How Girija Devi's Thumri made me the protagonist of a tale that wasn't mine
Girija Devi's singing reminded me that to feel is a privilege, and to express is a precious liberty
Can you say you feel bereaved by the passing of someone you have never met? Are you supposed to feel the palpable loss of someone you’ve never known, except through the art they have created?
On the evening of October 24, Girija Devi died. She was 88.
It was just last month that I heard her perform at the Thumri Festival hosted by the Delhi government. Hers was the closing act in the three-day long celebration of the Thumri, a form of classical music, considered as lighter, easier, than the rest of Hindustani classical music. The experts even call it semi-classical.
Entry to the festival was free and I had queued up early. It was orderly, easy, and in less than 15 minutes, I was inside Kamani Auditorium. There were two more performers, before it was time for her. She was helped to the dais on stage and as she settled in, she chatted a bit, joked some and toyed with us. She was the maestro. She knew it, we knew it. We sat expectantly, breathing in the dark, exhaling collectively at our good fortune.
Though she had a couple of vocal accompanists, her students, she sang for the most part of the over hour-and-half long performance. Her voice oblivious to its own age. As she sang, I realised that the wish to hear her perform, that was fulfilled that day, was a deeply-longed-for wish – a bucket list one, to do before I died or, as it turned out in this case, before she did.
I discovered Girija Devi by chance on a track of a Music Today CD that my parents had. ‘Raat ham dekhi li sapanwah oh Rama piya ghar aaye’ — for 13 minutes she spun this line into a story that my imagination rushed to fill. Her music had made me the protagonist of a tale that wasn’t mine.
And then I started looking for her songs. Squirelling them away, to play on a loop, they were my secret pleasure. Secret because each song, whether it was a Kajri or Chaiti or Tappa, (and I still can’t claim that I know one from the other) was so tempting, whispering sinuously to me, that you could speak from the heart without fear or shame. Her songs and the genre she came to symbolise, said that emotional honesty and candour were to be celebrated.
Brimming with longing, unabashed desire so sharp it was pain, sometimes playful, often flirtatious, equally about deep sorrow and infectious joy, her singing reminded me each time that to feel is a privilege. And to express what and how we feel, a precious liberty. Especially for women who are taught to filter and self-censor their feelings early on. Especially for me, believing as I did that excessive feeling was weakness and vulnerability.
Her music put me in touch with my own emotions and my head started feeling that it was rather liberating to think with your heart.
Sometimes I felt she was singing to me.
Often I felt she was singing for me, saying things I was too shy to.
And then there was stuff like this that just made me want to dance.
At the live performance last month, she said,
“Thumri ko logon ne bahut hi chotisi cheez maan liya tha; choti matlab yeh, bas gaane bajaanewale gaate bajaate naachte, khudte bas yahi hai. Lekin Thumri itni badi cheez hai ki poori shakti se apne bhavnaon se; kya ras hai usme, kya shabdon ka..matlab un shabdon ko sangeet mein dalkar prastoot kiya jaata hai, kyonki taan aur lay, sargam aur rang, yeh to hum drupad, dhamaal, taraane , taal, tappi sab cheez mein gaate hain, lekin thumri hi aisi cheez hai ki shringar ras kya hai; birha kya hai; bhakti kya hai aur utsaah dene ki cheez hai.”
As I waited outside the auditorium for a cab, a car drew out, she was in it – we had the briefest of eye contacts, I waved at her like a little girl, a fan girl, she waved back.
Can you say you feel bereaved by the passing of someone you have never met? Are you supposed to feel the palpable loss of someone you’ve never known, except through the art they have created? Girija Devi’s music has taught me that the answer is a resounding, unequivocal, unhesitating yes.
I am bereaved. I will accept your condolences.
(This piece first appeared on News 18.com)
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