Thumri is the name of a gentle genre of north Indian semi-classical music that emerged in the 18th century out of a post-Mughal artistocratic culture that placed the tawaif (courtesan) at its very centre.
Similar in many ways to the Japanese geisha, the tawaif was a woman of supreme grace. She nurtured multiple artistic talents, including dancing, singing and poetry, was considered to be the authority on etiquette and very often, a highly-sought-after practitioner of the ‘erotic’ arts. Few in number, the tawaif enjoyed a place and mobility in society that could only be dreamed of by most women. In certain instances the influence, power and wealth outstripped those of the local male nobility many of whom were her clients.
The tawaif, whose social standing was severely undermined by evangelically-minded European missionaries, transitioning elites and British administrators throughout the late 19th century, for a glorious century and a half was the glimmering star around which arts evolved and for whose pleasure and attention wealthy men paid huge sums. The kotha (multi-storied rambling house) was where the tawaif lived in luxury and where she trained younger girls in the art of performance and conversation and love. Even young men were sent to the kotha to learn manners and etiquette.
Musicians that played the sarangi and tabla, the primary instruments of accompaniment, practiced and gave tutorials in the kotha. Students, messengers, servants and hangers-about filled the kothas by day but come sun down the tawaif was the only centre of attention. Noblemen—nawabs, rajas, seths, maliks—came to listen to her recite poetry, sing ghazals far into the night and titillate them with her suggestive dancing. As they vied with each other for her affection (tawaifs were considered to be the cream of the non-royal crop of prospective wives) deals would be done and schemes hatched. It was often the tawaif herself who manipulated the nobility to advance her own causes; she was no idle observer. Nothing transpired in the kotha that did not come to attention of the lady of the household.
In today’s representation of tawaifs, mainly found in Indian popular cinema, these women are nothing but glorified whores. While they may dance and speak cleverly, their function is entirely to fufill the sexual longings of men.
But up to the mid-19th century and even beyond in some places, the Bai, as many tawaifs were known, were immensely empowered women who often rose to command armies, amass great wealth and marry the most distinguished men. Sexuality was an aura that certainly suffused the kotha but the tawaif was in no way expected to prostitute herself. The choice was hers; many tales are told of long-term relationships between certain married nobles and a tawaif. If she so chose, she could marry, cease her public life and live an entirely domestic existence.
Unlike almost any other class of Indian women since, the tawaif, were in complete control of their destinies. The male instrumentalists who accompanied her were paid servants. The tawaif, far from being a one-dimensional representation of a harlot, did away with the line that divided respectable from scandalous society. She did not fit completely in either camp but rather, at the peak of her historical epoch completely redefined the term sharif (noble, cultured, respectable).
Musical forms such as kathak dance, the ghazal, dadra and thumri have strong associations with the kotha-tawaif culture. These were, in the case of the latter three, forms of vocal music that tawaifs invented or, championed to such an extent they may as well have created them. Though many tawaifs has classical training, the Great Tradition of dhrupad and khyal singing was another culture form unto itself. Few, if any, women participated as performers in high classical music and its audience’s motivations and demography were slightly different than that of the kotha. Classical music was performed in a darbar (court) setting. Audience and musicians alike came to the noble’s residence or palace to perform. Access to these royal households was harder to come by, therefore, the music and its ambient culture became essentially elitist.
At the kotha however, all were welcome. Yes, certain standards of etiquette and status were essential to become part of the audience, but money went a long way to securing an invite. And unlike in classical music, the nobility left their palaces and came to the music. The atmosphere was more relaxed, more intimate than in the palace darbar. And most importantly, the kotha was dominated by the feminine presence.
Thumri began as love songs, based upon the classical ragas. Much shorter than ragas, which could often run for hours, thumri relied on storylines and erotic word play. Essentially, the thumri was a love song to Lord Krishna, sung by the tawaif in character of a giggling gopi (cowherdess) or lonely lover. It didn’t matter whether the performer and listener were Muslim or Hindu, the stories of Krishna, India’s great amorous deity, were the medium by which intimate relations and possibilities were communicated.
Several cities in the Hindustani heartland of what is now Uttar Pradesh, were particularly prominent and important thumri centres: Benaras (Varanasi) and Lucknow/Faizabad. It was the former, in the kothas along the banks of the holy Ganga and, in slow gliding river boats that tawaifs such as Rasoolan Bai and Siddeshvari Devi entranced audiences with these love songs. Regional folk idioms (Bhojpuri) and melodies were mixed with the more traditional ragas. Over the years, purab ang (Eastern style) Hindi became the standard dialect for the thumri.
A bit to the west of Benares, in Lucknow, Agra and Gwalior, as well in Bengal, variations on the bol banao style, as the Benaras thumri was known, developed in slightly different ways, some emphasising classical raga over folk song, others developing particular styles of delivery. Singers such as Begum Akhtar and Faiyyaz Khan exemplify these regional variations.
The biggest ‘alternate’ school of thumri has become known as Punjab ang (Punjab style), developed in Patiala, Lahore, Kasur and other cultural centers of Punjab. Two brothers, (Bade) Ghulam Ali Khan and Barkat Ali Khan swept across the classical singing world like gales off the Hindu Kush. Though trained in classical khyal by their father, who himself had learned purab ang thumri before moving to Punjab, the brothers became critical proponents and innovators of the style. At this point, an alert reader is probably asking, ‘Brothers? Men, singing thumri? Isn’t that contradictory to the very notion of the form, which is a female lover’s song?’
By the latter part of the 19th century railways, telegraph and industrial activity was transforming India. Nobles and aristocratic courts and kingdoms were less isolated; musicians could travel across India and sign up to the court which paid the best price. In urban areas concert halls sprouted up as a small middle class, not necessarily fully conversant with musical traditions, but full of national pride, came together to pay for performances by singers and musicians. In a relatively short time, the traditional centres of music making and enjoyment, the darbar (classical) and the kotha (semi-classical), fell from grace and shifted to music schools, concert halls and radio studios. The culture of music appreciation changed dramatically.
Add to that a moralistic, evangelical anti-tawaif social campaign from the mid-19th century on, and before long the glory years of the kotha were behind it.
Musicians were now coming into their own. They could command audiences across the country and even the world, if they chose (many did not in the early years) to record or go on the radio. Patronage switched from cultured and wealthy patrons to a new class of urbanites with little time for the deep traditions (in the case of dhrupad and khyal) or stylised sexual tension (thumri, dadra) of existing north Indian music. And this new class found thumri to be more melodic, less tedious and less time consuming to appreciate. They didn’t want the sexual overtones but they liked the tunes that ended within 10-15 minutes.
Classical singers, men like Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyyaz Khan, Barkat Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, found that while their natural audience was shrinking, if they sang thumri, ghazal and dadra their audiences (and income) grew. Some scholars will no doubt see the colonization of the feminine by the masculine in this trend and certainly the great tawaifs of the past would have concurred with the fact if not understood the phraseology. Be that as it may, established male classical singers moved into the territory of the kotha. This move went some way to legitimatize thumri with its eroticism for a new audience.
As the social status of the tawaif quickly fell away, women who sang thumri were made guilty of ‘loose living’ by association. But once the khyal singers discovered the form, it opened up the path once more for women artists to perform publicly without the taint of the now much-scorned courtesan.
So, the brothers Khan (Ghulam Ali and Barkat Ali) reinvented the thumri for a listening public more familiar with the folk tunes and language of Punjab and Sindh. Indeed, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali, is not just considered one of the absolute giants of khyal but also the greatest male thumri singer in history. He is appreciated not only for his stylistic innovations but for his very public embrace of the genre. Unlike his great peer, Ustad Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali loved singing thumris in public concerts. And his brother, Ustad Barkat Ali, devoted his entire career to ghazal and thumri, only rarely singing in a classical style. The Punjab ang has since been popular in Pakistan where even some of the lyrics have been Islamised and delinked from the Krishna eroticism of its origins.
The period 1920-1960 is generally considered by contemporary writers to be the ‘golden age’ of the modern thumri. For your absolute enjoyment we’ve put together a select choice of thumris from some of the great singers of the subcontinent, including, Mukhar Begum, Khansahib Abdulkarim Khan, Iqbal Bano and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.
I’ve listened to nothing but this non-stop for the past week. Please listen with care because this stuff is addictive.
01 Thumri (Jab se Shyam Sidhare) [Begum Akhtar]
02 Umar Ghumar Ghir Aaye Badra – Raag Des [Mehdi Hassan]
03 Baaju Band Khul Khul Jaaye – Raag Bhairavi [Ustad Amanat Ali Khan Kasuri]
04 Bhairavi Thumri Jamuna ka Tira Kanha [Khansahib Abdulkarim Khan]
05 Jo Main Tosey Nahin Boloon (Thumri Bhairveen) [Mukhtar Begum]
06 Thumri Peeloo [Iqbal Bano]
07 Mora Jiya Na Lage [Ustad Amanat Ali Khan]
08 Thumri In Raga Misra Mand – Saiyan Bedardi [Kaushiki Charabarty]
09 Tirchhi Najariya Ke Baan [Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan]
10 Thumri Kalavati [Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Rustam Fateh Ali]
11 Balma Nahin Aaye- Tilak Kamod [Afroz Bano]