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  Girija Devi #17959

Girija Devi  Dec 14 2014 : The Times of India (Delhi)
When music made history
Malini Nair
A film on Girija Devi documents her struggle to become a professional singer
The young woman sitting at the chullah doesn't seem to notice the roti burning. Her startlingly grey eyes are fixed at a distance, she is practising the ascending and descending scales of a raga, playing with the infinite permutations of notes.
"I needed to take a moment off and flip the roti but that seemed like a whole second spent away from music and I couldn't bear the thought. Time was precious, there was so much I had to learn." Once she wrenched her mind back to reality, Girija Devi would stack away the burnt rotis for herself, making fresh ones for her family.

This was the mid-1940s, the thumri diva was a young wife and mother in a conservative household of Varanasi where caste rules were strict. Girija, A Life in Music, a docu-drama recently premiered in Varanasi, offers these and many fascinating musical insights into the turning decades when women from "a respectable" homes were struggling to make a career in music, so far a profession of the tawaifs.

Girija, lovingly crafted by two of her young students at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Varanasi, brings alive her struggle to protect her art. Her story is told with lovely swatches of her music spanning more than five decades. Today, at 85, a senior guru at ITC SRA, she is still a huge draw at music festivals.

"She has actually lived her music. From the lyrics to the notes, her inspiration comes from all around her nature, the world, people" says Debapriya Adhikary, who partnered sitar player Samanwaya Sarkar in the making of the film.

The film, which is being screened in Kolkata next Saturday, starts with her unusual childhood, her training, marriage and her rise to the top. "We didn't want anyone to narrate her story. Her music, the ghats of Varanasi and her voice telling her story these were enough," says Madhu Chandra, an NRI connoisseur who co-produced the film.

The film works at many levels. For a music lover, it is a treasure of rare thumris, energetic tappas displaying great vocal acrobatic skills (the opening shot is one of her listening today to one of her early tappa recordings, a faint smile acknowledging her own musical daring), dadra, jhoola” a wealth of the distinctly lyrical music of the east, purabi gayaki.

The film is also a documenting of an era of tremendous social and cultural changes in India, especially the north. These changes helped women singers like Girija Devi push many boundaries. All India Radio's role in supporting classical artistes was growing. Its rather puritanical decision to ban women belonging to the courtesan clans on radio helped women musicians like Girija Devi become professional artistes.

"Those days people would say all sorts of things about them. She actually paved the way for other female artistes" say singers Rajan and Sajan Mishra in the film.

Remarkably enough Girija Devi's strongest supporters were men - her father, Ramdeo Rai, her businessman husband Madhusudhan Jain and her gurus.

The matriarchs in her family, on the other hand, wanted her to settle for domesticity.

"The women of my family insisted that I learnt to make poori, bhaji and I did all that because I knew that without that I would never be allowed to follow my music," she says candidly in the film.

Girija Devi's father was unusually liberated for his times."He would take us swimming, insist we learn horse riding, archery, fishing," she recalls in the film.

Rai encouraged her to sing and found her a great guru, Sarju Prasad Mishra.

To ensure that marriage did not cripple her musical training, Rai arranged for her to marry an already married patron of classical music. It must have been a tough call but Jain promised to foster her concert career, not something most men would agree to in those days. He even set up for her a quiet home in Sarnath where she could pursue music in peace. This phase of practice, she says, shaped her art.

"He gave me every freedom to sing but there was one rule” I would not sing at private mehfils or at the homes of rajas and maharajs. Only AIR or big music conferences," she recalls in the film. Her first public concert was at Agra in 1951 and it was a raging success. After that, Girija Devi's music simply soared.

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