A musical surrender

A musical surrender
Dolls of all shapes, sizes and colours line the shelves of the showcases. As 86-year-old Girija Devi walks in and with all childish innocence says she loves dolls, it’s hard not to notice the similarity between the sheer variety in her collection, be it with her dolls or in her music.

Girija Devi, the devotee — yes, she is a devotee first and a singer next — is a living, performing legend who holds aloft the best in India’s ancient tradition of performing arts. She sings her heart out for her beloved Krishna of Vrindavan, for Viswanath — the Lord of Varanasi. And her oeuvre is vast — khyaal, thumri, dadra, tappa, kajri, hori, chaiti, bhajans and more. It is hypnotising to hear Girija’s earthy, basal voice that acquires a silken sheen as she articulates the lyrics, dipping each note into her inexhaustible palette. “I can see the notes dancing before my eyes. I play with them and they obey me. After all, everyone is a plaything in the Lord’s hands and must bow before his call,” she says eloquently.
But the journey to this exalted position has been an arduous one. Born into a traditional Hindu family in North India, she came to Benaras (Varanasi) when she was just two. Thanks to an encouraging father who enrolled her under Pandit Sarju Prasad Mishra, Girija embarked upon her musical odyssey. A decade of learning saw Girija acquiring the ability to render khyaal, thumri and even complex forms like tappa.

After Pt Mishra’s demise, she continued under Srichandra Mishra. Marriage at 15 to an ardent lover of music and poetry further enabled her to progress. Was it not difficult for a young girl from a conservative family to venture into singing in public? “No, since both my father and husband were supportive. In fact, I took off for a year to fully immerse myself in music, leaving my young daughter with my husband. I was blessed to get an insight into sur, true notes and melody,” she says.

From thereon, it was a steady rise to recognition. “I was fortunate to come to public notice early in my career, thanks to my rigorous training and my incessant practice. My first radio broadcast was over AIR-Allahabad. Invitations for recitals came in steadily. My acquaintance with Pt Ravishankar and Ali Akbar Khan moulded my musical abilities in no small measure. I am basically a khyaal singer, a form that calls for discipline in development of the raag, a methodical, graded ascent of the scale while ensuring each note is in its proper place. But today, I am more identified with thumri, probably because of my emotive renditions. Thumri is an emotion filled, lyrical form which demands a deep involvement with the sentiments expressed in the text and proper articulation,” says Girija, as she demonstrates a dhrupad, with its slow and stately commencement.

She then suddenly starts a khyaal, meandering her way over the notes, much in the same manner as the Ganges does in its journey. She switches next to thumri, where again she refers to the rasa — the emotion that it evokes. “When the poet is beseeching Krishna ‘Aaoo, Nandalala’, the voice has to be modulated suitably. What’s the use in singing Aaoo, when it sounds like Jaoo?” she asks. Her astounding versatility and energy are remarkable. Greatly admiring South Indian luminaries like dancer Balasaraswathi, M S Subbulakshmi and Lalgudi Jayaraman, she fondly recalls her interactions with them. All the nation’s top honours and awards decorate this octogenarian, frail musical giant who continues performing worldwide and teaching in the hallowed Indian guru-shishya tradition at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata.

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