The Chantuses – Girija Devi
The Chantuses – Girija Devi
Girija Devi is the doyenne of the Benaras gharana. The classical singer remains the last great artiste from the holy city still active on the performing platform. A tribute to the sensitive chanteuse, who turns sixty this week.
Girija Devi’s commitment to music had made her vocal in its cause when the need arises. During a recent international symposium to discuss the problems facing traditional classical music and dance, she criticized the official policy on art and culture; the government, she charged, was using the artistes it enlisted for the festivals of India and Apna Utsavs to build up its own image.
The Illustrated weekly of India, May 7, 1989
Varanasi, Kashi, Benaras. By whatever name this ancient city is known, it conjures up a myriad images and emotions. To the devout Hindu it means the holy Ganga and the many shrines that dot it. To scholars and educationists it is the revered seat of learning founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. To the historian, it is of interest for the Buddhist monuments of Sarnath. And for the devotees of music, it is the very fountain head of sangeet.
It has, for centuries, been the nursery for talents like Jayakaran Mishra and Jayadeep Mishra, both vocalists: Bhayya Ganpatrao, the harmonium wizard; Ashiq Ali Khan; Thakur Prasad, Kalika Maharaj and Binda Bin Maharaj, to name just a few from the last two generations. And there is still a glorious line-up of Benaras stalwarts who continue to dominate the concert stage; shenai maestro Bismillah Khan, sitar nawaz Mustaq Ali Khan, noted Kathak dancers like Sitara Devi, Birju Maharaj and Gopi Krishna. And Girija Devi, who turns 60 on May 8, remains the last titan of the present generation still active on the performing platform.
It will not be side of the mark to say that after the death of greats like Badi Moti Mai, Rasoolan Bai and Siddeshwari Devi, it is Girija Devi who has done more than most to preserve and perpetuate what she proudly calls the Benaras gharana. She is easily the most eminent living exponent of the Benarasi genre of light classical music – the Purabi style of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Curiously, though, like the other great exponents of this genre, she too starts her performances with a raga in the khayal style. “All of us whom you describe as masters of Purab-ang gayaki had our basic training in raga music.” Explains Gayatri Devi. “Our guru thereby laid the solid foundation of our careers. I, for one, always make it a point to start my performance with a raga exposition as a symbol of my gratitude to my great gurus. You know who they are – Pandit Sarju Prasadji, Pandit Shrichandarji Mishra and Pandit Dargahiji. And I don’t have to tell you that all my repertoire in the Purab-ang gayaki is mostly raga based.”
Born into a cultured music-loving family of Benaras, Girija Devi’s musical training began at the age of five, under Sarju Prasad Mishra. Later, she had the benefit of advanced training for several years under Shrichandra Mishra and Dargahiji, from whom she acquired a rich and varied repertoire ranging from khayal, tappa, prabhandh, tap-khayal, thumri, gul and naksh. To these she added dadra, kajri, chaiti, jhoola and several other varieties of folk origin from Uttar Pradesh through her own study and research.
She bemoans the fact that thumri, as an art form is gradually going out of vogue. “Thumri is a distinct and difficult art form. It calls for systematic traditional training over a long period of time. Gone are the days of such traditional training. With the exception of the Sangeet Research Academy, where do you find such an opportunity?”
This writer first heard Girija Devi way back in 1955, at the Radio Sangeet Sammelan which in those days was held in Sapru House in the presence of a select audience. With her striking stage presence she had the audience under her spell by her very presence. And as she began with a brief rendition in the raga Yaman and followed it up with thumri, chaiti, dadra, kajri, the separation between the singer and the song seemed to vanish.
Here was a voice as sensitive as a seismograph. What was striking about Gayatri Devi’s voice was its sensitivity. It could record a whole gamut of emotions. Equally astounding was her vivid imagination which lends a new dimension to whatever she sings. Age has not dimmed the youthful exuberance of her voice and she still brings to her music total involvement and abandon.
It seemed, some time ago, that Girija Devi’s concert appearances in Bombay had become fewer. Rumours were rife that she had curtailed her professional tours after a heart-attack and generally poor health. But when this writer heard her perform at the prestigious sammelan held in Bangalore as part of the SARC summit in November 1986, it was great music that she produced, laying to rest any fears of a diminishing of her powers.
Girija Devi teaches at the Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta as a senior guru. As a believer in the gurukul system, has she been able to groom talented disciples who could be depended upon to perpetuate the parampara ideology?
“My association with the academy as a guru had been most rewarding. I am proud to have disciples like Dalia Rahut. Another gifted disciple, Mahuva Dasgupta, a teenager, died recently. She was full of promise. I have also other disciples like Manju Sundaram and Binapani Mishra.” But they still hav some way to go before they make it to the concert platform. “There is the commercial mentality and obsession with the star system among present-day organizers of musical events. What can we do?” she asks. “Still, I have no doubt that the talented ones will make it to the top.”
Girija Devi has one daughter who has chosen to become an Odissi dancer and will not, therefore, be the inheritor of her mother’s precious musical expertise. “It was my late husband’s wish that our daughter should take to dance,” Girija Devi explained.
Girija Devi’s commitment to music has made her vocal in its cause when the need arises. During a recent international symposium convened by the Sangeet Research Academy to discuss the problems facing traditional classical music and dance, she was an active participant. She forcefully criticised the official policy on art and culture; the government, she charged, was using the artistes it enlisted for the festivals of India and Apna Utsavs to build up its own image.
“I mean what I said,” she affirms. “Even in the case of national and state awards, there is discrimination and disparity. Why should that Rs. 1 lakh award instituted by the government of Madhra Pradesh be named after Lata Mangeshkar?” She has also called for artistes to ignore offers of official titles and awards. Yet, she accepted the coveted Padma Bhushan conferred on her recently. “Well”, she laughs. “I accepted the award in gratitude and as a tribute to the gurus who have made me what I am today.”
What does she plan to do after she retires from her present assignment with the Sangeet Research Academy?
The inveterate musician replies: “I am planning to set up an ashram-like institution in Benaras where music will be taught to deserving youngsters on the lines of the gurukul system. I own five bighas of agricultural land but I would need a much larger area. I don’t want to convert my farming land into a residential plot. I come from a farmer’s family and would love to see the farm work continue under my supervision.