Saying goodbye to Girija Devi

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Roj Avan Mah Khordad, 1387 Yz.

It was a normal evening, the sun had begun its descent into the Arabian sea and I was sitting with my teacher Ervad K. N. Dastoor, now the 17th Vada Dasturji Meherji Rana, at his Worli residence. As usual, the discussions moved from religion to Indian music to law and back with ease. The mugs of tea, replenished at regular intervals and some biscuits kept us company. Out of my bag I fished out a new cassette bought from Rhythm House and gently slid it over to him… ‘Kaikhushroo, see this, Girija Devi…’ He arched up his eyebrows in his trademark manner, looked at me and said dismissively… ‘Thumri hose…’ (must be a Thumri, a light classical song, generally sung by veteran classicalists at the end of their performance.) ‘Nahi,’ I said, ‘khayal che!’ (No, it’s a khayal – a proper classical piece). ‘Drut hose!’ (Must be a fast movement, lasting a few minutes.) ‘Nahi Kaikhushroo, vilambit che! Jara samjo ni! Badhu tamunej aavre ke?’ (No, it’s a proper slow movement! Why don’t you listen to it? As if you know everything!) Our relationship was deep enough for me to take the occasional snipe at him….

‘Hmmm…’ He reluctantly loaded the cassette into the player and as the drone of the Tanpura started, Girija Devi’s magical, powerful, resonant and beautiful voice wafted into the room… it was Rag Jog, perfect for the evening and the setting sun. The very first notes caused him to raise his eyebrows, and I knew immediately the cassette had been a good buy! As she sang, gently, then forcefully and reached the crescendo of the top Sa, entering the Antara phase, his eyes closed, a wry smile on his lips, his hands moving with the tabla strokes… as she began the Taans his head began shaking, first in encouragement, then in unison, and finally in wondrous fascination at her virtuosity and range. The involuntary ‘wah wah!’ (well sung!) started and as she finished he was in total ecstasy.  ‘Kem, Kaikhushroo?’ (So, how was it?) I asked, with a smile. He looked at me with those big eyes and said ‘Chal bas, have! Cassette ahiya chori jaje’ (Ok, that’s enough wise guy! And leave the cassette with me!)

That scene played before my eyes again, this morning, after nearly 25 years, fresh as if it had happened yesterday, as news came of Girija Devi’s passing away at the ripe old age of 88 in Kolkata. Not just me, but millions of her fans felt the same loss, that of a favourite grandmother passing away, her smiling face, the snow white hair, the mischievous eyes, the beautifully draped sarees, and of course, that magical, powerful, resonant, full-throated, voice. Girija Devi is dead. But who can silence her voice? Never! It shall ring forever!

Born into a landed Zamindar family, Girija Devi had a comfortable childhood. Her father had a deep love for music and learnt it formally from a local teacher called Sarju Prasad. Listening to her father sing, Girija Devi picked up the notes very early and by the time she was 5, could sing well. Intensely curious and always asking questions to anyone who could answer, Girija Devi was the tomboy in the family, never wearing a frock, always dressed in kurta and pyjama. She had a fascination for dolls, combing their hair, talking to them for hours on end…in the hope that they would reply and she could pester them with more questions. As she learnt and mastered a new song, her father would buy her a new doll…and so the collection grew. Years later, as an international artist, visiting all the continents, she added to the collection – picking up a doll from every city she performed! Despite her old age, her childhood love persisted, right to the end.

She studied up to standard 5, but then, in a bold move, went up to her father and confessed that music was her only love and she wished to pursue it full time, not waste time with books. Her father looked at her, saw the desire in her eyes, and thankfully for all her fans, acceded to the request. Sarju Prasad started with her in earnest and in those young ears, Girija Devi picked up the basics of not only Indian classical music – Dhrupad, dhamar, khayal , but the very rich and varied semi-classical strains like Thumri, tappa, hori, chaiti, kajri – a tradition very famous in her hometown Varanasi. She would accompany her father at all the major music festivals and hearing the masters deepened her knowledge. As she progressed with her teacher, the collection of dolls grew…

Girija Devi was married at a very young age, as was the custom then, and was a mother before she was 18. She then got a new teacher, Pandit Srichand Mishra, who completed what Sarju Prasad had commenced. Fortunately for Girija Devi, her husband had a large shop in Varanasi dealing in gramophone records and watches. He would get the latest LPs and they would listen together. In addition, she made a study of folk music, specially the songs sung on various joyous occasions in family life and added them to her repertoire. She even tried her hand at film music, appearing as the leading lady in a film and singing her own songs. A fierce reprimand from her teacher got her back to the classical roots. After that, there was no looking back.

In 1947-48, the noted Indian classicalist Pandit Omkarnath Thakur heard her sing for the first time at the opening ceremony of the Allahabad Radio station. 

He encouraged her and in 1949 organised her first musical program and recording for All India Radio. With just her first recording, Girija Devi was accorded a senior artist status, with the meagre remuneration of Rs. 90! Then in 1951 she went for the Ara musical conference. Pandit Omkarnath was scheduled to sing but his car broke down and he could not make it to the venue from another town. Girija Devi was requested to sing in his place. After much persuasion, she agreed. As was her practice, after greeting the small audience, she closed her eyes and began singing. As she finished her first piece and opened her eyes, she was shocked to see over 2500 people in the audience. No doubt, most had come to hear Pandit Omkarnath, but to keep such a large audience quiet requires skill. Taking the name of God and her teachers, Girija Devi kept singing and the audience listened with rapt attention…

In 1952, Girija Devi was invited to New Delhi to sing for the Constitution Club – in a private concert where the President, Vice President and Prime Minister of India, along with senior government officials would attend. Each artist was allocated only 20 minutes to display their skill. In the 1 hour program, the first 20 minutes were allocated to Ustad Bismillah Khan – the Shehnai exponent, the next 20 to noted classicalist and music scholar Pandit D.V. Paluskar, the last 20 minutes were left for Girija Devi. A  nervous Girija Devi consulted with Pandit Ravi Shankar – what should she sing after these two giants? Ravi Shankar asked her to sing a Thumri or tappa, since no one sang these semi-classical items. That day, the President could not attend but the Vice President Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was present, along with freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu. 

As she sang a tappa first and then a thumri, Radhakrishnan indicated he wanted to hear one more piece. But the time was short. Not realizing that her mike was active, Girija Devi remarked to her accompanist that she won’t like to sing another piece and then have people walk up and leave as she was singing… the words carried to the Vice President and the hall went silent. He smiled and gestured that he would remain sitting, please sing! An ashen Girija Devi began singing a thumri in Raga Khammaj – ‘mohe kal na padat chin Radha pyari bina’ (Every moment is restless without my lovely Radha…). As she closed her eyes and sang, she lost track of time… the minutes sped by and she finally finished after 40 minutes! Not a person moved in the hall! The press went gaga over the new singer and her face was plastered in the papers, along with that of her father and teacher…one of the happiest days of her life!

Those years of happiness and fame were short lasted, as she lost her husband at a young age. She struggled with loneliness and sorrow, but her music and duty towards her daughter kept her busy and sane. Girija Devi was an intensely religious person. She never went for a performance without a bath and performing a puja at home. Her devotion to her religion led her to have an intensely personal and spiritual experience. During the Durga Puja days, Girija Devi was in a small town of the Darbhanga province in Bihar. Her performance, originally scheduled for one time was rescheduled because another singer didn’t turn up. The organizers requested her to sing at the very early time of 3:30 in the morning. She got up early, had her bath and did the Puja and then proceeded to the venue – to find it totally empty, save for the few workers who were arranging the chairs and sitting, smoking away… The only people there were her Tabla accompanist Pandit Kameshwarnath Mishra, the two organizers and a handful of others – and the workers.

In front of her on the stage was a large photo of Goddess Durga and another one of Lord Shiva. Deciding that these two worthies were enough of an audience, Girija Devi closed her eyes and began singing … as she finished the Vilambit movement of the Raga after about 35 minutes, she opened her eyes – to see the entire pandal full of listeners! Moved to tears by this, Girija Devi swallowed the tears, maintained her composure and continued on to the Drut (fast) bandish. Then she began singing one of her signature pieces – the Thumri Babul mora naihar… composed by Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of Awadh – an intensely sad piece written when he was exiled from his Kingdom by the British. As the moving words wafted through the early morning air in the evergreen Raga Bhairavi there was pin drop silence. It was 5:30, and dawn had broken as she finished to a hail of cheers and applause….

As she got off the stage, a Sadhu (Hindu religious mendicant) appeared in front of her. Fair skinned, long white beard, the religious thread swung over his shoulder. A crude red towel was wrapped around his waist and another one thrown over his bare chest. In his hand was the Kamandal – the water bowl made out of a dried gourd, often carried by sadhus. He spoke to her: ‘my daughter, I have heard many singers before but none like you have sung today! Please accept this Kamandal and towel as my offering to you!’ Immediately Girija Devi bowed down to his feet and remembered the words of her father – we can never accept anything from a mendicant – we should always give them something! She got up and replied: ‘Babaji, I only want your blessings, nothing more! Please bless me!’ The sadhu repeated: ‘my daughter, please take this Kamandal!’ Girija Devi refused politely and looking down opened her purse to take out whatever money she had to offer the Sadhu as holy alms… as she looked up…he was gone! She looked around and asked those near her – where is the Sadhu? Where is Babaji? But no one had seen him! With tears in her eyes, she moved from here to there in the crowd, trying to find Babaji – but he had disappeared! As news spread people gathered and told her – it must have been Lord Shiva Himself – he came to give you something and you refused! But Girija Devi only replied: ‘we never learnt to take, my father only taught me how to give!’ Whenever she used to tell this story, Girija Devi had tears in her eyes as she spoke lovingly of the Sadhu with the white beard and how she remembered him till this day…

Steeped in tradition, and blessed by her dear father and teachers, Girija Devi had a performing career of over 60 years. She achieved great fame and a grateful nation commemorated her with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awards. But Girija Devi was an intensely humble person. She used to say – my greatest gift is the love of my listeners. I need no other awards. In an age where showmanship, one-upmanship and marketing have entered the hallowed fields of Indian classical music, Girija Devi remained immune to their pulls and pressures. At every performance she would laugh and smile, make eye contact with her listeners, listen to their requests for special numbers and try to accommodate all. Intensely respectful to each of her accompanists – from the table player to the humble student who held the tanpura behind her for hours together, Girija Devi had a kind word for all, a gentle smile and words of encouragement for the student. She performed with many masters

– Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan, 

Harisprasad Chaurasia, V. G. Jog… with each she achieved perfect synchronicity, never trying to overshadow the other with her powerful voice, allowing each artist to display his prowess and then gently encouraging him with her own soft voiced melodies…every Jugalbandi was a treat to watch…

The only harsh words she ever had were for those who corrupted music with cheap lyrics and suggestive movements. That she would never approve. Music is the gift of the Gods – it is our culture – millions of foreigners go crazy over our music and its traditions – then how can we debase it with cheap lyrics and vulgarity – music must be always used to uplift – never to fuel base passions, she would say. Each and every one of her thumri, tappa and kajri had words full of romance and passion – but it was passion for the union with God – seen through the eyes of a loved one, a rejected one, a lover, a jealous friend…but never cheap or suggestive. That was her greatness – that her singing moved us closer to God and made us realize that the real longing in the body is that of union – union with God, the true moment when we shall see Him, experience Him, enter into an Eternal Friendship with Him and finally, merge with Him – what we Zoroastrians call Frashogard.

Today, as I bid farewell to my foster grandmother, I remember with thanks the many hours of pleasure that she gave me, the many moments of peace she brought to my tormented soul, the many hours of friendship that we spent – even though we were hundreds of miles apart, even though we never actually met… for me Girija Devi was as much part of my family as any other. I grieve her loss, but derive comfort that her magical voice will forever be by my side. I wish her Soul comes under the Protection of her Forefathers and her Gurus, that they escort her, safely and proudly to her appointed seat in Heaven, next to the very Gods she worshipped and sang for all her life. God Bless Girija Devi!

Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram

[Based on a series of interviews with Girija Devi in the Hindustan Newspaper in 2016]

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Comments

  1. Pervin Ling  October 25, 2017

    What a moving tribute. Marzban, when did you get interested in Indian classical music?

  2. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  October 25, 2017

    Hello, thanks for your kind words. To find your answer please read this post http://www.frashogard.com/goodbye-my-dear-bhimsen/comment-page-1/

  3. Navaz S Katpitia  October 26, 2017

    A befitting tribute to a great lady. Your words deeply touched my soul I could actually feel the pain, a great loss to the music fraternity. Excellently penned as usual.

  4. Ashok Malkani  October 26, 2017

    Dear Marzban, thanks for this piece. I am with you in the feeling of loss at the passing away of “The Girija Devi ” RIP in the company of Begum Akhtar, Rasoolan bai .

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