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‘Thumri is all about improvisation’

Classical singer Padmaja Chakraborty shares with Chahak Mittal how the artform allowed her to explore her own range of emotions

Born in a complex and pressure-cooked time, only a few from the younger generation might have the patience or the inclination to listen to Thumri. Or so one would suppose. Yet the repetition of a line, which connoisseurs know is a form of improvisation, makes one seep into the flavour of the music gradually as it enwraps the senses. While the other music forms are not as popular, Thumri continues to have its takers, especially among those who like things a bit more nuanced than EDM or Hip Hop. And to give an opportunity to them to enjoy the art form, the Sahitya Kala Parishad celebrated the Thumri Festival 2018. Padmaja Chakraborty, who has been singing this form for more than two decades, presented the inaugural sequence. While Thumri seems to be a classical art form, not many know that it is a much lighter version of classical and comes under the semi-classical category of music. She explains, “Classical forms of music comprise two parts — first, pure classical, which comprises Khyal Gayeki as well as Dhrupad, second, semi-classical, which is where Thumri comes under. It is called the Upashastriya Gaan. It is a lighter version of classical music. But it takes a lot of work, skills and dedicated practice for one to become an expert in the field.” She lays down the fundamentals, saying, “There is a rule for  presenting classical music on the basis of a raga only, which is composed as both vocal and instrumental. It tells which taal and note has to be applied and even the time when it should be sung. For instance, when we sing Khyal or Dhrupad, we consider the time as our main player to present a song. However, Dhrupad, that was first sung and recited by Tansen, is not heard or sung very often these days.” She explains how these pure classical forms were modified to make it better for the common folk to understand and enjoy. “For the sadharan log (commoners), Khyal Gayeki has been a very serious and grim form of music. Legends decided to give it a lighter tone for the common listeners to appreciate. Initially, the Thumri Gayeki was mostly sung with the Kathak dances and was preferred in the royal courts of kings and rulers. It wasn’t considered a very rich music culture at that time. Hence, it was transformed into a much lighter version with more lachaks and mataks. Post that, the art form evolved to be widely accepted by people.” There is not just one side to Thumri, rather many small classifications and divisions. She tells us, “Thumri is derived from all forms of music, from pure classical music and Khyal Gayeki to some lighter versions of it to folk music. It combines all these forms to become a beautiful composition. It doesn’t religiously follow all the rules, though we do use raga but not follow rules as we do with Khyal and Dhrupad.” She adds that it is “more about the artist’s own improvisation and emotions where we can even form something from our own heart. It is rich in terms of expressions (bhaav). One needs to be highly-skilled to showcase such expressions in its aesthetic sense. Isme bhi taal hai, raga hai par thodi si chhoot hai, isme apne mann ki chinta aur bhavna bhi vyakt kar sakte hain. Yeh hai thumri ki gayeki (Thumri has taal, raga but stays a little behind the rules. One can express worry and one’s own feelings with it).” The music form is mostly devotional in nature or sets the romantic mood through its compositions on the tales of Radha-Krishna’s divine love. However, Chakraborty believes that “Thumri isn’t confined to only their tales but is full of sringaar-rasa— the music of romance. It has both biraha and Milan. They are even lighter versions of Thumri which are classified as Dadra, Chaitee, Kajri and Jhoola.” As someone who has been around for decades, she has seen the change in music. Chakraborty believes that “music hasn’t changed at all and it won’t even will.” She compares today’s generation and hers: “During our early 20s, we took classical music very seriously. We felt that a proper training to learn classical music is the best way to learn it. Even today the case is the same. You need proper guidance about notes — sargamtaal aur sur. For instance, when a child begins studies, s/he doesn’t just jump to making words and sentences, it’s the alphabets that come first. And then eventually, the child is able to write something. Similarly, in Thumri or any art form, only a proper training will let somebody improvise it in a much better and beautiful way.” On the erosion of the finer sensibilities courtesy the multiplicity of popular music shows on TV, she says, “Today’s generation doesn’t really know what sur and taal are. They aim for the talent hunt and singing shows on TV. Maybe they are talented and confident to some extent but they are not aware of what music really means. They just find it a medium to get famous in this fast-paced world. Eventually, nothing really gets accomplished — neither their studies nor their music. They don’t understand that even if you have talent, proper training and basic knowledge are important in every field and subject.” The young generation is shifting away from classical music forms. They find it hard to follow. Why so? She says, “It is not that only today’s younger generation doesn’t accept it. Even during my childhood, I and children of my age would never prefer it. Why will they do that after all? Classical music is all about seriousness and quintessence. It’s dark and grim. Children can’t be interested in it at their age. They will question everything related to it and might not even find it that exciting. It is only after we explain to them properly what it is that they develop perspective.” Dance forms like Kathak are a play of the eyes and expressions. They could be joyful, they could be depressing or even terrifying. She recalls singer Asha Bhonsle’s words who said, “‘One doesn’t need to form a grim expression to showcase something. One can show it very normally too. The expression should look beautiful but not unusual.’ So we are also responsible for not being able to explain or portray it to the children properly. We also need to make a change so that they also find it interesting and after a time they also follow its seriousness.” She shares how singing Thumri is quite a task. “It is very difficult and is all about improvisation. Consider other music from films or bhajans; the mukhda and antaraare already written and pre-decided, which you only have to memorise.  Thumri, however, isn’t like that. It is all about improvising the same verse but making it sound better every time it is recited. For instance, the line, ‘Madhke bhare tore nain.’ It is just a two-liner but we have to keep singing it for 10 minutes as best as we can. No one can listen to the same line more than eight times. If it looks like repeating, it means that it is not presented in a good way. Even if you’re doing it for more than 10 times, every time it should be different and completely new, improvised.” A presentation of an artistry of expressions, improvisations through instrumentals and vocals, classical music is full of amusement. This is why it always keeps inspiring Chakraborty. She says, “Music inspires me in every way possible. I have lived with music all my life and grown up with it. When children went for some recreation time apart from studies, that for me was a chance to pursue music. I didn’t think of becoming a celebrity or a famous superstar or a musician, it was only because of my dedication and passion that I followed it so religiously. I found myself getting immersed and lost in it as I grew up. I think I cannot even live without music in my life. It is the most precious thing that I have.” Tuesday, 18 September 2018 | Chahak Mittal–

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