Girija Devi passes away: Remembering the life and legacy of 'the queen of thumri'
Eminent classical singer and Padma Vibhushan awardee Girija Devi passed away in Kolkata on Tuesday night following a cardiac arrest. She was 88.
When Vidushi Girija Devi sang, the listener felt like living more, loving more. It evoked an ache in the heart. Such was the power of her thrumris.
In the lanes of Varanasi, people’s everyday conversations have a certain musicality. It was in this city — where music flows like the currents of the River Ganga — that Girija Devi grew up, at Kabir Chaura. She breathed music, and music chose her to express all the nine rasas in her voice. And made her the queen of thumri. She never allowed thumri to become a limitation though; her musical wings expanded in many other lesser known genres of music, like gulnaqsh, parmatha, rubai etc., that she sang only occasionally. Girija Devi's innate ability to absorb sounds, rhythms, musical phrases and syllables from nature and life made her music evolve constantly and retain her mastery on stage, till she breathed her last, at the age of 88. She passed away at the BM Birla Hospital in Kolkata, on Tuesday, 24 October 2017.
Girija Devi was fortunate in being the daughter of Ramdeo Rai. A zamindar, Ramdeo was a patron of music himself, and allowed little Girija to follow her passion for music when he heard her sing 'wedding songs' for her dolls. At a time when girls from ‘respectable families’ were not allowed to sing in public, Ramdeo Rai found Girija a guru when she was just four, and her rigorous training began under the tutelage of Pandit Sarju Prasad Misra. It was Misra who introduced her to various classical forms like khayaal, thumri, and more difficult and technically complex styles like tappa. After Sarju Prasad, she became a disciple of Shrichand Mishra. She was also a horse rider, a swimmer and learnt many lessons from the river. “I would catch a fish, observe it fighting for its life, and let it go. It is amazing to think that I brought the agony of the fish fighting for its life into my music so many years later,” she once said.
Even her marriage and giving birth to a child did not deter Girija Devi from the pursuit of music. She married a businessman — Madhusudan Jain — when she was only 15, and her husband also turned out to be a staunch supporter of her passion for music. Jain had only condition: that Girija Devi wouldn't sing in private mehfils. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Girija Devi was able to impart a certain respectability to thumri, dadra, chaiti, kajari, tappa etc by bringing them to the stage, and AIR. The “strains and demands of domestic life” after the birth of her child, made her restless and she moved to Sarnath for a year, for sadhana. This was a turning point in her life, for Girija Devi returned with fresh insights into sur, rasa and the relevance of shabd.
Making the expression of emotions her primary focus, Girija Devi changed the complexion of thumri and created a niche for herself. "Her simplicity and love (sahajta aur prem) made her attain the place that she did; if your heart is not filled with love, you can’t sing thumri like Girija Devi did," says Pandit Rajan Mishra, one half of the Rajan-Sajan Mishra duo. “Once, while listening to her record, I started to cry and then called her up to say, 'What is this magic you weave?' — and she began to cry too!" he recounts.
Ask Girija Devi's many fans to pick the song they loved best from among her repertoire, and they admit it's a tough task. “She was undoubtedly the queen of thumri, you can’t have a favourite from among her many gems,” says noted vocalist Madhup Mudgal. But if you haven't listened to this thumri in Raag Bhairavi, you're missing out.
The flight and elaboration, the fine embellishments used in the multiple ways of expressing 'Ras Ke Bhare Tore Naina', and the languidness of the tempo accentuates the complexity of emotions.
Here, the faster pace of dadra, to the brilliant accompaniment of Ustad Zakir Husain on tabla, the stress on 'Diwana' — from playful to sombre — and the mischievousness of notes in 'humse karna bahana', is rendered with brilliance.
Girija Devi not only expanded the soundscape of classical music, but also levelled somewhat, the “class superiority” of khayal and dhrupad with her brilliant renderings of kajari, chaiti and hori, the provincial purabiya style of singing.
The queen of thumri may be no more, but her music lives on. Here, sample how earthy folk and classical influences merge in the spontaneity of her notes. You won’t be able to help humming 'Barsan lagi', the play on ‘rum jhum' all while recounting the sounds of thunderous clouds and the fragrance of the first rain.
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