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Mhaaro Pranam – A Tribute To Queen Of Thumri Vidushi Shobha Gurtu

February 8, 2015 | By

What indeed puts the Queen of Thumri Shobha Gurtu in a class by herself are not merely the unique qualities of her warm sensuous voice which blends strength with suppleness and vigour with grace but also the associated aesthetic delight. She constantly communicated through music, by creating a joyful identity with nature and with the cosmos itself.

Samina De (Urmi), a noted classical thumri singer and a devoted disciple of Shobha Gurtu pays a heartfelt tribute to her ‘Guruma’ on the occasion of the legendary thumri exponent’s birth anniversary today.

Shobha Gurtu with Samina De

“Beti, sur ko apna dost bana lei. Uske saath pyar se baatein kar, darna mat.” (Thumri exponent Shobha Gurtu (right) with Samina De.)

“Saiyyan rooth gaye, main manaati rahi….”

As these words dipped in longing and love resonate, memories flood my mind and my heart soars, and her lilting voice rings in my ears when I remember my beloved guru Shobha Gurtu, the legendary thumri singer, who took thumri to a new level with her unique treatment of a raaga in the rendering of the thumri and the role of ‘pukar’ in this genre.

It was during a festival in Orchha, when we were sitting in a garden enjoying the sun the day after the event and all of a sudden, Shobhaji pointed out to a honeybee collecting nectar from one flower to another and quipped, “Dekh apne aapko madhumakkhi sochle, gaane ko raseela banana ka yeh ek bahut achcha tareeka hai samjhi.”

Like a honey bee collecting nectar from flower to flower, Shobhaji’s gayaki stands out in her bandishes too. She herself composed quite a few pieces which open up a world of splendour, wonder and ecstasy for her fans, audience and shishyas.

Tumhari yaad aansoo banke aayi chashme-viraane mein
Zahei kismet ke viraane mein barsaat bhi hoti hain (Hamari ataria pe aayo sanwariya)

Shobha Gurtu with Samina De Thumri Singers

“Dekh apne aapko madhumakkhi sochle, gaane ko raseela banana ka yeh ek bahut achcha tareeka hai samjhi.”

It was in March 1994 my association with the Thumri singer began after the death of my guru Pandit Amarnath ji. I was looking for a guru to learn the genre of thumri gayaki. I was a great fan of hers. I felt that thumri was what I had been searching for. So I sent a cassette of my songs to her. She must have liked something about my singing and she called me to Mumbai in May. Since then I had been learning from her till her death in September 2004.

Once in the middle of the night she woke me up and taught me the Baramasi – Nai jhulanki chhaiya balam dopaharia bitai leho. In that stillness of the night, she had heard my intense inner longing to learn this composition.

What indeed puts Shobha Gurtu in a class by herself are not merely the unique qualities of her warm sensuous voice which blends strength with suppleness and vigour with grace but also the associated aesthetic delight. She constantly communicated through music, by creating a joyful identity with nature and with the cosmos itself.

In the process she evolved a technique that let her negotiate everything ranging from Thumri, Dadra Hori, Kajri, Chaiti to Ghazal, Bhajan and Marathi Sangeet with equal ease and with all their regional stylistic variations intact.

Invaluable are the phrases she uttered – deeply etched in my mind – so strongly motivating and inspiring.

“Jaise aaloo ko peeler se gol sa chhilte hain, usi tarah sur ko gol gol karke lagana chahiye, golai aur andaaz barabar hona chahiye.”

“Beti, sur ko apna dost bana lei. Uske saath pyar se baatein kar, darna mat.”

Melody and rhythm ruled in her bloodstream as Shobhaji, born Bhanumati Shirodkar in Belgaum in 1925, received her initial training in music from her mother Minakshi Shirodkar, a noted dancer of her time, and a ‘gayaki’ disciple of Ustad Alladiya Khan of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana.

Saiyan Nikas Gaye – Mishra Bhairvi

Shobhaji’s formal training in music began with with Ustad Bhurji Khan, the youngest son of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana in Kolhapur, from whom her mother was learning at the time. It did not take long for Ustad Bhurji Khan’s family to notice the exceptional talent of this young girl. Shobhaji’s long hours of riyaaz with her guru led her to Ustad Natthan Khan for advanced training in classical music, cementing her ties with the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. Under the tutelage of Ustad Ghamman Khan, who came to stay with their family in Mumbai, to teach her mother thumri-dadra and other semi-classical forms, Shobhaji picked up the finer nuances of light classical and popular music.

Without the torch bearing role of the gurus or mentors in life, one cannot reach the goal where knowledge flows seamlessly, where learning happens at every step, where perfection becomes a passionate objective and every performance becomes an experience of ecstatic delight. Whenever I called her from Delhi just to say, “I love you, Aai”, her reply would be a touching “Tu kab aare?”

An architect who designs a structure with care, diligence and passion would know in his heart that his creation would stand the test of time. Similarly, a teacher knows that if he teaches with conviction, love and truth, what he teaches will last forever. This has been the age-old tradition of guru-shishya parampara in Indian art and performing arts and Shobhaji was a shining example of how a guru can bequeath knowledge and skills to her student, selflessly, lovingly, passionately.

Out of curiosity I once asked her why did she choose to be a Thumri singer. Aai lovingly replied, “Bete, mujhe doodh se zyaada malai pasand hai.”

Saiyyan rooth gaye (Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki)

Thumri essentially communicates with Bhava (expression), Lachak (movement) and many variations of Vak or the spoken word. Its content is poetical and rooted firmly in the tradition of Hindustani classical music. A particular blend of temperament and classical training is required of the artist who renders a thumri or other forms of light classical music. Shobhaji justified the demands of the style to its full measure. The unique combination of talent and soul makes her self-expression worth listening to, ever so often. She sang what she believed.

One of the prized possession of Samina is a letter written by Shobha ji after her first visit to Mumbai.

One of the prized possession of Samina is a letter written by Shobha ji after her first visit to Mumbai.

Her motto was simple “I don’t want to be a tree. I should rather be the grass which is accessible to everyone.”

One could feel the swing of moods predominantly in her rendering, as she rendered the text in a manner describing scorn or reproach, rendered the phrases strong in character rather than sweet or effeminate. In thumri, the pukar is an essential dramatic phrase. Literal meaning is ‘call’ but in the extensive canvas of this gayaki pukar is basically yearning or longing for your beloved in melancholic situation. Shobhaji’s singing had a special affinity with this pukar. Often she would say that by listening to Ustad Bismillah Khan’s sahab’s shehnai one could experience the essence of this pukar.

Shobhaji’s unique ability to elaborate a raaga though the soulful exploration of the bandish and not through the technicalities of the raaga, made her step beyond the limitations of the theoretical guidelines regarding proper raaga expositions. She took the liberty to deviate from them while being true to the aesthetics. The bandish in Mishra Tilak Kamod – Chhatiya tharak gayi re moriyali piya nahi aaye, jiya ghabraaye, dekho sakhi, is a glorious example of experimentation without breaking the original mould.

A very well-known composition which begins and concludes in Raaga Jhinjhoti, weaves its way through several raagas enhancing the beauty of the composition through musical nuances, thus creating a joyful identity with nature and the cosmos itself. Bhor bhaye ghar aaye ho mere karat rang raliye – In this section, Shobhaji with her vivid imagination covers raagas like Lalit, Ramkali, Aahir Bhairav, Bhatiyar to capture the morning glory.

Haan piya jaavo jaavo mose na bolo (Dadra Mishra Jhinjhoti)

Not surprisingly, Shobhaji’s brief forays into playback singing left an indelible mark. ‘Bedardi ban gaye koi jaao manaao more saiyyaan’ in Phagun (1973), “Bandhan baandho” the rich and intricate Shudh Kalyan bandish in Pakeezah (1972), or the evocative “Saiyyan Rooth Gaye” from Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978) which earned her a Filmfare nomination as Best Female Playback Singer are still remembered. In Marathi cinema she sang for films like Saamna and Lal Mati. In 1979 The Gramophone Company of India (EMI) released her first album At Her Best…

Bandhan Baandho (Pakeezah)
Music: Ghulam Mohd., Naushad

In 1989 she received the Sangeet Natak Academy award. She also got the Lata Mangeshkar Puraskar, Shahu Maharaj Puraskar and the Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar. In 2002, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan. Shobha Gurtu passed away on 27th Sept 2004, after reigning for five decades as the Queen of Thumri.

Rangi saari gulabi choonariya ho

And she still rules the hearts of her fans and shishyas –

Narendra (Son) – “Shobha preferred Lord Krishna Shingara and Kabir’s philosophical rendering. On any stage she was always Radha. Along with Pandit Birju Maharaj, their interpretation of the mood was unique…Her rending of Kabir’s daughter Kamali’s composition took music lovers a few centuries back in the company of Sufi saints.”

Aneesh Pradhan – Given the various musical streams that had influenced Shobhatai in her formative years, it was left to her to make sense of it all and develop a style that was unique to her. While focusing her attention on thumri-dadra, chaiti, kajri, and such other forms, she intelligently introduced in her thumri singing, taan (fast melodic passages) patterns and glimpses of jod raagas (compound raagas) like Basanti Kedar and achhop raagas (rare raagas) like Bahaduri Todi, which she had inherited through her Jaipur-Atrauli association. Not for a moment did this take away from the emotive aspect of her singing. In fact, her voice had an endearing quality that attracted listeners even before she launched into a thumri.

Though not a trained dancer like her mother, she would at times introduce adaa/abhinaya (gestures) to highlight a particular line from the text. While transforming herself from a singer singing of playful or coy Radha-Krishna dalliances to one yearning for union with the Ultimate, Shobhatai demonstrated her inimitable style of musically acting out each of these roles. This ability was seen even in the rare appearances she made as a singer for Hindi and Marathi film and non-film songs, and in the collaborative ventures heard on her son Trilok’s jazz albums.

A beautiful dadra with Aneesh Pradhan on the tabla

Aditi Tandon – Shobha Gurtu was best identified with a full-throated rendition that brought forth the true seductive charm of thumri. When she struck light classical melodies, she was “Shingaar” personified. Gurtu’s presentation of Kabir’s daughter Kamali’s compositions proved her mastery in the Sufi tradition. Her music tugged at the heart strings on two fronts – ethereal and philosophical when she preferred Kabir and other saints; vivacious and romantic when she was the Radha beckoning Krishna with her weaponry of Shingara rasa.

Mharo Pranam in Raaga Yaman Kalyan

Popular music collections of Vidushi Shobha Gurtu

Samina De (Urmi) is a noted classical thumri singer based in Delhi. She is a devoted disciple of the Queen of Thumri Shobha Gurtu, who considered Samina as one of her most favourite students. Bangladesh-born Samina hails from a family of musicians. She is a regular Kheyal/Thumri artist of All India Radio and Doordarshan and has performed at many classical music festivals all over India and at music gatherings in North America, UK, Europe and Bangladesh.
All Posts of Samina De

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