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Queen of thumri

Girija Devi declares that nothing is greater than music

Ask Girija Devi about her life in music and she laughs: “Beti, you can’t write as fast, or as much as I talk.”

Her zamindar father Ramdeo Rai was a lover of the arts. But, he did not expect his child, born in Varanasi in 1929, to have a lovely voice, and a precocious talent for music. Little Girija was tutored in music from age five. Senia gharana veteran Pandit Sarjuprasad Misra, and later Shrichand Mishra, trained her rigorously in the khyal tradition, before launching her into the world of thumri, a purab ang speciality of the Banares gharana.

Labelled “light classical”, the thumri offers nothing light in the process of learning or performance. It demands high skills in raagdari and layakari to make the melody flow in, around and along the swift mood-shifts, evoked by both the said and the unsaid in the lyric. In Girija Devi, a philosophical strain lights up the romance. Her passion melds with technique in the related genres of dadra, tappa, chaiti, jhoola and tarana.

Girija Devi recalls her guru bringing home thumri experts such as Rasoolanbai and Bade Moti Bai. They too appreciated the young girl’s singing. Once Siddheswari Devi approved: “Dhang acha hai!” (good style). No, she did not learn from any of them.

Girija Devi made her public debut after getting married, at the age of 20, not without opposition from mother and grandmother, who subscribed to the belief of the times that no upper class woman performed on the stage. But, the singer had agreed to marry only the man who promised to let her continue singing. Her businessman husband’s counter-condition was that she could sing before the public, but not in private soirees! “We’ve both kept our word,” she laughs.

Eventually, Girija Devi crafted a style of her own to become the unchallenged queen of thumri. She has continued to learn, teach, and sing from her soul.

Her adherence to tradition commands national and international attention and has brought her honours and awards. She often says: “I see no difference between singing and praying.” At age 79, Girija Devi returns to Chennai after 15 years to sing in a city that she remembers for its keen audience.


You don’t belong to a musical family. Who inspired you to sing?

My father used to take me to concerts, satsang, bhajan… This music inspired me. My gurus — Sarjuprasadji and Shrichandji — were strict, disciplined. I also learnt Sanskrit. (Laughing) Didn’t go to school but I have six doctorates now!

Why were you fascinated by the thumri?

Thumri poses so many challenges. You must choose the swar (note) according to the shabd (word). Take a simple word like aao (come) or jaao (go). How you present it depends on the context — is it jealousy, frustration, flirting, calmness or passion? I read many books and did a lot of research to explore the possibilities. Some of these bhavas are so delicate – they have no names! But you must feel them and make your listener feel them. Finally, I had to arrive at my own personal understanding of the countless shades of bhakti (devotion), prem (love), virah (separation), and shanti (peace).

Do you have to be a woman to do justice to thumri?

I’ve heard great thumris from Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ramdasji, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan… But a woman singer brings a special quality — and mind you, it has to be a married woman, not an inexperienced girl, to do justice to the complex experiences of love. I saw Shambhu Maharaj and Lacchu Maharaj dance thumris, and that opened up a whole new understanding of how to shape, fine tune, and empower the facets of love… People think that thumri was a late development in the Mughal durbar. No, no. It is an ancient form going back to the padam of Carnatic music.

What kind of listener do you sing for?

I sing for my guru. I sing for God. I do my riyaz every day at 4 a.m. in my guru’s name. I am happy if you like my singing, but not unhappy if you don’t. I have passed many stages in my life. Now, I know that nothing is greater than music.


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