Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thumri! Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam

Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam is a popular semi-classical song from thumri genre of Indian music. A thumri is usually a love song involving Radha and Krishna. A thumri is generally performed by a female singer and a female Kathak dancer. Thumri that romantic, sensuous genre of classical music has many a story associated with it. 

Ashis Dutta goes in search of the forgotten ones.

Lord Krishna has left Vrindavan to take care of His kingdom in distant Dwarka. Without Him the sakhis are distressed beyond consolation.
“We have to bring back Kanhaiya,” say the sakhis in unison. But who is going to go all the way to Dwarka and implore Kanhaiya to come back to His Brajabhumi, Vrindavan? The village teenagers have always lived in their world around Vrindavan and Krishna. Where is Dwarka? And how far?

The onus falls on Lalita. “Lalita Sakhi,” they all chant together, “you are
a favourite of Kanhaiya. You go and bring Him back since He can never refuse you.”
So, Lalita, the simple village girl, takes up the arduous journey to Dwarka. Walking for days and weeks and months, across fields and hills and rivers, at long last she reaches Dwarka.
Krishna is delighted to see His sakhi from Vrindavan. As if the carefree spirit of Vrindavan has suddenly descended on the king’s hall of audience. And that spirit got the better of Krishna, for He, the King Krishna, impulsively decided to play prank on Lalita. He feigned not to have recognised her.
Lalita is stunned. Just because Kanhaiya has become a king, He has forgotten His playful past? With her rumpled demeanor, her matted hair, all in contrast to the sparkle of the king’s court, Lalita is angry, agonised, devastated. Tears flow down her cheeks as she appeals to Kanhaiya, singing...
'Tum aajao RasiaJamuna kanare mora gaon’

Each Thumri, that romantic, sensuous genre of classical music, has a story associated like the one above. My quest for Thumri, however, had brought me to a narrow lane with ramshackle little houses on both sides in the Hussainabad area of ancient Lucknow. Life seemed to have poured out of those houses on to the lane buzzing with children, galli-cricket, sauntering goats, chai-shop, paan-cigarette-kiosk, burkha-clad women going about their chores, elderly men sitting on a charpoy engrossed in discussion. It was at the kite shop that I got the direction to what I was seeking in that milieu.

The single-room house might have seen better days. I was sitting across Gafoor Mian. He on his cot, I on a metal folding chair hurriedly brought from the neighbour. Gafoor Mian is 83 and an encyclopedia of Thumri.

Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam - Raag Khamaj - Dr. Prabha Atre

The genesis:
“There are different opinions on the origin of Thumri,” Gafoor Mian said in chaste Urdu. “There is mention of Thumri in Faqirullah’s 17th century book in Persian called Risala-i-Ragadarpana. But the popular belief is that in the 19th century, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh actively contributed to the advent of Thumri.”

Tea had arrived from the tea-stall of the lane, along with khara biscuits. I dipped one biscuit into the tea and looked around the near-naked room, the walls where at several places the plaster had given away to reveal stark bare bricks. Gafoor Mian’s voice startled me. “Have you seen the film Satranj ke Khiladi?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Do you remember the scene where Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was forced by the British to leave his palace, his Lucknow, for good?” “Yes,” I answered,

 “Jab chchor chali
Lukhnow nagari.”

“Yes, yes,” Gafoor Mian exhilarated, and continued, “It is the Nawab’s own composition. He composed many Thumris. And he used the pseudonym of Akhtarpiya.”

“Tell me more about him,” I implored.

There is no Thumri without Wajid Ali Shah, and there is no Wajid Ali Shah without the cadence of Thumri. Though a Shia Muslim, the Nawab was a devotee of Lord Krishna. Well, he went overboard on that count — dressed himself as Krishna complete with the peacock feather tucked in his turban and danced with his gopis. Owing to him, Thumris are mostly composed on the exploits of Lord Krishna. However, the perspective is always that of the ladies, sometimes that of Radhika, or Jashoda or the gopis and the sakhis, this even when sung by male artists.
Thus Thumri was born in the court of the Nawab of Awadh. Then as if on the wings of the gentle wind, the Thumri form of classical rendering spread out of Awadh in both easterly and westerly directions. Varanasi and Gaya along with Lucknow became the hubs of the purab or eastern ang (form) of Thumri. In the west it is the Punjabi ang. However, the soul of Thumri in both the angs is seeped in sringar rasa (the sensuous). And true to its association with the Krishna of Vrindavan, the Braja-bhasha, or the language of Braja (the region of Mathura and Vrindavan) became the diction of Thumri.

The difference between the two angs are apparent in the style of rendering. The influence of the convoluted staccato of Tappa and Taan-kari (fast rendering of notes in composite ascending or descending order) came to characterise the Punjabi ang. Whereas the purab ang doles out a swaying continuum where one part gently embraces the other.

“The purab ang of rendering is a perfectly meshed potato,” quipped Gafoor Mian with his childlike toothless smile. What an unusual yet effective metaphor! I could immediately hear Girija Devi singing — Maai kaise kheloon holi.

Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam - sung by Begum Parveen Sultana from the Meena Kumari classic film Pakeezah (1972). Directed by Kamal Amrohi
The music is by Naushad. Kamal Amrohi roped him in to give background score for the film after the death of Ghulam Mohammed - the original song composer for this film.

From mujra to the concert hall:
“How did you get involved in Thumri?” I asked. Gafoor Mian looked up to the left corner of the ceiling where a solitary wall lizard was ambling. His gaze, however, was not confined to his little room, but wandered through time and space, through the resplendent music halls of ornate havelis, garden houses and concert halls. He was, I felt, living in the strains of the sargam, in the yearning of the ragas popular in Thumri compositions — Kafi, Khamaj, Pilu, Bhairavi — in the vocal embellishments of the meed, gamak, murki. His fingers, which were resting on his knees, started moving with the rhythm of the Thumri going on in his mind right then.

Gafoor Mian was a tabla player. Though his professional accomplishments were rather limited, he, in his days, had been on sangat (accompaniment) with many reputed Thumri singers, if not always at the concert, at their regular riaz (practice). When he ultimately shifted his gaze from the wall and on to me he broke into a smile.
“My father was also a tabla player and so I have been dissolved into Thumri since I was an infant. My father used to tell stories about the great exponents of Thumri.

“The popularity of Thumri increased through the courtesan culture, the mujras. It had a lilting effect, an eroticism associated with anything of extra-societal disrepute. It was this gray side that drew people to the lure of Thumri. For the first time, people experienced something different from the puritanical Dhrupad or the intricacy of Khayal, the two then accepted form of classical music. Thumri is lighter than the two. It is flexible and the emphasis is on the sweetness, the yearning, the alluring nature of its rendering.”

Mora saiyan bulaawen
Aadhi raat
Nadiya bair paari

(My sweetheart beckons me
In the middle of the night
The river — in between — plays spoilsport)

“So where and how did the transformation happen from the not-so-respectful form to the pedestal of classical culture?” I asked.

“It is the contribution of the great musicians who sang Thumri along with Khayal in classical concerts. The great Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib for instance,” said Gafoor Mian while touching his right ear with his right hand fingers as a mark of respect and tradition. “Interestingly, Thumri became a form of expression for both the tavayaafs (court dancers and singers akin to prostitutes) and the saintly. You see, both heaven and hell met and regaled at the melodic refrain of Thumri,” said Gafoor Mian doling out his sweet, toothless smile once again.

Kaun Gali Gaye Shyam - Film: Surinder & Aroon

The Present:
Paan and cigarette had arrived. He offered me both. I politely refused. He then insisted for another cup of chai for me. I relented since otherwise he might not take his paan and cigarette. Gafoor Mian took a pair of paan from the tray and kept beside him. Then he flipped up the corner of the mattress of his cot and pulled out from below a stack of beedis, asked for my permission and lighted one up. He dragged deep, socketing his cheeks which even his grey beards could not hide. From somewhere outside, in the lane, a strain of sarangi wafted in.
“That is Maqbool’s son playing the sarangi,” said Gafoor Mian.

Sarangi is a fretless stringed instrument with a leather-bound half-dome at the base and a bow. At the hand of an ustad (master) the sarangi can mimic the human voice like no other instrument. As an accompanying instrument it heightens the disposition of the Thumri, now following it, now luring it, even bestowing the counterpoint at time, but never leaving the melody. No wonder, the sarangi is sometimes referred to as the alter ego of Thumri.

“Maqbool had a promising career in sarangi which was cut short by arthritis,” said Gafoor Mian. “Without any affordable medical treatment he can now barely move his hands and fingers.”

Gafoor Mian suddenly lighted up, straightened up his back and said, “You know, Maqbool wanted his son to go to the collage and thereafter take up a job. But his son Sauqat refused the lure of jobs and instead took up the sarangi. Sauqat is a brave boy.”

Urvashi Shah_Thumri_ Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam- Raag Khamaj

“How many Sauqats are there in the world of Thumri today?” I asked.

Gafoor Mian was silent for a while, then said, “There is some resurgence happening. But Thumri is still sung as a postscript to a Khayal recital. The same with instrumental recitals as well. After a full cycle of a raaga or two, the instrumentalist plays some Thumri. There are very few Thumri concerts. But something worse is happening and we must stop that.”

“What is that?” I inquired.

“Some music companies are touting Thumri as classical Ghazal. This is preposterous,” Gafoor Mian’s voice rang high. “Thumri and Ghazal are two completely different genre of music. Just imagine, just imagine,” he stammered in simmering anger, “someday a generation may know Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali’s immortal Thumri  — Ka karun sajani, Aye na baalam — as classical Ghazal. Let me not live to see that day.”

I smiled at him to calm him down. But within, I was disturbed as well at such trends where the marketing juggernaut runs over the essence of music. To defuse the atmosphere, I ask him to sing a Thumri before I leave.
“Kya gaa-yun? I am a tabla player.” “Don’t try to fool me,” I retorted, “I know, every artist of yesteryears can do the associated stuff. A singer could play the tabla, and sarangi and tabla players could sing as well.”

Gafoor Mian laughed in resignation to my argument. The furrows of his forehead had softened. “Ok, let me sing something which is a prachalith Thumri, meaning traditional. But it holds a special place in my heart as I had heard this from Pandit Birju Maharaj in Banaras, some 30 years ago. You see, Birju Maharaj, being a Kathak dancer, is also a great tabla player and a singer.”

Gafoor Mian looked up, his stare far away, and I knew he was already transported to Banaras, today’s Varanasi. A soft smile broke in the freckles of his face. He said, “At the bank of the Ganga, Panditji had us enthralled for 15 minutes, as he unfolded, one by one, all the raasas, the bhavs and the abhinayas associated with just this one line of the Thumri — Kaun gali gayo Shyam.”

Kaun gali gayo shyam by Biswajit Dasgupta

*Baabul MoraK L Saigal
*Prem Ki Mare KatarUst. Bade Gulam     Ali Khan
*Ka Karun Sajni Aye Na BaalamUst Bade Gulam   Ali Khan
*Jaba Se Shyam SidhareBegam Akhtar
*Nahak Laye GawanwaGirija Devi
*Piya Milana Ki Aas Pt Bhimsen Joshi
*Tum Radhe Bano ShyamParveen Sultana
*Chho Gayo Sajan MeraShobha Gurtu
*Jiya Nahin Manat MoraPt Ajoy Chakrobarty

“Thumri” By Peter Manuel (Presents the origins and defining characteristics of one of India's three musical traditions).


  1. Well written blog on Thumri. I recommend all to read book by Peter Manuel on Indian Thumris and traditions. Thanks for the reading and listening experience.

  2. thanks for sharing