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Remembering Girija Devi

Shoma A Chatterji |

Christened the “queen of thumri”, Girija Devi passed away this week. After nearly six decades, she remains one of the most respected and widely known exponents of thumri, the light classical form of Hindustani music.

“You cannot put a value on what we are doing because we have dedicated our entire lives to art,” she said to this writer in response to a question on why, within the guru shishya parampara, instead of accepting the tuition fees offered by one of her disciples, Sunanda Sharma’s father, she chose to place the money in a bank account in the girl’s name.

He kept sending Girija Devi a thousand odd rupees every month towards guru dakshina for tutoring his daughter. But she refused to accept it. Girija Devi remained professor of music at the Banaras Hindu University for many years. Varanasi also has a Girija Devi Foundation where music is taught regularly, sometimes, till recently, by Girija Devi herself.

She said, “I still follow the gurukul system whenever I can, by keeping students in my home where they live and practice the whole day. I love to teach students who are truly dedicated to learning music.” She was conferred honorary doctoral degrees from two Indian universities, which somewhat appeased her desire for academic education.

“I had to drop out just before the BA Finals” she would lament. Born in Banaras in 1929, Girija Devi started music lessons at the age of five from wellknown singer-sarangi player Pandit Sarju Prasad Misra and then, after he passed away, she continued her music training from Pandit Chandra Misra. “I received training from the Senia Gharana for khayal to begin with. For light songs, Bade Ramdas ji and Chhote Ramdas jiof Varanasi trained me for some time. I took lessons in dhrupad as well because it gives classical singers a solid base. But the changing pitches in dhrupad affect the voice of female singers, tending to invest it with a masculine tenor. So I did not sing dhrupad very much. Light classical numbers have been my main forte and my major strength —thumri, dadra, kajri, hori, chaiti and lavni. They have been my constant companions in music,” she said.

Married at 16, Girija Devi got considerable encouragement and support from her husband. Her first public concert was in Bihar in 1951. Private concerts were an area her husband ruled out. She was not only one of the leading vocalists in the dominant genre of khayal but also in lighter forms of North Indian classical music including tappa and tap-khayal.

She has specialised in the Purbi ang, also made famous by Siddheshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar. Girija Devi is to Hindustani music what KK Pattammal is to Carnatic for their purposeful commitment. “I believe in the saying, jaisi bahe bahaar, peeth vaise de dijiye.

It means see which way the wind is blowing and turn your back accordingly so that you don’t confront it,” said Girija Devi matter-of-factly when asked how she reacted to the changing audience profile for pure Hindustani classical music in India. Over the years, she had collected a string of titles and awards — Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Sangeet Natak Academy Fellowship and a long list of other titles. She has a large number of recordings and till recently, regularly performed on television and radio.

Yet, the mundane worries of everyday life did not cease to trouble her — income tax returns for instance. She did not like them one bit but had to make do. One could not stop being amazed to find her full of energy, vitality and good humour after more than 50 years of travelling across the globe.

How did she do it? She said, “I do not have a magic potion. I lead a simple life, filled with happiness, cheer and music. I do not get involved in needless tension or conflict. I am an open-minded and strait-laced person, speaking my mind and criticising people up front instead of talking behind their backs. I know the secret of remaining happy all the time. This is perhaps the precise reason why age has not been able to trap me with weariness or boredom. I feel really sad when I look at Meera Bandopadhyay and Malabika Kanan, some of the best singers, who seem to age before their time. When I was very young, I heard musicians in their 80s belting out brilliance in their liquid honey voices. It was an unforgettable experience to watch how they had conquered age with their talent and dedication. Today, artistes seem to succumb to age more easily. I did not. That is why I still feel young. I am a purist in personal life. I involve myself in puja, practise yoga and meditation. All this helps in increasing concentration and keeping me cheerful all the time.

“We are trapped somewhere between a time when mehfilslasted forever and artistes were held in the highest regard and a time where we are constantly facing market-oriented pressures. I say this not only for myself but for all musicians who have to contend with everything from an indifferent government to unenlightened patronage.”

A bit wistfully, she went on, “It is bad enough for us to face a public that disregards classical musicians. But what disturbs me most is that even some younger artistes are disrespectful. One of my greatest concerns is plagiarism. I sing a bandish I have composed one evening and the very next evening, I discover a well-known younger singer repeat it word-for-word, taanfor taan, taal for taal without as much as acknowledging the source!”

After 59 years of a music enriched life, Girija Devi has left behind a rich treasury of bandishes she composed herself. It reaches beyond her recitals and concerts because it flows far beyond the different facets of her vocalism, especially inherent in her dhrupads and khayals, characterised as they are, by a striking note of tenderness and human love. Yet, she kept on lamenting that she could no longer sing her really special music in public. One wishes for her soul to rest in peace.