The Art of Singing Poorab Ang Thumri from Benaras –
Interview with Hindustani vocalist Smt. Rupan and Tabla maestro Pandit Uddalak Samanta
Hindustani vocalist Smt. Rupan Samanta trained for more than a decade with PadmaBhushan, the late Vidushi Smt. Girija Devi. Vidushi Girija Devi was not only an expert at singing genres such as Khyal, Tappan and Tarana which are considered part and parcel of Hindustani Classical music but also specialized in singing semi-classical music of Benaras –the music of “Poorab Ang”.
Smt. Rupan’s husband, Pandit Uddalak Samanta has trained with veteran tabla player, the late Pandit Shankar Ghosh of Farukkhabad Gharana for two decades. Smt. Rupan and Pandit Uddalak Samanta have been performing music together for a long time. They are currently on a US tour where they have given performances and have conducted workshops in New Mexico and Texas. They make a stop in Boston to sing at a concert organized by LearnQuest Academy on Friday, June 7. The double header concert will also feature a vocal recital by Surmani Dr. Dattatreya Velankar and will held at First Parish Unitarian Church, 225 Boston Post Rd Wayland, MA.
Shuchita Rao from Lokvani recently spoke to Smt. Rupan Samanta and Pandit Uddalak Samanta.
Rupanji, can you tell us about your early training in music?
When I was very young, I started learning from my father, the Late Shri Birendranath Sarkar who was a performing Bangla folk artist. I learned the basics of music and how to sing khyals from him. My first stage performance was at the age of four years. I also learned the basics of Kathak dancing in my childhood.
What led you to the desire to learn to sing “Thumri”?
My father loved music and wanted me to learn from a good Guru. He took me to Vidushi St. Girija Devi in Benaras (lovingly referred to as Appaji) with the request that she should teach me. Appaji told him that she could teach me if I gave her away to him. My father readily agreed and my lessons began with Vidushi Girija Devi in the Guru-Shishya Parampara.
For how long did you train with Vidushi Girija Devi? Did you learn in Guru Shishya Parampara by staying at her house?
I stayed at Vidushi Girija Devi’s home for ten years and learned from her in traditional Guru Shishya Parampara. I learned semi-classical Poorab Ang genres such as Chaiti, Kajri, Dadra, Jhoola, Barahmasa, Banni Banna, Sohar, Holi etc.. She kept teaching me and I kept learning. I have given her a lot of vocal support in her concerts.
For many years, thumri singing had a negative image and was associated with dancing girls. How would you say that Vidushi Girija Devi was able to elevate the status of the household/folk form or “desi” thumri to the more formal and classy “margi” status?
You ask an important question. Appaji was the first and foremost artist who gave high status and class to the art of thumri singing. When teaching me, she would ask me to pay special attention to the poetry and lyrics of the verses. She urged me to understand that it was not just about repeating the word Shyam – Shyam over and over again. It was about understanding what Shyam was doing in the poem and then singing in a manner that brought out the beauty of the poetry. This was the special quality of Appaji’s singing that made the audience want to listen to her songs. This is what made her music “classy”.
What are the common themes addressed in thumri lyrics?
90% of thumri textual content is about love. The themes revolve around the story of Radha and Krishna or the story of Yashoda and Krishna or the story of Krishna and Gopis. There are always two characters in the story. It could be that Krishna is an infant and referred to in the song as “lalla”, or a young boy referred to in the song as “laala” or a young man referred to as “laal”. A scene such as young man Krishna playing Holi with Radha and gopis (raas rachaana) could be described in thumri lyrics.
Are there many types of thumris? What is the main difference between bol-banaav and bandish ki thumri?
Yes. There are many different types of thumris. Bol Banaav, Bandish Ki Thumri, Holi ki thumri and many many other types of thumris. There are also several different types of Holi. Bandish ki thumri is like singing chota khyaal but in contrast to the khyal which focuses on just one raga, we add related ragas while elaborating and developing the melodic content of thumri. A little alaap is sung in thumri too but it is done in a manner that flows with the rhythm. “Bol banaav” is like how we speak on a daily basis. Comes from the word boli (spoken language). There is more resting (thehraav) in Bol banaav than in Bandish ki thumri. We create many different ways of phrasing the words, varying the tunes slightly for the same set of words.
What are the main gharanas in thumri singing? What are the stylistic differences between them?
There are only two main gharanas of thumri singing – Benaras and Punjab. Poorab Ang thumri is practiced in Benaras. Since Benaras is a city of temples, Bhakti rasa or devotional sentiment is the main attribute of this gharana. Some attributes, best expressed in Hindi are Seedha (straight), asardaar (with powerful effect), chayandaari aur sukoon (relaxed manner of singing) and shaant (peaceful). Punjab Ang is more enthusiastic, (just as the people of Punjab are) and employs more ornaments like taan (fast melodic movement), khatka and murki (vibrato). They also sing Thumri in Dadra taal which Benaras folks don’t do.
What taals are used in Poorab Ang thumri singing?
Pre-dominantly Deepchandi and Jat taals are used for bol-banaav thumri. For bandish ki thumri, sixteen beat cycles, addha and teentaal are mostly used.
Is it difficult to sing Thumri? What kind of a mind-set and temperament is required to sing Thumri?
With the right training, one can learn to sing thumri. Appaji used to say “Khyal is like a wheat farm – you plant wheat seeds and the wheat crop grows. Thumri is like a garden. You have to design the layout – where to plant Bela (Bela tree), Gulab (rose bush), where to lay the lawn…” Someone who aspires to sing thumri must be sensitive, emotional and creative. A thumri singer must be well versed in raga grammar and have an understanding of related ragas so they know how to transition from one raga to another because as I mentioned earlier, thumri rendition can use multiple, related ragas in the delivery of a single thumri.
Your husband Shri. Uddalak Samantha will be accompanying you on the tabla. Where and how did you meet him?
My husband’s family had put out an advertisement in the newspaper looking for a bride who was a trained singer. We responded and my husband came to see me. We liked each other, the match was finalized and then (she laughs) we got married. Everybody in my husband’s family loves music. My co-sisters sing but I am the one who sings it on a professional level.
Q & A with Pandit Uddalak Samanta
Can you describe your musical journey in playing the tabla thus far?
I was born into a family of genuine music connoisseurs. I initially learned music at the Bhatkhande College in Lucknow and earned a Vaadya-Nipun degree. I also earned a Masters degree in tabla from “Indira-Kala Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, Khairagarh.” I wanted to go beyond understanding music theory. I therefore approached Pandit Shankar Ghosh in Kolkatta for accepting me as a disciple. I learned for almost twelve years from him. Then, I wished to take up a job in Dehradun and my Guru gave me permission to move from Kolkatta to Dehradun. I visited him for two months in summer and two months in Winter every year to continue my training. Since the time he has passed away, I continue to carefully study what he taught me over twenty years of my training under him.