If one were to describe her in terms of the many awards conferred upon her, or by the titles bestowed upon her by admiring listeners, or even as one of the greatest living singers of thumri-dadra, one would still not capture even a fraction of the essence of the woman or her music. Nor really would I be able to do so through this brief tribute to this extraordinary musician, as she receives one of the highest awards—the Padma Vibhushan—that India can bestow.
Girija Devi ji—fondly known as Appa ji— is considered to be the reigning queen of thumri. Born in a village near Banaras on 8 May 1929, music was a part of her life from her very early years. Her father, a zamindar, recognizing her extraordinary talent, encouraged her, as a little five-year-old, to start learning classical music from Pandit Sarju Prasad Misra. By this time the family had moved to Banaras, a city whose culture, sights and sounds were to become an integral part of her gayaki and her world view. Appa ji later studied under Pandit Srichand Misra, whose shishya she remained until his passing in the 1960s.
It wasn’t only music that engaged the child’s attention. ‘I was a tomboy’ she says, and responding to this trait in his daughter, her father encouraged her also to learn horse riding and fencing—skills that few women of her generation were permitted to acquire.
But hearing her speak, you realize that Banaras, more than anything else, was an abiding influence in her life. So though she is a fine khayal singer, who always begins a performance with vilmabit and drut khayals, her forte is the lyrical, delicate forms that Banaras is known for—thumri and dadra, and the many lovely forms derived from the folk music of the region—kajri, chiati, hori, barahmasa.
Banaras flows in her music. And in Banaras, it is the river that she cherishes the most as the source of her inspiration. ‘My whole life revolved around the river Ganga’ she says describing its many moods and moments. One memory from her childhood stands out—a memory that found artistic expression later.
In the exquisite film Girija, Appa ji is seen teaching her shishyas a bandish, her own composition, in Kirvani. The plaint of a birahini nayika, the bandish has the nayika describe her state thus: ‘Restless, tormented am I, like a fish out of water.’
In the film, we see her exhorting her students to understand the musical and emotional logic of the way the bandish ‘Tum bin neend na aave’ is composed. On the word, machhariya (fish), a brief, shocked stillness and then a swift swirl of notes—an aural image of a fish’s desperate flailing on dry life-threatening land. And you remember that elsewhere at other times she has spoken of the memory of playing as a child on the banks of the Ganga and seeing fish caught and reeled in, thrashing about. “It is amazing’ she says,’ to think that I brought the agony of the fish fighting for its life into my music so many years later’.
This ability to convert something witnessed and experienced into art is perhaps just one of the things that makes her so extraordinary an artist.
She was married at the young age of 15 to Shri Madhusudan Jain, a businessman of Banaras. The birth of her daughter, and her domestic responsibilities did not deter her from her taleem and riaz, and she was fortunate in her husband’s encouragement to focus on her music. Her first performance, for Akashvani, Allahabad, was in 1949; other concerts followed, radio broadcasts as well as live performances. Then, the tragic death of her husband in 1975 resulted in a period of mourning, a time when she began to look inward, introspect and so come to deeper insights about music, rasa, emotion.
About this quest she says, ‘Rasa, the expression of emotion, became the primary focus… I worked… to convey the various forms of love such as love of god, love for your beloved, and simple maternal love… I decided to change the entire complexion of thumri… to give it a new face… a medium through which to express myself. The emotions of love, longing and devotion are an integral part of thumri and I thought that with the right kind of music I could make the lyrics come alive… to have a physical form like a painting.’
This journey within, this search for the ‘visible’ form of thumri, is perhaps what makes her the pre-eminent voice of this form today. Appa ji came to music at a time just after the greats—Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Badi Moti Bai, Begum Akhtar. These singers had already refashioned thumri to an extent—slowed down its tempo, elongated the avartan, brought bol banao gayaki closer to the more abstract khayal, while yet retaining thumri’s deeply emotional and lyrical quality. The form, once viewed by many with suspicion, as a lesser form, a semi-classical gayaki of little significance, was thus beginning its journey to gain acceptance from a wider audience. Appa ji’s contribution to this has been immense.
Appa ji’s contribution has also been to deepen further this sense of the ‘classicism’ of the gayaki, yet not robbing it of its spontaneity, sweetness and playfulness. Her own understanding is based on her belief that the gayaki of Banaras is a chaumukhi gayaki, comprising the best of all forms and including within the taleem of dhrupad-dhamar, tarana, tappa, khayal, apart from thumri-dadra and the folk-based shailis.
There are so many bandishes which one can only associate with her voice— the yearning half-crazed nayika of ‘Deevane kiye Shyam.’ Or the extraordinary and unusual Khambavati hori thumri, ‘ Hori khelo mose Nandlal’.
About this last—we see how Appa ji has taken a bandish, till then more frequently heard as a slighter faster-paced one (see for instance the version sung by Sundara Bai), and by slowing it down in a vilambit deepchandi, brought to it a thehraav and gravitas that creates an interesting dialogue with the yearning, yet playful lyrics.
This is Appa ji the musician. And then there is Appa ji the woman, the guru, the mother-like figure. It never ceases to amaze one that such a great artist can be so gentle, loving and warm to the many people who seek her out. Her down to earth wisdom is sought by so many at the Sangeet Research Academy where she is one of the most respected resident Gurus. Her homes in Kolkata and Banaras are open to all, and she is a generous and warm-hearted, loving guru and guide. Her warmth and affection are echoed by her daughter, Dr Sudha Datta, known to all Appa ji’s shagirds and admirers as Munni-di.
She has been honoured with so many awards— among them Padma Shri (1972), Padma Bhushan (1989), Sangeet Natak Akademi Ward (1977), Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship (2010), and now, in 2016, the Padma Vibhushan.
Yet, being with her, listening to her music, one realizes that no award can fully capture the essence of this artist or her immense contribution to music.
Vidya Rao is a singer of thumri-dadra and a shagird of Vidushis Naina Devi, Shanti Hiranand and Girija Devi.
From HT Brunch, February 7, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch