Girija Devi   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Doyen of the Benaras gharana

Eminent classical singer and Padma Vibhushan awardee Girija Devi passed away at a city hospital here on Tuesday night following a cardiac arrest, hospital sources said. She was 88 and is survived by her daughter.

Considered as the queen of thumri and fondly called Appa-ji, Girija Devi was admitted to the city’s BM Birla Heart Research Centre earlier in the afternoon with cardiovascular ailments, She was put on life support, her family sources said.

“Girija Devi’s condition was quite critical when she was brought to the hospital. She was admitted to the CCU and was under constant watch. But she passed away around 8.45 p.m.,” a hospital spokesperson said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled her death, saying the singer’s music appealed across generations and her pioneering efforts to popularise Indian classical music would always be remembered.

“Saddened by demise of Girija Devi-ji. Indian classical music has lost one of its most melodious voices. My thoughts are with her admirers,” he tweeted.

A legendary singer of the Benaras gharana, Girija Devi was awarded the Padma Shri in 1972, Padma Bhushan in 1989 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2016.

She reigns supreme


Benaras gharana exponent Girija Devi, who turned 88 recently, remains the queen of thumri

That age has not dimmed the youthful exuberance of her voice, was once again proved when Vidushi Girija Devi inaugurated the Shankarlal Music Festival this year with a powerful performance that left the audience in raptures. The thumri exponent, who turned 88 this month, still reigns the hearts of music lovers with her sensitive artistry that reveals a whole gamut of emotions.

Not many people would know that as a 10 year old, she was praised by Mahatma Gandhi at the 1939 Tripuri (Jabalpur) Congress session for her heart-rending performance as achhut kanya in the film Yaad Rahe. Eloquent expressions continue to be her forte. Her art is not just a passion; she derives humility, conviction and positivity from her music. She feels the important thing is to have something of your own to share with the world and convey it with least fuss and affectation. That’s what makes her what she is today.

The legendary vocalist’s simplicity and warmth comes to the fore as she talks about her long journey, mastery over thumri and being a much-loved guru.

You are known for your thumris yet you prefer to open your concerts with khayal?

n It is an adoration to my Guru, who taught me the ‘chaumukhi gayaki’ of Benaras with multiple versatility. Our music originated from Sama Veda. Then came the slokas, chhand and prabandh, matha, parmatha and dhrupad-dhamar. Followed by khayal, sadra, chaturang, trivat, tappa, et al. Thumri comes after these. And I also take due care of the preferences of my audience, by judiciously dividing the time allotted for my performance to different aspects of music.

Girija Devi with Asha Bhosle   | Photo Credit: PTI

Do you think training in khayal gayaki comes handy while singing thumri?

n You see, there is intellectual content in raga and khayal gayaki but no emotions (raag tha, gayaki thi, par bhavna nahin thi). I deeply contemplated on it. In thumri, you evoke emotions with the help of both literature and music. Unless one gets under the skin of the lyrics, it is impossible to bare the soul. To enhance the attractive and evocative elements, you have to think of the lyric as a whole, not just a word. For instance, take the word ‘Kanha.’ You cannot convey any emotions with just this one word, unless there are lyrical lines that describe some aspect of Him. So when you say, ‘Kanha kaisi bajai bansuriya’ then there is so much that you can improvise upon to build the mood.

The khayal training did enhance my voice quality but only till akaar, ikaar, ukaar (vowels that are basics of Hindustani music). This is not sufficient for thumri singing. For the bol-banaav (improvisation of words of a lyric) in thumri, one has to understand the bol of thumri. And to understand that you have to live life with an awareness. I used to keep watching nature, for instance, how bud blooms into a flower, how a bee hovers round it to suck the honey. One has to understand the difference between a mild breeze, bayar, and toofaan (storm).

You can’t reduce the thumri to raging taans and sargam-palta with no emotional allure. One has to ponder over the words and also the feelings conveyed by them. Suppose the words are ‘payal jhankaar…’, aggressive taans can make the delicate ‘payal’ (anklet) sound like the heavy iron chains of a prisoner. If you are singing ‘aaja sanvariya…’, the fast taans may drive him away. Think of the chaiti, ‘jhir jhir bahat bayaar, prem-rasa ghole…’, the breeze is evoking the feeling of love…; you can’t portray the love-lorn nayika here through complicated taans.

Renowned classical singer Girija Devi is performing at a function in Bhubaneswar   | Photo Credit: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Thumri is a very delicate genre. It will have impact only if you combine the bol and the ‘swara,’ evoking the feelings conveyed by that ‘bol.’ Taans and tihai can adorn a khayal but thumri comprises universal thoughts.

For instance, ‘Sun re mallah hoon mein teri cheri…’ The words depict the picture of a pining nayika, who is ready to be the servant of the mallah or boatman if he takes her to the other bank of the river to meet her beloved. But the Sufi thought in this line means the atma is yearning to merge with the Parmatma, the Supreme.

You guide your students how to conduct themselves in day-to-day life. Does this have an impact on one’s music?

n Of course. I do teach them how to behave. Many times, I cook and serve them so that they learn the etiquette of day-to-day living. Placing a glass with a thud or throwing the phulka on the plate shows arrogance. This arrogance gets reflected in the singing too. One has to be polite and honest, if one wants the music to sound true. Everything has got its own beauty. My students learn it all by just observing me, when they live with me. That is the secret of our guru-sishya parampara.

There are also rules and etiquette to be followed in ‘saath-sangat’ (accompaniment). Recently, while I was going slow in ‘thaah,’ young Murad Ali took a fast taan. I challenged him then and there. I said, ‘Don’t take me to be old and incapable, now if you have gone to chaugun (four times of the given tempo), I can demonstrate athgun and solahgun (eight and 16 times faster). Come on follow me!’

The reason is simple. In our gharana, the aalap is taken from Dhrupad, where you go slow with only ‘meend’ and ‘gamak’, no ‘khatka-murki’ is allowed. Ten years of riyaz doesn’t give you the license to overrule the system. The beauty of our music is to relish the freedom within the parameters .

Girija Devi receiving Padma Vibhushan   | Photo Credit: R.V.Moorthy

You should be able to discriminate where you can take liberty and where not to; when to show tezi-taiyari (hard training) and when to be simply melodious.

You are the most venerated Guru with largest number of disciples. What is your advice to the new generation of musicians?

n I just want to give them the mantra of ‘dhairya’ (patience). Don’t be in a haste. There are no short cuts in this art. Be positive and happy.

Every sukh is followed by dukh and vice versa. Gaana-bajana prem ki baat hai, ladai-jhagde ki nahin (music is about love). You will make your listeners happy, when you are happy with yourself.

My dear Appaji

Says Shivangini, one of her junior-most students, “She is the most understanding and compassionate teacher I have ever known. She is such a big name yet her presence is never intimidating. ” Shivangini remembers Girija Devi, affectionately called Appaji, explaining a bandish, where there was the reference to ‘naav’ (boat). “Appaji said that the boat can’t move fast. Even when not sailing, it can’t stand still on the banks. ‘Khadi ho toh bhi naav dagmagaati rahegi. So be aware of this fact while improvising on this word. Zyada taan tihai li to naiya doob hi jayegi.’

Just after her Class 12 exams, Shivagini tried to cook upma for her Guru. It turned out inedible. Appaji, who saw Shivangini on the verge of tears, held her hand and took her to the kitchen. She lit the stove, put the upma in a vessel, added some desi ghee and sugar, and transformed it into delicious halwa.

Appaji then gave her the mantra. “Don’t lose heart if things go wrong. Try to make a success out of your failure. Music and life are one and the same. If you know how to live life, you will automatically know how to deal with your art!”

The friendly musician

Vinod Kapur, has taken it upon himself to revive the ‘purab ang gayaki’, synonymous with Girija Devi’s name, by organising the multi-city Purab Ang Gayaki Utsav. He invites young practitioners of this genre, who are awarded the Girija Devi Puraskar by the VSK Baithak.

Talking about discovering the beauty of her music, Kapur says, “It was more than four decades ago that as a young professional, not interested in classical music, I had a chance to attend one of her concerts in Bareilly. And the experience totally transformed me. I can say for sure that it is she who initiated me into the art.

Her charming stage presence and sense of humour make her music so accessible. During a concert I attended, she encouraged the accompanying musicians by referring to them as, ‘These are the fourth generation shishyas of the maestros who have supported me on tabla, harmonium and sarangi during my younger days.’

Once, a journalist asked her, ‘What will happen to the gayaki after you?’ Pat came the reply, ‘Did all women commit jauhar after Jhansi ki Rani passed away? That femininity and resolve have survived in many ways. Don’t ask what will happen after me. Come and take whatever you can, while I am alive!’”

Memorable performances

Girija Devi reminisces about a concert organised by the Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Delhi in 1952. “It was a one-hour programme with the then Vice-President of India Dr. S. Radhakrishnan in attendance. There were three artistes, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pt. D.B. Paluskar and me. Each one was allotted 20 minutes. I performed a thumri and tappa in just 18 minutes to be on the safer side. I was about to leave the stage when Nirmala Joshi, secretary of the Kendra came to me and conveyed the request of the Vice-President, who wanted me to continue singing. I sang another thumri for 45 minutes.”

Another anecdote that remains fresh in her mind: “There used to be a music festival in Darbhanga, Bihar during Durga Puja. I was also invited to perform but as luck would have it I had some problem with the organisers. They said I would get the stage at 4 a.m., but when I reached the pandal, it was all empty but for a couple of labourers smoking bidi. I was hurt. I decided to sing any way. There was a Shiva temple nearby, where the morning puja had started. The auspicious sound of the conch and ghanta moved me. Being a devotee of Shiva I decided to perform for my isht-devta. I closed my eyes and started singing Aheer-Bhairav, ‘Hey bairagi roopdhare, more mann bhaye…’ You will not believe, when I opened my eyes, the pandal was filled with people. I continued with the Bhairavi thumri “Babul mora naihar chhoto ri jaye…” and concluded with the Jogiya bhajan, “Janani main na jiyun bin Rama….” I didn’t realise that I was weeping while singing this bhajan and found the audience also crying with me. The old priest of the temple came to me and said, ‘ I want to gift you my lota (pitcher), because that’s all I have.’ I was deeply touched .”

Time line

Born in 1929 to a music-loving Zamindar Shri Ramdas Rai. Girija Devi’s training in music began at age five under Sarju Prasad Mishra. She was further groomed by Shrichandra Mishra. She enriched her repertoire by moving from prabandh and dhrupad to khayal, tappa, tap-khyal, khayal-numa, thumri-dadra, gul naksha and kajrichaiti jhula and other folk varieties of eastern Uttar Pradesh. She gave her first performance for AIR Allahabad in 1949. She made her mark in Bihar Conference in 1951 and 1952, performing at the Constitution Club, Delhi, in front of the Vice-President Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. After this, she was invited to famous music festivals such as Harivallabh Sangeet Samaroh.