Shivaji Park resident Neela Vaidya agreed to accompany her classical music aficionado parents to the kathak-thumri concert on the Asiatic Library steps only because she was promised a horse buggy ride after. But the 11-year-old was ecstatic when she heard the first notes of hamari atariya pe, aaja re sanwariya / dekha dekhi tanik hui jaaye (Come up to my balcony, oh beloved/ so that we can steal glances of each other) coming up. “This is Madhuri Dixit’s song from Dedh Ishqiya,” she squealed remembering the promos on TV. While Vaidya may not realise how this early 19th century Avadhi composition from the courts of the Lucknow Nawab Wajid Ali Shah has since been rendered by some of the tallest legends of Hindustani classical music, there’s no denying its magic as vocalist Dhanashree Pandit-Rai and kathak exponent Aditi Bhagwat held the audience mesmerised.
Pandit-Rai thanks the makers of Dedh...for including an adapted version of this famous thumri. “At least its piquing the curiosity of the uninitiated about thumri as a genre.” Proof of this are the nearly 40,000 hits her five-year-old upload of the same thumri has gotten since the film promos aired. “After a hundred hits in the beginning, the numbers trickled but now we’re seeing several surfers looking up various renditions, watching and even commenting.”
Rekha Bharadwaj who’s sung the Dedh... version adapted by wordsmith Gulzar and her husband and composer Vishal Bharadwaj is ecstatic about this. Like Pandit-Rai she too is happy about this renewed interest in the genre. “We need to really work on bringing it back to its past glory,” she says, adding, “After all, thumri has contributed to the greatness of leading artistes like Begum Akhtar, Gauhar Jaan or even Siddeshwari Devi.” According to her, the use of thumri in films helps make it a personal give-and-take between the audience and the performer. “Close ups of stylised expression rekindle the magic of small mehfils of the bygone era when patrons would literally be at arm’s length. In an auditorium, we somehow lose that.”
Banaras gharana thumri exponent Soma Ghosh, who trained under Bageshwari Devi and is Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan’s protégé, is known for her expressive eyes and face.
“While the voice and throw of words is important, expressions and ada create the mood for thumri,” she points out explaining how most thumri exponents trained at least in the basics of dance. “In the British era with no royal patronage, it was thanks to courtesans that forms like thumri, dadra and kajri survived,” she avers and laments, “Yet this association has done it a lot of damage as people tend to look down upon it.”
But that isn’t the only reason why this romantic articulation of a woman’s love fell into disrepute.
“In modern categorisation of Indian music, thumri doesn’t find place among popular genres and styles of popular music. It’s often labelled ‘semi-classical’ or ‘light-classical’ vaguely suggesting unworthiness of inclusion in the so-called ‘higher’ and ‘classical’ arts,” explains vocalist Shubha Mudgal, adding, “Its cuspate identity along with dadra, hori and kajri and its connection with kathak makes it the only existing vocal form in the system of Hindustani classical music to have an interdisciplinary identity.” Another reason it refuses to get slotted is the lyrics in Brijbhasha or Avadhi which centre around amorous exchanges between Radha and Krishna. While this has made them the delight of urbane high-brows, the repertoire remains firmly rooted in the rural milieu.
With so much going against it, it is no surprise that some top performers who know many old compositions are happy to teach them to others but refuse to sing them at performances. Some like Bharadwaj feel their feminine character keeps male performers away.
Doyenne of the purabang thumri Girija Devi disputes this. “From Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saab, to Pt Bhimsen Joshi, K L Saigal and Chhanulal Mishra, men have sung thumris which people still crave to hear again and again,” she points out. “Though they don’t admit it, those who avoid the thumri look down on it.”
This apartheid of sorts and the fact that there are few thumri specialists around, makes the future looks quite bleak for the genre. “We need more people to sing it, expose others to the beauty of the form and encourage both singers and listeners,” says Mudgal.
Perhaps its the thumri itself calling out to her patrons — hamari atariya pe, aaja re sanwariya / dekha dekhi tanik hui jaaye...
Famous thumris from Hindi cinema
Song: Babul mora naihar...
Artiste: K L Saigal
Film: Street Singer (1937)
Song: Prem Jogan Banke..
Artiste: Bade Ghulam Ali Khan
Film: Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Song: Nainon Mein Badra Chhaye
Artiste: Lata Mangeshkar
Film: Mera Saaya (1966)
Song: Ja re badra bairi ja
Artiste: Lata Mangeshkar
Film: Bahana (1969)
Song: Kaun Gali Re Gayo Shyam
Artiste: Parveen Sultana
Film: Pakeezah (1972)
Song: Kahan Se Aaye
Artiste: Yesudas & Hemanti Shukla
Film: Chashme Buddoor (1981)
Song: Aan Milo Sajana
Artiste: Ajay Chakrabarty & Parveen Sultana
Film: Gadar (2001)