This is the first instalment of Post Facto: my new column for the Sunday Guardian.
At 7 o' clock, the conference room in the India International Centre basement was only half full. Any ditherers still deciding if they should stay were arrested by the arrival of a slender sari-clad lady with cropped silver hair, who announced (in impeccable IIC English strewn with equally impeccable Hindi) that Dr Kumud Jha Diwan, soon to begin her lecture-demonstration on 'The Earthy Thumris of Gaya — Revival of a Lost Tradition', was both a scholar-researcher and a thumri singer blessed with "a voice like Rasoolan Devi".
Diwan is a striking woman in her 40s. Dressed in a dark sari with just enough zari to be festive, her still-black hair left open but kept carefully off her face, she exuded a combination of managerial efficiency and enthusiastic determination (her manner fell into place nicely when she said she had a PhD in Business Studies). Bustling between the podium and the small low stage, she moved fluently between school-teacherly historical declamation and seductive ada-kari (ada is integral to the courtesanal art of thumri). She also constantly switched languages: English when standing, Hindi as soon as she sat cross-legged on the stage. The thumri lyrics, of course, were in Braj and other Poorabiya dialects.
The thumri, said Dr Diwan, reached its creative zenith in 19th Century Lucknow, in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, which sustained such thumri greats as Moizuddeen Khan, harmonium maestro Bhaiya Saheb Ganpat Rao (a Gwalior royal) and legendary kathak dancer Bindadeen Maharaj, of the renowned family of dancers from which Birju Maharaj descends. Apart from being a great patron of the arts, Wajid Ali Shah was himself a rather good poet, and – under the pen name Akhtarpiya — composed many thumris. (The most famous of these is probably Babul Mora Naihar Chooto Jaye, immortalised in filmic form by K.L. Saigal's superbly melancholy rendition of it in Street Singer (1938). The naihar of the song was both the departing bride's natal home, and Lucknow: the beloved home from which the British had exiled the Nawab.)
With the splintering of the Awadh court, its poets and musicians got scattered. For many, the obvious thing to do was to follow the Nawab to Metiabruz, a small township near Calcutta, on the banks of the river Hooghly, where a 'second Lucknow' was being created. With the coming of the railway network, said Diwan, the cities of Banaras and Gaya, both of which had many rich patrons of music, became stops for musicians on the way to Calcutta and back. "A golden triangle was established," Diwan said.
The Lucknow thumri, Diwan told the IIC's Music Appreciation audience, since it was created to accompany the vigorous rhythms of Kathak, tended to follow a fast taal cycle like Teentaal or Ektaal. Because the bol (lyrics) would often be split into syllables by the inherent rhythm of the taal, it became known as bol-baant ki thumri. The thumri of Banaras, made famous by courtesan-singers like Badi Moti Bai, Siddheshwari and Rasoolan, had a slower tempo. With its stylistic emphasis on which bol would be musically highlighted, it became known as the bol-banao thumri.
Having demonstrated both styles, Diwan turned her attention to the Gaya thumri, the subject of her Sangeet Natak Akademi research in 2008-9. Gaya is a centre of Hindu pilgrimage, where people come to give pind daan to their ancestors at the famed Vishnupad temple. The pandas of Gaya, familial priests who facilitate these ceremonies, made enormous fortunes. Their mansions became the sites of night-long musical baithaks. Diwan showed a black and white slide of one such soiree: it looked every bit the straitlaced, teetotalling affair she described. "It was a gathering for musicians," said Diwan, "You could sing the same phrase all night long if you wanted."
The Gaya ang thumri has an even slower tempo than Banaras, and is known as the thaah ki thumri (Thaah means stoppage). The Gaya thumris were sung by Diwan's co-performer, the marvellous Rajan Sijuar of the Gaya gharana. Gaya-based Sijuar was the quiet foil to Diwan's exuberance, smiling gently even when Diwan suddenly decided to turn him into Exhibit A in her narrative: "Those panda families have so much money you can't imagine... Rajan ji is from one of those families!"
She showed pictures of the major figures of Gaya thumri: the unfortunately named Dhela Bai (dhela means pebble) seated fashionably with one leg crossed over the other, the harmonium maestro Soni Maharaj, the legendary singer Ramuji Mishra. She played a rare tape of Ramuji Mishra singing, and bemoaned the shocking fact that Dhela Bai's descendants had destroyed all her recordings because they wished to erase all association with a tawaif ancestor. She raged against the Nagphopha family, who were refusing to give her access to the vast collection of recordings they had.
"The Gaya thumri is lost to us," Diwan said many times. "You people must listen to it, so that it can be preserved." Sijuar made no comment.