Thumri: The feminine voice in Hindustani classical music

  • Poonam Saxena, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 24, 2016 13:37 IST
Thumri singer Vidya Rao in conversation with HT at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday. The singer will perform at the India International Centre on Monday. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

At first glance itself, Vidya Rao seems a perfect match for the grace and femininity of the thumri, one of the most beautiful genres of Hindustani classical music. Wrapped in a handloom sari, she radiates an old-world delicacy and speaks so softly, you have to sometimes strain to hear her. This Monday, Rao will sing in memory of her guru, the remarkable Naina Devi, from whom she learnt thumri for eight years. The concert will be one more landmark in a lifelong love affair with thumri. Rao says she was seduced by its charms from the time she was a little girl and would tag along with her mother for music concerts in Hyderabad.

Growing up, she learned both Bharata Natyam and Hindustani classical music. But not thumri because it wasn’t considered entirely respectable. That would have to wait. After graduating from Madras University, she came to Delhi for an MA in Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics – but also because she had heard of a great music teacher there, B N Datta. “He had a small house in Karol Bagh,” she recalls. “And as I was climbing up the stairs to meet him, I could hear him teaching and I immediately knew he was extraordinary.”

Read: Vidya Rao on Girija Devi, the queen of thumri

But she still did not get a chance to learn thumri. B N Datta taught her khayal instead. “By that time I think I was brainwashed into believing that it was too difficult to master, that maybe I just wasn’t good enough for it,” she says with a laugh. And also, that old question: was it quite respectable? She would have to wait a few more years before she got the chance to realize her childhood dream. In those years, she got married, left the city, and when the marriage didn’t work out, picked up her tanpura and little daughter and came back to Delhi, to her guruji. (Incidentally, the daughter has grown up to become one of Bollywood’s most promising actresses, Aditi Rao Hydari).

After B N Datta passed away, Rao went to Naina Devi, under whom she finally learned thumri and its allied forms – kajri, chaiti, hori, barahmasa. A few years ago, she wrote Heart To Heart Remembering Naina Devi, recounting the life of one of the most exceptional classical singers of our time. Born in a prominent Bengali Brahmo family (her grandfather was Keshub Chandra Sen), Naina Devi was encouraged to learn music from early on. But when she married into the Kapurthala royal family, her music went silent. It was only after her husband’s death that Naina Devi moved to Delhi and blossomed into an arts patron, administrator, singer and teacher par excellence. Rao remembers the open house Naina Devi kept in Delhi’s Kaka Nagar where legendary singers and musicians would drift in and out, from sitar maestro Vilayat Khan to the great table player Samta Prasad.

The singer rehearses for her upcoming recital. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

Purab ka gaana

Thumri is rooted in the world of women in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The form in which it is recognised today evolved as a court art in late 18th and early 19th century Awadh, where it was sung by courtesans who performed for royalty and nobility, both in the kotha or the durbar. They drew from the musical repertoire of desi gana, that is, songs of the soil, music of the household. Chaiti, kajri, hori, barahmasa were songs sung by women in their homes. The narrative voice of the thumri has always been female.

Despite that, Rao points out, professional singers gained legitimacy only if they got taalim from men. She narrates an incident – once, Gauhar Jaan, the legendary tawaif of Banaras, and a celebrated beauty, wanted to learn music from a particular ustad. She kept trying to meet him without any success. Finally she asked someone to speak to him on her behalf. The ustad – who was short, overweight with small pox marks on his face – told the messenger contemptuously, ‘First tell her to pay 100 rupees just for the honour of seeing my face. Gaana toh baad ki baat hai.’ Rao laughs and says that the story was narrated to her with great approval. “With an ustad, they were seen as artistes,” says Rao. “Without them, they were mere entertainers.”

Read: Thumris with a new twist

Till today, thumri is described as ‘light classical music,’ somehow diminishing its importance in the overall scheme of Hindustani classical music. “That’s because it’s associated with women – and also because of its seductive nature,” says Rao. Thumri is all about emotion. If you don’t have the bhaav, you don’t have the music. The themes revolve around love and its overwhelming emotions – the longing and teasing, the pain and anger. “But it is seldom one-tone,” says Rao. “It is a complex layering of emotion. Suppose a woman is angry with her lover for being out all night. She is upset, she is angry. But remember, the tawaif was singing in court – it couldn’t be all sad. It would still have to have a little shokhi. Her bhaav might have been like this -- I’m going to close the door on you because I’m angry. But I’m leaving it slightly ajar because maybe you want to repent and come in and make up with me?”

Rao believes her training in dance helped her understand the bhaav that is at the heart of thumri. “Though it also requires you to study music, to understand literature and history. You can’t take a logical approach to thumri,” she says.

This is not to deny the finesse of the technique. The hallmark of thumri is the repetition of a particular bol – say, Mose na bolo, something a khandita nayika (the angry, betrayed heroine) would say. The singer cannot sing the same bol the same way every time. There is an artistry involved.

Read: Pak driver ecstatic after Lata Mangeshkar lauds his thumri rendition

“Thumri expands our emotional universe, makes us deeply human,” says Rao. She is reluctant to say whether a woman would need to have “lived a life” to do justice to the genre. But she does say, “I think you need to be vulnerable, which is not the same as being weak. You should be willing to experience life.”

Rao recalls that Naina Devi would say that “thumri ke liye tabiyat chahiye” -- and also despair that many thumri singers had sanitised the form so much that they sounded as if they were singing bhajans!

What: Remembering Naina Devi by Vidya Rao, an Evening of Thumri, Dadra and Ghazal

Where: Amaltas, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road

When: 7pm, September 26

Read:Her life in”thumri”

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