GIRIJA DEVI The Queen of Benares - DEEPAK S. RAJA
Introduction: The selection of vocalists for coverage in this series of essays is guided by stylistic or historical significance rather than acknowledged stature or greatness as commonly understood. Selected vocalists will always represent a respectable level of musicianship, while the essays will attempt to justify their selection for the Sruti reader's attention. The order of release will be guided by the need to sustain reader interest through variety. -- Deepak S. Raja.
For over a century now, the Benares Hall of Fame has read like the "Who's Who" of Hindustani music. The last addition to it is Girija Devi. Born in 1929, she is amongst the most distinguished vocalists of our times, and the reigning queen of the Benares tradition of thumri and allied genres. In a career spanning almost six decades, she has charmed three generations of Indian music lovers. In the 1990s, she started performing abroad, and acquired an enthusiastic following in Europe and North America.
Two Indian universities have conferred D. Litt. degrees on her. She has been decorated with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1978), and the Padma Shri (1973) and Padma Bhushan (1989). The Grand Dame of the thumri has served a long stint as a Guru at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata, and continues to guide students at the institution.....
The Benares tradition of semi-classical music
The sanctity of art
Girija Devi spoke to the author on February 24, 2004
[Excerpts reproduced here -- for full interview see hard copy]
When I was five or six years old, my father placed me under the tutelage of Sarju Prasad Mishra. In those days, girls from genteel society did not go to the teacher's house to learn; they were taught music in their own homes. Sarju Prasad Mishra was a very good singer, but performed as a sarangi accompanist. For the first three years, I was taught the basics-- just the scale and its transpositions and transformations. Then, for a couple of years, I was taught khayal-s in the major raga-s: Yaman, Bhairav, Bilawal. Alongside the khayal, I was introduced to tappa-s and thumri-s.... Sarju Prasadji taught me by singing, but mostly accompanying me on the sarangi....
My second guru, Shrichand Mishra was a vocalist, and a master of the tabla, who also played several other instruments-- sitar and sarod-- as a hobby. He belonged to the Seniya tradition (lineage of Miya Tansen)....
I do not see any conflict between thumri and khayal. They are distinct genres, each with its own character....
My approach to the khayal is based on the "santa" rasa (the tranquil sentiment). My thumri renditions interpret "sringara" rasa (the romantic sentiment) in an Indian way, without explicit eroticism....
I get invitations to perform with "fusion" groups. The idea seems outrageous to me....
The music of Girija Devi
In the emerging paucity of specialist thumri performers after Independence, Girija Devi could have comfortably forgotten all about the khayal and encashed her scarcity premium. Instead, she struggled successfully to restore to the Benares tradition its prestige as a reservoir of multi-dimensional musicianship.
I make these observations based on over four decades of hearing Girija Devi. By way of purposive and systematic analysis, however, I rely on two CDs recorded by her for India Archive Music in 1992, and two CDs of All India Radio broadcasts from 1967 and 1977 released by Super Cassette Industries (SVCCD 084 and 085). In addition, I studied two concert recordings from the 1970s lent to me by the archivist, Kishor Merchant. The study is based on about seven hours of her music spread over a sufficiently long period to enable defensible inferences. The sample includes five renditions of khayal, three renditions of tappa, one tarana, and nineteen pieces of semi-classical genres such as thumri, dadra, chaiti, kajri. The spectrum of raga-s covered is also large enough, though biased towards "Thumri raga-s": Madhuvanti, Abhogi, Poorvi, Devagandhar, Yaman, Behag, Kafi, Desh, Bhairavi, Ghara, and Pahadi.
Girija Devi, the khayal vocalist
Girija Devi's khayal repertoire is centred around popular raga-s..... Mechanistic and stereotypical taan patterns, commonly found in present-day khayal music, rarely appear in her renditions.....
Girija Devi in the semi-classical genres
As an exponent of the romanticist genres, Girija Devi is an original musician. In its detail, or even in its broad approach, her music cannot be compared with the Benares stalwarts of the earlier generation-- Rasoolan Bai and Siddheshwari Devi. Her thumri-s induce a state of sustained inebriation because of the unique interaction she engineers between the poetic, melodic and rhythmic elements.
This heady quality owes a great deal to the manner in which Girija Devi deploys rhythm....
The musical personality
Central to her khayal as well as semi-classical renditions is Girija Devi's musical personality. She shuns excessive aloofness in khayal-s as much as she steers away from seductive intimacy in her thumri-s. Her command over the melodic and rhythmic elements is such that she can deploy them within any framework with equal facility. Her depth of involvement in the poetic element drives the melodic element to achieve the appropriate emotional communication. For this, she requires neither the aggressive vocalisation and intonation found in some styles of khayal, nor the ornate embellishment of melody normally encountered in the thumri. Graceful melodic contours defined by elongated meend-s (glissandi) are her primary device for communicating the musical idea. And, it works equally well in the classicist and the romanticist genres....
It is not necessary to compare Girija Devi with earlier generations of stalwarts from the Benares tradition to acknowledge her versatility and musicianship. Nor does she require the nostalgia premium of being the last great representative of the tradition. She stands tall amongst contemporary Hindustani vocalists, independently of these considerations.
This essay draws on commentaries written by the author for recordings of the artist made by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.
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Some Dance Costumes: Past And Present Arangetram And After
Shortly before he passed away in 1998, DR. ARUDRA gave Sruti some pieces on dance costumes and ornamentation. One part, on the dressmaker Aiyyelu along with an interview by Arudra, was published in Sruti 168 (Sept. 1998). The rest was to appear later but was overlooked by inadvertence. We take pleasure in publishing a composite version, both as a mark of respect to the memory of this scholar-writer and as a historical survey of the subject. The period covered, of course, stops with the mid-nineties.
From time immemorial, the wearing of new clothes, for both men and women, young and old, on festival days has been mandatory. For a dancer, the arangetram-- debut dance recital, is a festive occasion to be cherished throughout her life. What sort of costume should be worn on that day? What was the old custom? For an answer we may begin with the rangapravesam of Kadur Venkatalakshamma at the age of 13, in 1919 at Mysore.
It is customary that no article of clothing of the debutants should have been used before. Venkatalakshamma was dressed in a new pair of pyjamas over which was tied a new nine-yards saree. Since she, like other dance aspirants, had practised dancing wrapped in nine-yard cotton sarees all along, she was not intimidated by the length of the garment. The saree was kalapattu or kinkappu quality silk with gold lace work. The pallu of the saree was gathered and tucked in front, prominently displaying the zari work. Around her waist was a gold oddiyanam or waist-belt. Her plaited hair ended in a kucchu (kunkulam) and was decorated with appropriate jewels. Her neck was adorned with a kaassina sara (chain of gold coins or kaasu maalai), addiga (necklace) encrusted with precious stones and such other ornaments. These jewels were made of genuine rubies, diamonds, emeralds, pearls and gold. There was no suggestion of cheap glitter (Sruti 37/38, p. 22).
The year before (1918) saw the birth of T. Balasaraswati who was to become a legend in her lifetime. As a child prodigy born and brought up in a musical family with a dance environment, she started imitating her mother Jayamma's singing and Mylapore Gowri Amma's dancing when she was just four years old. She would dress up exactly like Gowri Amma in an inexpensive white organdy threaded with either gold or silver cords, which was called a jenti or tuya saree. and wear her own jewellery. So this was Balasaraswati's pre-training and pre-arangetram costume. She started her training at the age of five and had her arangetram just two years after at the Ammanakshi temple in Kanchipuram, in an attire suitable to her tender age. After that her costume and jewellery strictly adhered to the norms of her hereditary mode.
A decade and a half later, the mode of dress for a non-hereditary dancer's debut recital was different.....
See hard copy for rare photos and more details of the costume and jewellery of dancers like :
l Rukmini Devi
l 'Baby' Kamala
l U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi
l K.J. Sarasa
l Lakshmi Viswanathan
After the first two decades of its revival, Bharatanatyam spread far and wide. Many metropolitan and urban centres became the new headquarters of several hereditary senior dancers, nattuvanar-s and their families. The glamour of the new dance dialect captivated the minds of many middle class and upper middle class parents and they began to entrust their children to Bharatanatyam teachers for tuition. Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta were witnessing a new cultural milieu; arangetram-s of the children turned out to be status symbols of the family.....
See hard copy for details of dress and jewellery of:
l Chitra Visweswaran
l Alarmel Valli
l Malavika Sarukkai
When Saskia Kersenboom, an Indologist, trained ballet artist and Bharatanatyam dancer from Holland approached P. Ranganayaki, the temple dancer of Tiruttani for vidya daanam, (gift of knowledge), the latter, after being satisfied with the qualifications of the student, first adopted her as a family member (devadasi-s can adopt any person of the "upper" strata to increase their numbers), and tied a tali-bottu around the neck of the disciple. Clad in choli and saree, and observing `madi' (ritual purity), Saskia learnt all the dance items that are to be performed in the temple. She was asked to perform them in front of family members and neighbours. Whenever Saskia comes to India, she dons a saree and choli as her normal daily dress.....
In the first two decades after the revival of Bharatanatyam, several modes of dance costumes came into vogue and a few of them became role-models. Even a casual perusal of some costumes and ornamentations will reveal several points of interest....
l Rukmini Devi, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Shanta Rao
l Indrani Rahman
l Roshan Vajifdar
l Sudharani Raghupathy
Almost all the senior dancers can elaborate on their choices and innovations in the traditional dress modes but the majority of the rest are for the conventional types. Master Costumer D.S. Aiyyelu in an interview has listed all the varieties in vogue in the nineties (see Sruti 168).
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