eyes
Let my eyes see you, give meaning to my wait
Come now, I have waited enough for you to come
For once let me wait for you to leave, come now
My eyes are brimming with you, my love
Eyes, your eyes welling with desire, my love

No rest by day, no sleep at night
No sleep at night, such a torment
What a torment, there’s no love in sight
Give me your eyes full of love, your eyes
Let me see them filled with my eyes
Let my eyes be filled with your eyes
Let me fill your eyes, fill my eyes with you
My love, my eyes, fill me with love
Your eyes are welling with desire, my love

S. Anand is publisher, Navayana. For the past three years, he collaborated on the Pardhan Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s autobiography, Finding My Way (forthcoming April 2016)
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