Forgotten Voice: Bashir Ali Mahi


Radha Krisna

This a gorgeous collection of thumris, light classical songs centered on the love of Lord Krishna for Radha.   Originally released as part of the Music Pakistan series (I’ve given it number 51) it is one of about 10 CDs in the box set that is very poorly reproduced.  There is a slight gap (1.5 second) at the beginning of track 3 and track 4 ends a bit quickly.  And by the time you get toward the end, track 8 completely stops just as it is getting warmed up.  Here and there in between there are some scratches and skips which cause one’s heart to break (or blood to boil) but over all this is a fantastic collection.

I can find little (nothing) about Bashir Ali Mahi  but he is a fine singer.  His voice is light and high pitched with a delicacy that suits thumri perfectly. It’s a moving recital, despite the flaws in the reproduction.

I have decided to upload the entire CD as is, electronic warts and all. There may be some who have ways to clean some of the scratches and skips.  Others will not want to have a flawed disc in their collection. Each to his own but I offer what is available, as it is.

I would definitely download this.

Music Pakistan Nr. 51 Classical Vocal

Track Listing:

01 Naina More Taras Gayay

02 Angna Phooli

03 Tum Ho Gharib Nawaz

04 Kahay Mere Naina

05 Marray Rajay Diya

06 Ik Pardesi Kanay

07 Na Ja Pi Pardes

08 Aai Rut Sawan Ki


The Final Show: Ustad Amanat Ali Khan

Amanat Ali

When  I came to Amanat Ali Khan‘s music–in a time long long ago and land far far away-the first song that caught my attention was Inshaji Utho. I was completely overwhelmed with what I heard. The song seemed to have just dropped out of the sky complete and perfectly formed.  It was held together and driven by a subtle synergy between rhythm, lyric and spirit.  There is a world-weariness about the song. A man at the end of his journey giving in to the eternal and inevitable.

The song, I was told by everyone, had been sung in a concert just before ustadji passed away in 1974. This information heightened the drama of the song and it has been one of my favourite ghazals ever since.

Recently I came across a recording that purported to be Amanat Ali Khan‘s final concert. I quickly looked to see if Inshaji Utho was on it. Alas, it was not. But I picked up the album anyway and I share it here today.   It is an excellent recording of a master singer at the top of his game. While Inshaji is missing, there are renditions of many other wonderful ghazals such as Yeh Arzoo Thi, Mausam Badla and an epic interpretation of the thumri, Piya Tore.



Track Listing:

  1. Yeh Arzoo Thi
  2. Kab Aao Ge
  3. Mausam Badla
  4. Piya Tore
  5. Tum re Daras



Traditional Maestro: Girija Devi

Girija Devi

Girija Devi

Born in 1929, Girija Devi is a living legend, and one of the few remaining maestros of the Purab ang gayaki tradition of the Benaras gharana. Although renown and revered as the Queen of Thumri, she is equally at home with the traditional 18th century style of classical khyal singing as well as the poetic semi-classical styles like thumri, dadra, tappa, kajri and chaiti.

It was her father Ramdev Rai who inculcated a deep love of classical music in his daughter. At the tender age of 5 Girija Devi began taking music lessons from teachers like sarangi player Pt. Sarju Prasad and Pt. Srichand Misra. Girija Devi’s very first music recital took place in 1949 at the Allahabad branch of All India Radio. Her brilliant renderings of light classical music went on to capture audiences’ hearts worldwide. Girija Devi is also an accomplished composer, and has composed several bandishes and thumri.

Girija Devi’s khyal repertoire is centered around popular ragas and she expounds these ragas with detailed attention to the subtleties of the raga grammar. Her light classical renditions follow the same approach. Despite having the license to explore and improvise her thumris and tappas are firmly grounded on the traditional style of raga development. The melodic progression in her light classical pieces is akin to the alap in a khyal, with clearly defined sthayi and antara sections, within which she weaves a brilliant interplay of poetic, melodic . and rhythmic elements. In her renditions of tappas—a fast paced genre of semi classical music—despite the total architectural freedom available in the genre, she adopts a steady ascent and progression. Graceful melodic contours enhanced by elongated notes (meend) are used to communicate the musical essense of the piece.

Girija Devi was decorated with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1978, the Padma Shri in 1973 and the Padma Bhushan in 1989. She has served a long stint as a guru at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata and continues to guide students even today. (liner notes)


Track Listing:

01 Khyal in Raga Bilaskhani [Teental]

02 Hori in Raga Mishra Kafi [Deepchandi taal]

03 Chaiti in Raga Kalingada Mishra [Addha Taal]

04 Bandish Thumri in Raga Bhairavi [Teental]

05 Tappa in Raga Bhairavi [Addha Taal]


Thumri Beauty: Ustad Barkat Ali Khan

Ustad Barkat Ali Khan

Ustad Barkat Ali Khan

I wrote a book once called The Hindustan Way. The basic premise was that there used to exist a broad cultural ethos across much of the northern half of the Indian subcontinent in which Indians of all faiths participated. While elements of it, especially linguistic, emerged out of the Islamic world it was a culture that synthesized Hindu, Sanskritic, Turkish, Arab, Persian and Bengali traditions and viewpoints without much consideration for rigid boundaries.

The land that stretched from Peshawar to Dhaka and down into the Deccan was often referred to as Hindustan and the culture Hindustani. In the sphere of music Muslim artists performed for Hindu rajas and sang of Hindu myths. Hindu painters excelled in miniature paintings that depicted Mughal court life. Bismillah Khan, a Muslim, was the appointed musician of the Kashi Viswanath temple in Benaras, one of the city’s most holy sites.

When 1947 rolled around and there was shiny new Pakistan one fine morning in addition to plain old India, much confusion ensued in the minds of map makers, politicians, rabble rousers and religious scoundrels. Where would these artists, writers, thinkers and singers be placed? Were they Pakistani (by dint of their birth) or Indian (by virtue of their patronage in Bombay or Gwalior)? Families and gharanas were presented with existential challenges. Who are we? With whom do we stand the best chance of succeeding and flowering?

Tonight’s artist, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, was an Indian singer who in 1947 became known as a Pakistani. He hailed from a grand Punjabi family of classical Hindustani singers. His brother Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, is generally considered to be one of the top 2 or 3 singers of modern times on both sides of the border. Barkat Ali was himself an accomplished singer of ragas but excelled and specialized in the singing of lighter classical material especially thumri and dadra. In this field, those who claim to be the experts say Barkat exceeded the accomplishments of his elder brother.

Bade Ghulam Ali travelled between Kasur, the family home town in Punjab, Lahore and Bombay, even after Partition, his restless soul torn between homeland and better prospects. Eventually, he decided to throw his lot in with India and today is claimed in biographies as “Indian”. His brother, Barkat, seemed content to stay in the new country, which was really the same old country, just with a new name. People consider him to be Pakistani.

As far as I’m concerned they are simply two fine examples of that old north Indian Hindustani culture.

This is a slight record in its running time. The four thumri recital draws to a close far too quickly, and you are left longing for more. But what you get is indeed, very sweet. Barkat sahib’s voice is perfectly suited to the thumri with its delicate, sometimes tentative atmosphere, matching the amorous nature of the lyrics.

Jai Hindustan!

Ras Rang Thumri

Track Listing:

01 Ab Na Manoon Tori Batiyaan

02 Tum Radhe Bano

03 More Saiyan Tanak Dhun Laye

04 Jao Kadar Nahin Bolo


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]