Monday, December 27, 2010

Girija Devi – “I am in the service of Goddess Saraswati”

Girija Devi spoke to Deepak Raja on February 24, 2004

When I was five or six years old, my father placed me under the tutelage of Sarju Prasad Mishra. In those days, girls from genteel society did not go to the teacher’s house to learn; they were taught music in their own homes. Sarju Prasad Mishra was a very good singer, but performed as a Sarangi accompanist. For the first three years, I was taught the basics – just the scale and its transpositions and transformations. Then, for a couple of years, I was taught Khayals in the major raga-s: Yaman, Bhairav, Bilawal.

Alongside the Khayal, I was introduced to Tappa-s and Thumree-s. Tappa was a very important part of the training at that stage because it trained my vocal chords for melodic agility. This facility has to be inculcated when we are young, before the vocalization mechanism becomes rigid. Saraju Prasadji taught me by singing, but mostly accompanying me on the Sarangi. In Hindustani music, Sarangi-based training has been a very powerful aid to pitch precision. The most melodious amongst 20th century vocalists – Abdul Kareem Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and reportedly even Ameer Khan – started life as Sarangi players. I studied with Sarju Prasadji for about eleven years before he expired. I was seventeen then. I got married around that time, had my first child, and took a gap of three years before I resumed training.

My second Guru, Shrichand Mishra was a vocalist, and a master of the Tabla, who also played several other instruments – Sitar and Sarod – as a hobby. He belonged to the Seniya tradition (lineage of Miya Tansen). He had a strong grounding in Dhrupad, which influenced his approach to the modern genres. During his tutelage with Dargahiji, the legendary Guru of Benares, he had also acquired a vast repertoire of other genres, such as Tap-Khayal, Khayal-numa, Kaul, Kalbana, Gul and Naksh. Several of these genres are extinct now. I studied with him for about twenty years. I was almost forty when he expired.

The Benares tradition is of “Chau-mukhi Gayan” (Vocalism with four facets). Our training encompasses the four principal genres – Dhrupad, Khayal, Tappa, and Thumree. Therefore, Khayal and the semi-classical genres do not present themselves to us as alternatives to building a career. When I was growing up, Maharashtra emerged as the home of Khayal vocalism, with its own regional and devotional genres pushing the thumree into a corner. Upto Abdul Kareem Khan and his immediate disciples, the Thumree retained its stature, though it changed its complexion.

In later years, however, the new Khayal establishment appeared to create a climate of opinion in which the Thumree and its allied genres were regarded as either easy to master, or otherwise inferior. This bothered me immensely. So, I decided to match the competence of Khayal vocalists on their “home turf”, and challenge them to match me on mine. I worked very hard on my Khayal, and performed it more widely and consistently than any other Benares vocalist in recent times. I make it a point to perform a Khayal at every concert, and it consumes almost half of the duration of my recital. After that, I perform a few semi-classical pieces. I sing a Tappa as often as I can because it is disappearing, and I want to do my bit to keep it alive.

I do not see any conflict between Thumree and Khayal. They are distinct genres, each with its own character. One can manage both equally well if one has the training and the temperament. In the Khayal, we get to the root of the raga’s melodic personality, and elaborate upon it according to the established presentation format. In the thumree, we get into emotional depth of the poetry, and express it as musically as we can. I was brought up in a family with a very deep involvement with literature, particularly poetry. So, I handle poetry in thumree with sensitivity. In terms of the stance, my temperament keeps me away from extremes at both ends.

My approach to the Khayal is based on the “Shanta” rasa (the tranquil sentiment). My thumree renditions interpret “Shringar” rasa (the romantic sentiment) in an Indian way, without explicit eroticism. To me, Shringara is like dressing up an Indian village belle for her union with the man in her life. The way I dress her up has to be dignified, and yet alluring. It cannot be the way a woman of the streets dresses up to attract customers for the night. I sing only what I can relate to. I do not, for instance, perform Thumree-s in raga-s like Maand, which are from other regions of India. I stick to raga-s like Desh, Tilak Kamod, Telang, Bihag, Khamaj, Kafi, Bhairavi etc. in which the Benares Thumree has been traditionally performed.

I get invitations to perform with “fusion” groups. The idea seems outrageous to me. Can you imagine singing a Chaiti with lyrics like “Chaitra maase bolere koyalia ho Rama, hamare anganva” (translation: In the Chaitra/ spring month, the cuckoo sings in my courtyard) to the accompaniment of Western drums, a guitar and a saxophone? How can I communicate the delicate imagery of spring amidst the infernal noise my accompanists will create? If I try doing this, the gentle cuckoo will abandon my courtyard forever. Spring will cease to be the spring I know. If titillation is what people want, there are enough musicians dishing it out. I can do without the money I would make by joining such bands. If I had been destined to enjoy immense wealth, I would have been born in a millionaire’s household rather than to my parents.

Beyond this, it is all about the sanctity of the relationship with art. As a musician, I must see myself as being in the service of Goddess Saraswati, (the Goddess learning and the fine arts). Every concert is an opportunity to shape my personality to become worthy of this status. I have to achieve, within myself, a serenity which comes from a balanced approach, not merely to every aspect of music, but to every facet of life. I have to be the same person in all my roles – musician, wife, householder, mother – without over-reaching myself in any role, and performing them equally efficiently.

I admit that a significant thumree singer has not emerged for a long time. But, I don’t believe the art is dying. There are several competent Thumree singers around, though some of them are not performing. I have trained some promising vocalists, and I have to believe that a few of them will make the grade in a decade or so. Khayal singers – male as well as female – are showing considerable enthusiasm. Several of them have sought my guidance. There is no dearth of talent or interest amongst the younger musicians. But, if you want me to certify a potential great, I cannot identify anyone. A Thumree rendition has to induce a state of sustained inebriation. For this, the singer has to sacrifice the gratification of intermittent applause. In the present environment, this is the question mark that hangs over the future of the genre.

© Deepak S. Raja 2004
The finest recordings of Giriga Devi have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd. New York.

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