The nightingale of the East
Remembering Girija Devi, the lady who carried with her musical greatness a silent revolution in the name of all the unsung women of her land.
It was the 90's - 1994 to be precise when I first got to see her. The city was Banaras, where order paraded with the chaos, much like the rest of India, recently liberalised yet trying desperately to cling on to the age-old ideals of tradition! And there I had her in front of me - personifying tradition and rawness, much like us, much like India pristine, colloquial and unworldly - a flawless laughter trickled down the grandiose that her face was. While I stood there, bewitched already, she proceeded further to enchant that elite crowd which was soon to be transcended into a world where Raga dictated the mind, and Laya ruled the hearts. For next one hour, the buzzing amphitheater in Banaras was the living embodiment of order amidst the mind-numbing chaos the city has always been!
'Kahe Karelu Gumaan Gori Sawan Mein' was just the beginning of that hour-long musical trip where she went on to mesmerise us with her maddening grip over Kajri, Chaita, and numerous other classical Indian performances. Dazzled as the hour passed by, I stood in front of her only to find her looking for the 'Paan' (the traditional Indian betel assortment of flavors). In her eyes, I could see sanctity wrapped with elegance, demure yet bossy enough to enthrall the ambiance. What made it all so gracious was the complete absence of that artistic arrogance which I had often bumped across in my previous encounters with some of the most renowned names in music industry. That unsaid, unseen yet excruciatingly prickly barrier between the 'artist' and the 'fan', that silent hierarchy which breeds arrogance in the minds of the greats - Girija Devi in her prime seemed to have transcended all that. In her smiles, in her voice which seemed to have echoed long after she was finished, in her walk and that small pleasantry which I exchanged with her - the air of greatness, something, which often clogs communication, that was one thing which was surprisingly missing. Here she was, having just finished another musical session, her tantalisingly enthralling voice itched deep into the hearts of the listeners, nonchalantly looking into nothingness, in sync with some mysterious power which all of us seek but very few find.
That was Girija Devi for me - graciously undoing my perceptions and captivating my senses. The journalist that had checked in with me had slowly given way to the bubbling fanboy which had found his way to his idol - the lady who had gold flowing in her vocal chords, one who would redefine rawness and tradition.
There is something pungently mystical about Purvanchal (the stretch which encompasses eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar ) which has always drawn me towards exploring its cultural strands. The rugged defiance of a teeming populace, that melancholic adherence to the age-old cultural ties manifested in different musical traditions and tunes reverberating across the length and breadth - Girija Devi would become the living hallmark of all that while she juggled her way through complex laya and taans of Hindustani classical music.
Her sapaat taans and mellifluous voice would often remind me of those unseen women from this eastern part of India, who smolder with energy unmatched and pains unsaid. The pain that trickles through 'Babul Mora Naihar Chooto Jaaye' is a uniquely peculiar construct where the 'personal' in her musical mastery gels, almost magically, with the Purabiya where leaving home is a life event and not just an act for scores of women. Devi's magic lay in this peculiar conjunction of the person with the masses.
Born in a traditional Zamindar family in Banaras, her induction into greatness began with singing songs in weddings, only to be trained by Sarju Prasad Mishra and Chand Misra, musical stalwarts of repute. From there, it was one forward march towards eternal greatness as she began her professional career in 1949 with AIR Allahabad only to take the classical Indian musical scene by storm.
What remained graciously intact in all these years of pure musical whirlwind which Girija Devi's career was, was the childlike innocence which oozed through her voice and the betel juice trickling in her cheeks! In what appeared to be her last public performance, as she enthralled the audience draped in majestic white Saree, her eyes would signal the beginning of the end.
And there I am today - stunned yet pleasantly proud while bidding goodbye to this all-time musical genius of our nation, the lady who carried along with her musical greatness a silent revolution in the name of all those unsung women of her land - those Purabiya women whose pangs and fun would often find a befitting tribute in her songs, those men and women whose worldview would find baffling musical credence in the highs and lows of her voice. That she is no more is just another momentary mirage for talents like her don't just whittle away after death. The waters near Manikarnika may sweep away her mortal remains in a day or two, but the memories of 'Appa jee' as she was fondly called, would always jingle in those Thumri and Chaita, which men and women across all generations and mundane human hierarchies would never be able to forget. The humming nightingale of Purab, though a memory now, would keep mesmerising the world forever - for wizards like hers are not just about a personality cult rather they are a worldview, the memorabilia of a cultural terrain which finds its redemption in their tales of greatness. Girija Devi, your fan for years, this writer, doesn't know where to end this write up, for the sheer memory of you standing in front of me in all your sublime grace is choking my senses, rendering me bereft of words, too poignant to say goodbye. But then, I guess, there is always an end. Until we meet, Hasta La Vista!
(Sanjeev K Jha is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal)