In an interview, the Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi recalled how some performers of khayāl—the dominant North Indian classical tradition—looked down on ṭhumrī, which was considered a light-classical tradition.
“The new khayāl establishment appeared to create a climate of opinion in which the ṭhumrī and its allied genres were regarded as either easy to master, or otherwise inferior.”
“This bothered me immensely, so I decided to match the competence of khayāl vocalists on their home turf, and challenge them to match me on mine. I worked very hard on my khayāl, and performed it more widely and consistently than any other Benares vocalist in recent times. I make it a point to perform a khayal at every concert, and it consumes almost half of the duration of my recital. After that, I perform a few semi-classical pieces.”
“In the khayāl we get to the root of the raga’s melodic personality, and elaborate upon it according to the established presentation format. In the ṭhumrī we get into the emotional depth of the poetry, and express it as musically as we can. I was brought up in a family with a very deep involvement with literature, particularly poetry, so I handle poetry in ṭhumrī with sensitivity.”
Quoted in “Girija Devi: The queen of Benares” by Deepak S. Raja (Sruti 250 [July 2005] pp. 41–50).
Today would have been Girija Devi’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2015; below, performing the ṭhumrī Babul mora in 2014.
After a chance encounter with a colleague who had studied Indian music, Nancy Lesh decided to spend a summer holiday in India. Having been trained in Western classical music for 12 years, she had assumed that Indian music was “less refined”—but she fell deeply for Hindustani music, and began training in dhrupad, transferring the vocal style to her cello.
Eventually she began to study with the renowned Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, modeling her playing on the rudra vīṇā, the only instrument on which dhrupad is played. “Sixteen years later,” she says, I realize that this music is just beginning to mature within me.”
This according to “Hindustani music on cello” by S. Sankaranarayanan (Sruti 179 [August 1999] pp. 39–41). Below, a performance from 2013.
Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustānī vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by rāga performances, and he wanted a demonstration.
After a specially prepared vegetarian dinner, Thakur began with hindolam, which depicts valor. “When I was soaring in the high notes of the rāga,” he later recalled, “Mussolini suddenly said ‘Stop!’ I opened my eyes and found that he was sweating heavily. His face was pink and his eyes looked like burning coals. A few minutes later his visage gained normalcy and he said ‘A good experiment.’”
After Thakur brought him to tears with rāga chayanat, which is meant to depict pathos, Mussolini said, after taking some time to recover, “Very valuable and enlightening demonstration about the power of Indian music.”
Il Duce then returned the favor: Producing his violin, he treated Thakur to works by Paganini and Mozart. Again, both agreed on the music’s power to evoke emotion.
“I could not sleep at all the entire night,” the vocalist recalled, “wondering whether the meeting had really taken place; I thought it was a part of a dream.” The next day, two letters from Mussolini arrived—one thanking him and one appointing him as director of a newly formed university department to study the effect of music on the mind (an appointment that he was unable to accept).
This according to “Omkarnath Thakur & Benito Mussolini” by B.K.V. Sastry (Sruti 163 [April 1998] pp. 19–21; RILM Abstracts 1999-26342).
Although the exact date of this meeting is not recorded, we know that it took place in May 1933—80 years ago this month! Below, Thakur performs rāga bhairavi.
In “Why Hindustani musicians are good cooks: Analogies between music and food in North India” (Asian music XXV/1–2 (1993–94), pp. 69–80), Adrian McNeil notes that culinary topics are frequent—sometimes even favorite—subjects of conversation among Hindustani musicians, and that a notable number of top Indian musicians are also expert cooks. He attributes this phenomenon to the similarities between the cognitive and sensory aspects of the two activities, and proposes a “culinary perspective” on rāg.
Offering a basic “culinary recipe” alongside a basic “melodic recipe”, McNeil similarly juxtaposes, in a two-page spread, a photographic “depiction of potato with ginger and puris” with a rāgamālā “depiction of rāg sārant”. Further positing a “melodic conception of food”, he recounts examples of Indian musicians using culinary analogies to illustrate musical matters, and cites a use of the phrase biryāni chicken khā (eat chicken biryāni) to convey a rhythmic pattern to a hungry mrdangam player.
These visual depictions of rāgas involve the various extramusical associations that theorists have assigned to them; for example, this visualization of the Hindustani rāg bhairavī from about 1610 depicts women worshiping at a shrine to Śiva, embodying the rāga’s association with both Śiva and feminine energy, and evoking the colors of its traditional early-morning context.
Below, the śahnāī player Bismillāh Khān (1915–2006) renders rāg bhairavī.
Sruti: India’s premier magazine for the performing arts (ISSN 0970-7816) is a Chennai-based magazine. While its primary focus is the South Indian Karnatak music world and its related dance traditions, most issues include at least one article devoted to the North Indian Hindustani tradition; it also carries occasional features on Indian folk traditions. Sruti tends to concentrate on events in recent musical life and profiles of current—and occasionally past—performers. RILM focuses on covering the latter, including the former only when sufficient historical interest is indicated.
Research-based contributions from the independent scholar Sriram Venkatakrishnan (writing under the name Sriram V) are often included, providing notes on important persons or places in the history of the Karnatak tradition. Another regular contributor, S. Sankaranarayanan, writes philatelic reports on Indian stamps depicting musical subjects—a type of music iconography.
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