Singing Syncretism: The Music of Girija Devi

Her readings of the Indo-Persianate culture is not that of an outsider, but of a person who belongs to that tradition of coexistence and love, amidst all the contestations and conflicts.

May 8 is the birthday of Girija Devi

Kabir Chaura in Banaras has been home to generations of musicians from the fabled city’s eponymous gharana. It exists at the interstice of the primeval and the postmodern, as its residents negotiate between the courtly and the folk in their verses. The chaura dwells in my imagination in silver gelatin prints, its courtyards resonating with the​ strains of the sarangi, bringing to life the early-summer languor of Garhwal’s painted nayikas. And I hear the evocative “piya milan hum jaib, ho Rama,” back home in Kolkata. I hear it in my guru’s voice, I hear it in Girija Devi’s voice, which leaps out of the music box like a mighty wave of resilience. Having vanquished the pangs of separation, the beloved waters, the withered roots of her lover’s​ memory. She decks up for the awaited reunion, her gaze traversing the horizon in restless anticipation. Her unquiet is palpable, so is her unwavering determination to embrace her piya. It reminds me of Abanindranath Tagore’s evocative portrayal of the ‘abhisarika’, daring the dangers of nature to meet her lover.

Appaji – as Devi is lovingly called by her family, disciples and the world at large – lays immense emphasis on the visualisation of the text or the bandish. Especially in thumri and it’s allied forms, like chaiti, kajri, hori and jhoola, all reminiscent of the earthy imagination of eastern Uttar Pradesh, called ‘purab’ in the local lexicon. She urges her disciples to imagine forms and colours, and paint a picture that stems from their interpretation of the text and also draws from their personal experiences.

“A good thumrī text is “incomplete” in that its expression of emotion is sufficiently broad, simple, and general so that the singer can interpret it in innumerable ways,” writes Peter Manuel in his book Ṭhumrī in Historical and Stylistic Perspectives. We see the centrality of the singer in giving expression to the written text, especially in the case of the bol-banāo thumri, in which the singer improvises phrases to bring out a myriad of moods in a slow tempo. Therefore, the social and the emotional context of the singer becomes crucial. This philosophy almost appears to be historicist in its approach, taking into consideration the importance given to relativism. Strikingly, Appaji gives voice to multiple characters in her renditions, seamlessly sailing from the angst of the khandita nayika to the selfless pleadings of a devotee, spinning an exquisite fabric of eroticism and spiritualism, interlocking the mundane with the ecstatic; building and demolishing with every new note, only to rebuild in a spree of creation. But what is interesting is her ability to liberate the essence of her singing from its context. In her pukars (split seconds of trance-like invocations), she ends up universalising her song, going beyond the limitations of language and culture, striking the chord of common human experience, and, eliciting responses to her call. The evergreen Khamaj thumri ‘Javo wahin tum shyam’ is what I have in mind.

Poets and painters have all written about her paan-stained lips, her gleaming white hair and the quintessential diamond nose stud. Musicologists and critics well versed in the grammar of notes have chronicled her fathomless repertoire, that ranges from dhrupad-dhamar, khayal, tappa, tap-khyal, thumri, dadra, hori, chaiti, kajri, jhoola, banna, baramasa to gul, naqsh, qaul, qalbana, rubai, chhand-prabandh, kavit, pad, rasiya and innumerable other forms that many of us haven’t even heard of.

All these images of Appaji are close to my heart, the thought of her presence is a sanctuary in itself. But there’s another side of this empress that unties her from the cares of her worldly existence. It is her internalisation of the spirit of medieval spiritualism, especially the bhakti-sufi traditions, that makes her so profound to encounter as a person. In her nirgun bhajans of Nanak and Kabir, she walks the extra mile, coming closer to the point of convergence and takes her audience along. It is that rare moment when both the performer and the audience become seekers. She often sings compositions by a Muslim saint-poet called Ek-rang Miyan, who, like Raskhan, wrote for the love of Krishna, his ‘sanwariya.’ Appaji gives a little background to the poet before singing. And what follows is the sheer mysticism of love. She loves to discuss history, and is ever eager to share and learn. Her readings of the syncretic Indo-Persianate culture is not that of an outsider, but of a person who belongs to that tradition of coexistence and love, amidst all the contestations and conflicts. In these troubled times, it is people like Girija Devi who reinstate our faith in love, in art and in things worth living for.

Somok Roy is a history student at Ramjas College, Delhi University.