Thursday, April 21, 2011

Girija Devi: The queen of Benares

For over a century now, the Benares Hall of Fame has read like the “Who’s who” of Hindustani music. The latest addition to it is Girija Devi. Born in 1929, she is amongst the most distinguished vocalists of our times, and the reigning queen of the Benares tradition of Thumree and allied genres. In a career spanning almost six decades, she has charmed three generations of Indian music lovers. In the 1990s, she started performing abroad, and acquired an enthusiastic following in Europe and North America.

Two Indian universities have conferred D.Litt degrees on her. She has been decorated with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1978), and the Padma Shri (1973) and Padma Bhushan (1989). The Grand Dame of the Thumree has served a long stint as a Guru at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta, and continues to guide students at the institution.

The acknowledgment of Girija Devi as the greatest living exponent of the semi-classical genres, though well deserved, probably underrates her stature. The phenomenon has its roots in the prejudice against the courtesan culture of Northern India, which nourished the romanticist genres. In its contemporary garb, the bias seeks to portray the semi-classical genres as inferior demands on musicianship, and berates the Khayal renditions of the Thumree singers.

Like most rationalisations of prejudice, this one may not withstand scrutiny. Many specialist Thmuree singers recorded 78 RPM discs of Khayal during the pre-independence period, in addition to their semi-classical repertoire. And, HMV, then a monopoly, would not have published their Khayals had they not been acceptable to the audiences of that era as being on par with those of Khayal singers.

In the emerging paucity of specialist Thumree performers after independence, Girija Devi could have comfortably forgotten all about the Khayal and encashed her scarcity premium. Instead, she struggled successfully to restore to the Benares tradition its prestige as a reservoir of multi-dimensional musicianship.

I make these observations based on a study of about seven hours of her music spread over a sufficiently long period to enable defensible inferences. The sample includes  renditions of Khayal, Tappa, Tarana, and pieces of semi-classical genres such as Thumree, Dadra, Chaiti, Kajree. The spectrum of raga-s covered is also large enough, though biased towards “Thumree raga-s”: Madhuwanti, Abhogi, Poorvi, Devgandhar, Yaman, Bihag, Kafi, Desh, Bhairavi, Ghara, and Pahadi.

Girija Devi, the Khayal vocalist

Girija Devi’s Khayal repertoire is centred around popular ragas. A rare raga like Devgandhar, however, appears on her published repertoire. She renders even a common raga like Madhuwanti with meticulous attention to the subtleties of grammar. Mechanistic and stereotypical tan patterns, commonly found in present-day Khayal music, rarely appear in her renditions. Upto the 1980s, the speed and clarity of her tans could compare with the best.

The distinguishing feature of the Khayal genre is its “formal aloofness”. Formalism refers to its end-to-end linear architecture involving a progressive enhancement of melodic-rhythmic density and complexity. Aloofness of demeanour describes its restrain in the sculpture and ornamentation of melody. For their formalism, Girija Devi’s Khayal renditions are unimpeachable. On the aloofness dimension, they might appear to veer towards the romanticist genres.

The tilt towards romanticism is a tricky issue in the contemporary context. Since the advent of Jasraj, Kumar Gandharva and Kishori Amonkar, the Khayal itself has abandoned a good deal of its aloofness. The romanticism of these luminaries is more categorical, and more self-conscious, than that of Girija Devi. Compared, however, to Benares stalwarts the preceding generation, Siddheshwari Devi and Rasoolan Bai, Girija Devi’s Khayal renditions appear romanticist. In conclusion, Girija Devi’s Khayal renditions cannot be dismissed as “Thumree-like” by contemporary standards of demeanour.

The apparent condescension of the music establishment towards Girija Devi’s Khayal renditions warrants diagnosis. Firstly, her renditions do not conform to any of the major gharana stereotypes by which the Khayal world recognises the genre. Her style may, therefore, come through as “a style without a style”. The other reason is related to the realities of demand and supply. Her brilliance as a Thumree singer attracts an immense scarcity premium, and tends to overshadow her competence in the abundantly available Khayal. While the pattern is predictable, it does not make the consequences fair to her musicianship.

Girija Devi in the semi-classical genres

As an exponent of the romanticist genres, Girija Devi is an original musician. In its detail, or even in its broad approach, her music cannot be compared with the Benares stalwarts of the earlier generation – Rasoolan Bai and Siddheshwari Devi. Her thumrees induce a state of sustained inebriation because of the unique interaction she engineers between the poetic, melodic and rhythmic elements.

This heady quality owes a great deal to the manner in which Girija Devi deploys rhythm. By her own admission, she performs her lyrical, slow-tempo (Bol-banav) thumree-s, and even Hori-s (compositions related to the spring festival of Holi) predominantly in Teental variants (16 beats) like Jat, and Adha Theka. These forms have more commonly been performed in Deepchandi (14 beats). The distinctive cadence of teental variants exercises a tighter grip over melody than that of Deepchandi. But, at Girija Devi’ usual tempo for the Teental variants, this categorical rhythmic pattern is made to perform a reluctant rhythmic function. This paradox appears to be a potent inducer of intoxication.

It would be surprising if we did not find a method in music that has such impact. Girija Devi’s bol-banav (melodic improvisations on fragments of poetry) in her Thumrees covers all the sections of the verse in proper sequence. Though informal, the melodic progression is akin to the alap in a Khayal rendition, with clearly defined sthayi and antara stages, anchored in the lower and upper half of the melodic canvas respectively. In her renditions of Tappa-s (a fast-paced genre of semi-classical music), despite the total architectural freedom available in the genre, Girija Devi adopts a steady intensification of melodic complexity as an indication of linearity.

Considering the poetry-dominant, and architecturally amorphous character of the Thumree, Girija Devi’s international following is an enigma. It would suggest that, even in a poetry based genre, melody and rhythm do not require the explicit delivery of literary meaning to communicate emotional meaning. While highlighting the quality of Girija Devi’s musicianship, these implications also challenge those who blame Brij Bhasha, the language of the Thumree, for the decline in its popularity. Evidently, it was musicianship that failed the Thumree, more than Brij Bhasha did. No less a thumree exponent than Bade Gulam Ali Khan wondered why thumrees could not be performed in other Indian languages -- a Bengali thumree, a Marathi thumree, or even a Carnatic thumree!

The musical personality

Central to her Khayal as well as semi-classical renditions is her musical personality. She shuns excessive aloofness in Khayals as much as she steers away from seductive intimacy in her Thumrees. Her command over the melodic and rhythmic elements is such that she can deploy them within any framework with equal facility. Her depth of involvement in the poetic element drives the melodic element to achieve the appropriate emotional communication. For this, she neither requires the aggressive vocalisation and intonation found in some styles of khayal, nor the ornate embellishment of melody normally encountered in the Thumree. Graceful melodic contours defined by elongated meend-s (glissandi) are her primary device for communicating the musical idea. And, it works equally well in the classicist and the romanticist genres. This austerity in the deployment of melodic ornamentation may owe a lot to her second Guru, Shrichand Mishra, a product of the Dhrupad-inspired Seniya tradition of vocalism.

She performs Khayals as well as Thumrees at an ultra-slow tempo, and allows the poetic and melodic elements to work together conceding to rhythm no more than its role as a binding force of music. This melody-poetry dominant approach keeps her Khayals warm and friendly while it keeps her Thumree renditions free from mushy sentimentalism. In both genres, however, emotional values are delivered effectively and in appropriate doses. This feature of her music is inconceivable without a virtuoso command over raga-ness. In Khayal rendition, her grammar is, of course, impeccable. A tricky raga like Devagandhar is a cake-walk for her. But, even in her Thumree renditions, the liberties she takes with raga-grammar are extremely judicious. Despite the permissiveness of the genre, her renditions appear to deliver the complete aesthetic satisfaction of a raga presentation. Only trained musicians and perhaps a minority of connoisseurs appreciate that delivering such satisfactions while breaching the rules of grammar demands a much higher level of musicianship than by conforming to them.

It is not necessary to compare Girija Devi with earlier generations of stalwarts from the Benares tradition to acknowledge her versatility and musicianship. Nor does she require the nostalgia premium of being the last great representative of the tradition. She stands tall amongst contemporary Hindustani vocalists, independently of these considerations.

Deepak S. Raja 
© India Archive Music Ltd. New York.
The finest recordings of Girija Devi have been published by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

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