Singing the Lilting Song of Love: Savita Devi

Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Khan holding court as ladies and men sing

In the years after the Mughals had ceased to command anything beyond the city limits of Delhi but before the British were to declare full imperial rule over the Indian sub continent, the nawabi state of Awadh with it’s capital and cultural heart the city of Lucknow, for a short time, was one of the great shining jewels in a pretty devastated landscape. Under Wajid Ali Khan the strongly Shia but also culturally confident and inquisitive final leader of Awadh, Lucknow became synonmous with the fine arts. Poetry, dance, architecture not to mention the culinary, sartorial arts as well as sports were all taken to new levels of innovation and excellence. India’s first novel, Umrao Jaan Ada is recognised as being written by a Lucknawi, Mirza Hadi Ruswa.

Among the myriad art forms that thrived in courtly, genteel Lucknow was a light classical musical genre dating back several centuries, the thumri. Like all Indian music –with the exception, arguably, of the most rustic of folk musics– thumri was a raga based form which unlike khyal or dhrupad was sung in a more gentle, delicate mode with a greater emphasis on lyrics that spoke of the passions of and for Lord Krishna.

That thumri was a sung in a softer and more melodic mode did not mean it was an easier art to master. In fact, all the great masters (male and female) of khyal also took great pride in singing thumri and its related genre dadra, often finishing off a concert with one or two. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, arguably one of the top two or three classical singers of his generation, was a master not just of the khyal but of thumri as well, and recorded several albums of these beautiful love songs.

At the center of the thumri is the lyric. It is a love song; unabashedly carnal yet sublimely divine. Many lyrics openly mention Krishna, the flute playing, handsome and virile cow keep who is often depicted surrounded by equally sensuous and voluptuous young women with whom he cavorts, swims and plays sexual games. The songs are full of longing and desire, regret and sadness. The opening track of the album we share today is titled Shyam Mori Gali Aaja (Shyam/Krishna Please Come Visit My Lane). Given that shyam, a name for Krishna, also means, dark and evening, and gali, a narrow lane way, the sexual overtones are hard to overlook and indeed only heighten the emotions.

A good thumri singer is judged by how well she/he is able to play with and draw out meaning and emotion from the words of the couplets. It is that essential play between annunciation and suggestion, the explicit and the implied, the seen and the Invisible that makes the thumri so exciting.

Today I share a collection of thumris, dadras and hori, all related song styles in a light classical mode, by the famous and accomplished singer Savita Devi. A proponent of the Purab ang (Eastern style) of singing popularised in Lucknow and Banaras/Varanasi characterised by an emphasis on “‘Bhav‘ (emotion) contained in the lyrics of the Thumri to evoke subtle shades of matching emotions using different tonal combinations and melodic phrases.” Popularised by such icons as Siddeshwari Devi and Girija Devi, Purab ang is more the dominant style of thumri in India. In Pakistan, the Punjab ang (Punjabi style) championed by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and others has a faster metre and is more rhythmic.

Track Listing:

01 Shyam Mori Gali Aaja – Thumri Bhairvi
02 Zulmi Sanvaria Na Jane Kadariya – Bhairavi Dadra
03 Salone Sawan Aayo Re – Kajri
04 Mooratiya Man Men Basi Tori – Thumri Based On Misra Tilang
05 Banke Saiyan Na Jane Man Ki Batiyan Ho Ram – Dadra Based On Pahari
06 Hori Main Kheloongi Shyam Se Dat Ke – Hori Based On Shahana


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