The Strange but Undying Journey of a Love Song: Thumri Collection

Lord Krishna teasing and frolicking with the gopis

Lord Krishna teasing and frolicking with the gopis

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.

Tawaif and her houshold

Tawaif and her 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).

Begum Somroo, a tawaif who married an European mercenary and rose to command his armies

Begum Somroo, a tawaif who married a European mercenary and rose to command his armies

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.

Rasoolan Bai of Benares

Rasoolan Bai of Benares

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.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

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.

Khansahib Abdulkarim Khan whose high pitched voice was perfect for the thumri

Khansahib Abdulkarim Khan whose high pitched voice was perfect for the thumri

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.


Track Listing:

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]



Stellar Soundtracks: Pati Patni aur Tawaif

I’ve just read and posted a very interesting article on the  portrayal of the tawaif ( طوائ ف) in Hindi cinema. Tawaif, is the Urdu word for prostitute but in the context of north Indian culture, literature and film it is most often used to refer to the courtesan and dancing girl who provides a range of services and pleasures, not just sexual.


In Bollywood, the tawaif, is a regular feature in many films but always in a tragic often unsavory or lascivious role.  The article lays out the dichotomy between the good girl (devi) and the threatening/corrupt girl (tawaif) as portrayed by India’s film industry, which, one presumes, is a reflection of how Indian society at large regards the two types.


I would encourage you to read the article…it is brilliant.


That got my mind turning towards a movie I’ve never seen but whose soundtrack I have enjoyed over the years.  The film is Pati, Patni aur Tawaif (The Husband, The Wife and The Whore) from 1985.  It was a B-film with a racy title concocted to get House Full with horny young men.  The story line is as follows:


A successful film director is happily married to Shanti.  On the set his main starlet, Kiran, spits the dummy and walks out.  In desperation to finish the film, the director (and our hero) Vijay, hires a prostitute named Gauri to fill in for Kiran. One thing leads to another, what with all that sexy dancing in Bollywood films, and soon Vijay and Gauri are sharing each other’s beds.


Disaster strikes when Gauri announces she is pregnant with Vijay’s child. Rather than giving it a ‘good’ upbringing, Gauri intends to raise the child as a tawaif. “I need someone to look after me when I grow old,” Gauri tells Vijay.  Vijay is pressed into a tight corner. Does he marry Gauri the tawaif, and make a good woman of her, or does he return to Shanti with his tail between his legs?  You guess what happens next.


The story is pure pulp fiction but together with the soundtrack it does raise some interesting, perhaps, unexpected issues.  First, Gauri is played by Salma Agha , a Pakistani actress with sharp aquiline features and come hither eyes. Tawaifs were a primarily a feature of the Muslim nobility and landed aristocracy of 18-19th century India and most but not all, were Muslim themselves.  So here you have a Pakistani and Muslim actress playing the part of a tawaif in a film made in India by presumably non-Muslims. Talk about reinforcing stereotypes.


Salma Agha

Second, Gauri’s insistence that she will raise her daughter as a tawaif for social security rings with hard nosed realism. She is very aware the Vijay is never going to leave his respectable Hindu wife for her, no matter how much he says he loves her. Yet she is leaving the door open too, marry me and your daughter can be respectable. Gauri is one clever, tough, street smart woman.


The music, is lively and light as was the case throughout much of the 80s, a decade seen as being pretty abysmal as far as poetry and fine musical art went.  Salma Agha, herself, sings several numbers which adds more verisimilitude to her performance. And though quite nasal-y she acquits herself well.  But the highlight of the soundtrack is an utterly beautiful folk number performed by another Pakistani singer Reshma, the gypsy queen.


I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as  I have over the years.

Track Listing:

01 Kehna Na Tum Yeh Kisi Se (Mohammad Aziz and Salma Agha)

02 Teri Mohabbat Meri Jawani (Mohammad Aziz and Salma Agha)

03 Mere Chann Pardesi (Reshma)

04 Ek Doosre Se Khafa Hona Nahin (Kavita Krishnamurti and Mohammad Aziz)

05 Mujhe Log Kehte Hain Kadmon Ki Dhool (Salma Agha)