Sung in a certain style
North Indian Light Classical Vocal Music
Thumri And Its Allied Forms
Begum Akhtar and Girija Devi
I was eleven years old when I first attended a Khayal concert in my hometown Lucknow, after which I wanted to learn classical music.
Some years later, I met Begum Akhtar who also lived in Lucknow. A common family friend had arranged a meeting in her home, where I was graciously received but my request to learn from her was flatly refused. She said that bitter experiences with students had made her decide to stop teaching. Just as I was about to leave, she told me to sing something for her. I sang one of her recorded ghazals and she dramatically said “Sirf isliye ke ye aawaaz zaaya na jaaye mein tumhe sikhaongi (I’ll teach you just so this voice doesn’t go waste).”
The next day I started learning from her. Whenever my father fetched me from her house she would tell him, “Allow this girl to sing on stage”. After morning classes she often told me to stay for lunch. In the afternoons we lay chatting on her bed while she stoked the embers of her past.
She told me that sin meant kisi ka dil dukhaana (to hurt someone’s feelings) and added mainey kabhi kisi ka bura nahin chaaha hai (I have never wished anyone ill). She believed that aik achchey fankaar hone ke liye aik achcha insaan hona zaroori hai (to be a good artist it is necessary to be a good person). Once when I had taken a gift for her she immediately telephoned my home to say that though not from her womb I was her child so there was no need for presents. She kept out-of-season fruit for me and began taking me with her for concerts. In Calcutta I saw a man prostrate himself at her feet in adulation. Ammi, as she was called by almost everyone who knew her, died much too soon.
A couple of years later, Girija Devi came to Lucknow to perform. I was invited to hear her sing, accompanied by Shanta Prasad on Tabla, at the home where she was staying. The host told her that my taalim under Begum Akhtar had been cut short. She asked about my plans to continue learning music, offered to teach me and told me to accompany her back to Benares after a few days. So I took the train with her to Benares, where I attended a Chaiti concert—upon entering a maidaan we were served thandai in earthen bowls; on an open stage, several male singers in white dhotis sat cross-legged in a neat semi-circle and began to sing a chaiti, improvising in turns.
Benares had electricity shortage, leading to severe self-pity during riyaaz while sweat trickled down my back. After lessons I was usually sent with a house member on a rickshaw to drink Benarsi lassi. Once Kishan Maharaj came over and invited me to his house where he proudly showed me the varieties of pigeons he reared and portraits of his ancestors, all Tabla-maestros.
I went to Benaras intermittently till Girija Devi accepted the post of Guru at Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta. I joined SRA for a year, during which it organized a week-long seminar on Thumri—eminent musicologist Thakur Jaidev Singh and others analyzed the genre and excavated its origin. I gleaned facts about Thumri and its allied forms from that seminar and from my gurus, who I have quoted often in my interview while twirling the subject around to view it from all angles.
rich combination of poetry and musicianship can
make the Ghazal a highly evolved and unique art.
Ghazal as a poetic form originated in Persia in
the tenth century. Though Persian in origin, the
Indian ghazal has a distinctive character of its
own, rooted in the Indian ethos. Its poetry is
written in Urdu, a camp language born in India.
Urdu is a Turkish word, meaning `bazaar for
soldiers'. The base of the Urdu language is Indic;
its vocabulary is a mixture of Hindi, Turkish;
Arabic, and Persian. Urdu emerged when early
Muslim dynasties ruled in India, and crystallized
during the Mughal period. In its formative stages,
Urdu was called Hindvi or Rekhta. The first
evidential ghazal was written by Amir Khusro in
the thirteenth century. This ghazal combines two
cultures clothed in two languages - half of each
line is in Persian, and the other half is in
Brij-bhasha; and each couplet is arranged thus.
Urdu had not till then consolidated .Along with
the political regime, it shifted to the Deccan ,
and later moved up North again, where it became a
sophisticated and elegant court language. The Urdu
ghazal matured and attained its apex during the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it
flourished in Delhi and Lucknow.
ghazal consists of couplets, each of which is
complete within itself, and may not resemble, in
thought-content, any other couplet in the ghazal.
All the couplets in a ghazal share a common rhyme
scheme and meter, but are at liberty to be
thematically unrelated. Those who seek the logical
development of an idea in a poem, find the
fragmentary thought-structure of the Ghazal
perplexing; but it is precisely this lack of
thematic continuity which is the peculiar virtue
of the Ghazal, and which makes the Ghazal a
specialized verse-form. Each couplet, holding the
complete expression of an idea, is self-contained,
and is a poem in itself. Despite its limited
space, a couplet is capable of exploring the
entire range of human experience, absorbing and
describing its complexities. Poetic compression is
the distinguishing feature of the Ghazal.
Arabic word `ghazaal' - its derivative being `ghazal'
- implies conversing with one's beloved. Its other
etymological meaning is "the painful wail of
a wounded deer". The plaintive note
insistently heard in the Ghazal can be ascribed to
the state of the lover, who is traditionally presented
in the Ghazal as one in anguish. Major poets
broadened the scope of the Ghazal and looked
beyond the confines of love and wine. They also
moved away from the indiscriminate use of
conventional or exaggerated and far-fetched
imagery and diction. The Ghazal also became a
vehicle of philosophical contemplation, and its
spectrum included political and social issues.
were and are often sung by poets themselves in `mushairas'.
In the music world, they were generally sung by
courtesans, some of who were renowned musicians.
During the early and mid-twentieth century,
prominent Ghazal exponents like Zohra Bai and
Kamala Jharia, the brilliant young Master Madan,
and Begum Akhtar gave a definite shape to Ghazal-singing
- what can be called Ghazal-gayaki.
"She kept her listeners alive to the poetry
by keeping them constantly expectant for the
`punch' phrase, found in the second line of every
couplet, completing the poet's picture and bearing
its point and essence. She would play around with
the first half of the couplet, building
anticipation, and then, using her innately superb
sense of timing, pause for a split second. Her
fingers on the harmonium would freeze in a moment
of tense stillness. Then she would throw the
punch' phrase; consummating the sense of
Akhtar laid bare her soul, and the poet's, in her
ghazals. This naked vulnerability made her
listeners vulnerable to their own emotional wounds
and experiences. One of the reasons for the
popularity of Ghazalsinging is the ability to
identify oneself with the thoughts, emotions, and
situations described, making it meaningful for
terms of musical lineage, Ghazal is - and should
be -the off-spring of `Bol-banao Thumri'. (Thumri
is of three types - `Bandish - ki-Thumri which is
composition-oriented; `Artha-bhava Thumri' which
is sung for Kathak dancers, and `Bol-banao Thumri').
`Bol- banana' means creating musical variations in
and around a textual word or phrase. An important
element in `Bol-banana' is `Kahan' - the speech
intonations within the musical framework - which
literally means "manner of speech".
Ghazal was presented in a light-classical concert
as one of the allied forms of Thumri. After
gaining popularity for itself, it has been plucked
out of a light-classical repertoire, and is no
longer associated with Thumri. Today, it is seldom
heard as part of a larger whole. This in itself is
not deplorable, as all art-forms are, mutable with
time. The pity lies in improper musical handling,
and loss of quality. Even Hindi filmsongs have
degenerated, in their quest for commercial
present-day Ghazal-singers, being unversed with
Thumri; have not drawn their musicianship from it,
arid are unacquainted with its intensely emotional
element of `Pukaar', which literally means
"to call out"; hence their Ghazal-gayaki
lacks passion. A Thumri-singer who is well-versed
with Urdu, and who comprehends the poetic
structure of Ghazal, can render Ghazal ideally
;for a sound Thumri-singer has the necessary
Khayal background, and has also been trained to
pour passion into a musical renderirig and to
evocatively elaborate textual phrases.
even a Thumri-singer's musical elaboration must be
restrained and judicious in Ghazal; if the poetry
is swamped with excessive musical treatment, the
poetic thread between the two lines of the couplet
gets lost. My teacher, Begum Akhtar, once told me
that a ghazal is like a painting. The poetry is
like the painting itself, and should be given
paramount importance, never to be dwarfed or
overwhelmed by the musical portrayal, which she
likened to an appropriately ornate picture-frame.
must have covert musicianship. Overt musical
technique like `sargam' and `tihai' - borrowed
Khayal characteristics being popularly used -
disturbs the romantic aura of the genre, even
while such technique imparts classical seriousness
to the Ghazal and dazzles audiences with its
decline of Urdu as a language, started during
Begum Akhtar's time. ,
herself, aware of the fact that after the Indian
subcontinent's partition fewer people in India
understood the nuances of Urdu, chose to sing
along with Ghalib and the other masters -
commonplace poetry which had mass-appeal. However,
musically she remained true to the Ghazal form.
Soon after her death, the void left by her in the
Indian Ghazal world, was filled by Pakistan's
Mehdi Hasan, who awed audiences by his command
over the classical idiom. He rendered Khayal -
oriented rather than Thumri-oriented ghazals in a
tender and sentimental manner rather than with the
full-throated and passionate style associated with
Begum Akhtar. This soft and sentimental style of
voice-production became a trend-setting
phenomenon. Upon his departure from India, he left
in his wake a host of Bombay-based Ghazal-singers,
who borrowed his manner, but who were unable to
reproduce the musicianship. Also, influenced by
Pakistani orchestration; they adopted several
accompanying instruments, particularly the guitar.
of diluted and tune-oriented Ghazal rendition,
they essentially belong to the world of Hindi
film-music or `light music'. Their treatment of
ghazals as mere songs makes these ghazals
musically identifiable with Geet. These tunes,
often framing pedestrian poetry, has drawn crowds,
and so while the Ghazal has spread from the elite
to the masses, it has also degenerated.
contemporary Urdu poets are writing forcefully in
very simple vocabulary - meeting modern
sensibilities. With its changed metaphor, some of
this poetry has retained literary quality, even
while most commercial Ghazal-singers, select
trite, sub-standard poetry for mass appeal.
often accept what is available to them, for lack
of an alternative. Sometimes audiences are
musically ignorant, but they can be trained to be
discerning and discriminating, simply by being
given good fare. Audiences do not create
artists - artists create audiences. Excellence of
standard and commercial viability need not be
mutually exclusive. If artists choose to be
unaware of this, and wish to merely entertain, as
so many do today, a vicious cycle can set in - as
it has between audiences and artists, in terms of
deterioration in quality. If facile Ghazal-singers
seek justification by saying, "This is what
audiences want" why is it that when audiences
receive good fare, they gladly accept it, even
without complete comprehension? Coleridge
has said, " Poetry is best ~appreciated when
half understood". Perhaps this is true of
both poetry and music.
scientific technology is giving ever-new heights
of excellence to audio-cassettes etc. - the medium
which takes music to its vastest audiences -
should the Ghazal lose its integrity and plummet
Journal of the Sangeet Natak Academi - No. 37 "The Living Legend becomes a Legend" by Rekha Surya