Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Spring Has Surely Passed: Nirmala Devi and Laxmi Shankar

1930s poster of Krisna and gopis (cow herdesses).
The love of the gopis for Krishna is the subject of thumri.

First of all, for those of you who absolutely have to have MP3 files the recent Evening with Mohd. Rafi album is now available in that format from the relevant post.

Tomorrow is one of those all too rare mid-week public holidays. ANZAC day, which for non-Antipodians is the Down Under equivalent of Memorial Day. Big parades of bemedalled old soldiers, usually quite a bit of rain and moments to remember those who were brave enough to put their lives on the line for their country.  It is also the occasion for a major football match (in Melbourne at least) which the sports media love to drum up as the moral equivalent of Gallipoli.

Tonight’s post has not a thing to do with either of those events. Which is not to say war and football and soldiers are not worthy of being toasted by the Washerman’s Dog. Not at all.  Simply, I’m in the mood for an album I’ve had for some time and which I’m eager to share with you.

I’ve mentioned the thumri before. But just to refresh the old grey matter, here is a concise summary: Thumri is a common style of light classical music.  The text is romantic and devotional in nature, and usually revolves around a girl's love for Krishna.  The language is a dialect of Hindi called Brij bhasha.  This style is characterized by a greater flexibility with the raga.  The compositions are usually set to kaherava of 8 beats, addha tal of 16 beats, or dipchandi of 14 beats.  It arose in popularity during the 19th century. (http://chandrakantha.com/articles/indian_music/thumri.htm)

The singers tonight are Nirmala Devi and Laxmi Shankar. Nirmala Devi is the mother of the Bollywood dancer-par-excellence, Govinda, and is a classically trained singer of the Patiala gharana. Nirmala, born a Muslim, who converted to Hinduism and changed her name enjoyed a brief acting career of her own in Bombay in the 1940s and was married to the actor, Arun Ahuja. Unfortunately, his career was less than stellar and he died young leaving Nirmala a single mother.  She is regarded as one of the finest thumri singers of her generation.

Laxmi Shankar is a classically trained South Indian dancer. She fell in with the dancer/musician Uday Shankar, older brother of Ravi, in the 1940s and eventually married another brother, Rajendra (Raju). When her dancing career was derailed by illness she became a disciple of khayal singer, Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan, and found a new facility and passion for thumri, khayal and bhajan.

The four thumris on this 1966 EMI release were composed by Laxmi Shankar’s teacher, Ustad Abdul Rehman Khansahib.  Two are sung by both women and then each diva gets a chance to explore the music on her own.  Both have delicate, diaphanous voices which match the lyrics especially well.

This album is a real gem and evidence of the depth of Hindustani music beyond the big names. The title track Sawan Beeta Jaye (Should Spring Pass) is the standout number with the two voices rising repeatedly like a swirl of birds high in the sky. But the remaining three tracks are very nice too. Singing in Braj-Hindi, which is the mother tongue of neither artist, both singers bring a precision and ease to the pronunciation of the lyrics that is allows them to really soar vocally.

And of course, I can’t help but point out (yet again) how wonderful it is to have music from a distinctly Hindu tradition being composed and performed by those from the Islamic tradition.  This is the sort of world I like and pray for, where we just get on with beauty and forget the boundaries and walls.

A perfect way to wind down for the mid-week break!

         Track Listing:
01.  Naina More Taras Rahe Hai
02.  Kare Manmani
03.  Sawan Beeta Jaye
04. Na Mane More Baat

Listen here (MP3).


Apurva Bahadur said...

My father used to listen to this album - 40 years back! Ajnabi, many thanks for reviving memories.

Do you have more Laxmi Shankar/Nirmala Devi albums? There is a song in my head about Sawan Maas. It is sung by the duo (not a solo song), but it is not the one in this album. And the search goes on...

Apurva from Pune, India.

ajnabi said...

at the moment this is the only one. I always have my eyes open for more though as you know1
Glad you got some good vibes!

Vintage said...

A ha ! Fantastic !!

Shukriya !!

Ajay said...

Thank you for this lovely album!