Asian Music and Dance

Reviving the beautiful art of baithak thumri

“That was another wish
But you are my heart’s desire
What shall I do with the rest of the world?
You are my universe…”

A translation of a thumri by Sangeeta Datta 

Unrequited love, a man who thinks he’s a woman and courtesans living in a twilight world are some of the ingredients of the ‘The Dying Song’. Kulbir Natt looks at the play/opera trying to breathe fresh life into a once flourishing art.  

Probably no artist other than Bireshwar Gautam, who plays the central character, would have been able to carry it off with such assurance. The demands were many. Bireshwar is the androgynous thumri singer who sometimes believes he is a man, and other times that he is a woman. He is a courtesan who sings about love, loss and romance. He is a kathak dancer who uses the sublime art of abhinaya, a mime that uses intricate facial expressions and hand gestures to sing about being a new bride. His music teacher used to joke: “In a previous life you must have been born a courtesan.”

The play, inspired by the Marathi story ‘Devyachi Ayee’ (Mother of the Gods), and directed by Sangeeta Dutta, touches upon the untold stories of those who are neither men nor women, the androgynous community or more disparagingly ‘Eunuchs’, in the Indian society. Androgyny, however, has been celebrated in Hindu mythology: Ardhanari is a synthesis of Shiva and Parvati in one form. Shiva, often referred to as being the ideal husband, conjures up images of dance, music and the arts. Sangeeta says androgyny is an idea that many writers have gone back to, portray a ‘balance between the male and female psyche that goes towards making the complete artist.’ In the West, Virginia Woolf has also talked about the androgynous mind, which is able to access both the male and female psyche to create and generate art.

The set – a grand, crumbling heveli somewhere in India in the not too distant past – is a metaphor for the social demise of the highly cultured music and dance of the courtesans and, in particular, the alluring and captivating singing that was baithak thumri. 

Thumri is a beautiful style of light-classical singing that freely moves around the themes and nuances of several ragas. It is romantic, sometimes erotic and often devotional in nature. It can be sung in folksy, popular or classical style. Contemporary exponents have included the Girija Devi, Purnima Chaudhuri and the late Shobha Gurtu. These days, most thumri, which sings the lyrics from the female perspective, is often heard at the end of long recital of khayal.

Baithak thumri is a rare and beautiful art form practised by less than a handful of world-class artists.

But these end-of-performance flourishes invariably miss out on the subtle essence of baithak thumri encapsulating abhinaya to reveal deeper meaning to the repeated refrains of love and loss. Baithak thumri itself is a rare and beautiful art form practised by less than a handful of world-class artists.

It began to rise in popularity from the early 19th century, a time the Mughal empire was in decline and the British were slowly increasing their grip on power across the sub-continent. And for many it was in Lucknow in northern India where baithak thumri truly flourished. The Lucknow Nawabs, under the protection of the British East India Company and relieved of their fiscal and administrative duties, patronised the arts. These nawabs seemed to have little time for mughal-era classical genres like dhrupad, which were perceived to be dull or archaic.

Artistic life in all forms reached its high point under Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in the mid-19th century. He was not only a generous patron but was himself a gifted composer of poems, prose and thumri. Under his ‘rule’ kathak attained new heights of popularity. Many have regarded Wajid Ali Shah as ‘the first playwright of the Hindustani theatre’. Elsewhere, he engaged expert teachers to teach music to talented girls. 

And within this milieu rose the courtesans or tawa’ifs who sang baithak thumri. The popularity of thumri soon reached other princely states, as well as spreading beyond the court to the havelis of the well-to-do. The courtesans elevated baithak thumri to a graceful artform. Performances often continued into the small hours for the pleasure of their aristocratic patrons. Glimpses into this world are revealed by the films ‘Pakeezah’ and ‘Umrao Jaan’. Too often courtesans are maligned as high-class prostitutes. The truth, though murky, is probably more complex. 

Many courtesans were highly-skilled singers and dancers, who were also trained in the arts of poetry, etiquette and conversation. Aristocrats would send their sons to be trained in sophistication and the manners of ‘polite’ society. But even in this era when courtesan arts were at their height, a proportion of the courtesans were also sex workers of some kind. Many would have had dedicated patrons, to whom they would ‘belong’. But as Victorian constraints took hold with the tightening grip of British power, and the influence of the nawabs and princely rulers waned, increasing numbers of courtesans began to be marginalised. A veil was drawn over their highly cultured arts and they were denounced wholesale as no better than prostitutes. Patronage ebbed away and many began to entertain in their own private salons and brothels. 

Meanwhile, the great patron, Wajid Ali Shah, was unfortunate enough to have ascended the throne at a time when the East India Company was determined to grab his territory which was seen as the ‘the garden, granary, and queen-province of India.’ Exile to Calcutta followed in 1854. And in his wake came his coterie of hundreds of officialdom, followers and courtesans. It sowed the seeds of an artistic renaissance in the Bengali city.  

Perhaps, then it is not surprising that many of the first Indian performers to record songs at the beginning of the 20th century after the invention of the gramophone were females who had received intensive training the patronage of the wealthy. The gramophone celebrities who put their names to the famous ‘His Master’s Voice’ label (the one with the dog) include Gauhar Jan, Malka Jan of Agra, Zohrabai Agrewali, Jankibai of Allahabad and Peara Saheb.  

The long shadow cast over the artistry of the courtesans, marginalised wholesale as ‘available women’ from the late 19th century, still has an influence today with the result that although thumri remains alive and well, baithak thumri is a rare performance event. 

The Asian Music Circuit’s Viram Jasani who produced ‘The Dying Song’ and has  been promoting thumri for the last 18 years says “the challenge was how to present thumri in a way that could be attractive for the wider audience.” He says “the aim was to put thumri into a context by creating a setting where this style of singing was traditionally performed. But in a way it is not so much the setting. What matters more is the beautiful music that is being performed. What I’m more interested in is that this art form, which is a deep part of Indian aesthetics, should be more widely known.”

The Dying Song returns in 2009 at the Edinburgh Festival. The Asian Music Circuit is also planning a festival of thumri for 2009. 



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