“There is Baba Vishwanath, there is Maa Ganga and there is Girija", Bharat Ratna awardee Ustad Bismillah Khan, seated on the banks of the Ganga by his favourite temple, had said in an interview to Doordarshan when asked to name the three big things that kept him in Varanasi. Girija Devi, one of the last exponents of the Benaras gharana of thumri, died on 24 October at the BM Birla Heart Research Centre in Kolkata. She was 88.

This year has been a sombre one for the world of Indian classical music, with the passing of several maestros. The first half of the year saw the entire country mourning the sudden death of the queen of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, Vidushi Kishori Amonkar. This was followed by the passing of dhrupad singer Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagar, sitar maestro Ustad Abdul Haleem Jaffer Khan and sarangi maestros Ramesh Mishra and Dhruba Ghosh. Girija Devi, fondly addressed by her fans and friends as Appaji, represented the last of the big divas of thumri singing in the Benaras tradition.

Varanasi has been home to numerous performing arts. Classical vocal and instrumental music, Hindi drama, Kathak and several other forms were nurtured by a thriving subculture of traditional performance practitioners popular as baijis or tawaifs. The patronage of local kings and zamindars promoted this tradition. Thumri as a light classical genre gained popularity with several performers in the last century. Names like Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar had already paved the way and established it as a genre. It was into that rich tradition that Girija Devi was born on 8 May 1929. According to veteran Hindi writer and music historian Gajendra Singh from Patna, her father Ramdeo Rai was a Bhumihar zamindar and her mother, Suryamukhi Devi, belonged to the Devadasi community. Girija Devi was the youngest of three daughters, and her father encouraged her to take to music as he himself played the harmonium.

She began taking music lessons as a six-year-old. As a 10-year-old in 1939, she sang at the Congress session in Jabalpur, earning Mahatma Gandhi’s praise for her poignant performance as an untouchable girl in the film Yaad Rahe. She got her formal training from sarangi maestros Sarju Prasad Misra and Srichand Misra of the Seniya gharana. As a teenager, she was already giving private mehfil concerts in Varanasi. She found a patron in businessman Madhusudhan Jain and was just 15 when she married him. They had a daughter, Sudha Dutta, fondly called Munni by music lovers, who didn’t pursue music as a profession. Girija Devi’s first major performance was for All India Radio (AIR) in Allahabad in 1949. Major recognition came when she performed at the AIR music conference in 1952. She was an instant success.

Girija Devi’s first major performance was for the All India Radio in Allahabad in 1949. Photo: Chetan Joshi
Girija Devi’s first major performance was for the All India Radio in Allahabad in 1949. Photo: Chetan Joshi

In the 21st century, the only name that could claim credit for the consistent popularization of thumri alongside Vidushi Shobha Gurtu (1925-2004) was that of Girija Devi. Her repertoire in the semi-classical genre was rich. Along with her purab ang thumri, Girija Devi also mastered subgenres like dadra, tappa, chaiti, kajri, hori, sawan and many others that were influenced by regional cultures across the northern belt. Over the past few decades, she had become the only representative of the purab ang style of singing. During one interview, a journalist asked her what would happen to her style when she was gone. She said: “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!" It was this grit and determination that kept her going despite many health problems.

The purab ang style of music became synonymous with her. She had worked on removing the lewdness associated with the lyrics in her genre. While she was criticized for “cleansing the thumri", she never once compromised on the quality of romanticism that is possible in thumris and dadras.

Thanks to technology, a lot of Girija Devi’s music has been saved for posterity. There are several books and documentaries on her life. In the last couple of decades, the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth, or Spic Macay, made her a popular name among school and college students.

For her contribution to the field of Indian classical music, Girija Devi was honoured with the Padma Shri (1972), Padma Bhushan (1989), Padma Vibhushan (2016), the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1977) and several other prestigious awards. She served as a visiting faculty member at Benaras Hindu University and the ITC-Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata. There have been very few exponents of her mettle and stature.

Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and culture critic.

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