Thumri is North India’s most popular light-classical song form, developed during the 19th century at the court of Lucknow’s ruler Wajid Ali Shah. It has very strong associations with kathak, North India’s main classical dance style, of which the Shah was also a leading exponent. Given this connection between music and dance, thumri rapidly became the mainstay of courtesans and many old song compositions were preserved solely through their efforts.
In a parallel development, a variant of thumri also evolved further east, in the holy city of Benares (now called Varanasi) where greater stress was laid on the emotional interpretation of song texts, hence necessitating a slower-tempo.
Unlike the purely classical forms of Dhrupad and khayal, thumris (whether from Lucknow or Benares) tend to be strongly text-led with words playing a more important part than music. In general, where Indian music is concerned, the more audible the words the less classical the musical form.
Even so, thumris are based on the same ragas (melodic structures) as classical music, although not all of these lend themselves to this text-laden style which makes the same few ragas, usually the more romantic evening ones, reappear frequently. The 'rules' of a raga also tend to be treated more liberally in light classical styles.
The languages of thumri are old North Indian dialects like Purbi and Braj Bhasha, and lyrical themes usually feature love scenarios between the deity Lord Krishna and his consort Radha (or even the love between humans).
These themes unfold almost like mini-operettas and can be roughly divided into the following: the joys of a first love, dressing up for a tryst with the beloved, the pangs of separation compounded by the arrival of the rainy season with its accompaniment of lightning and thunder, jealousy of rivals, and the general coquettishness of a young maiden in love. Typical thumri lyrics may be along the lines of:
“Why don’t you go back to the one you were with last night?”, or:
“The dark clouds gather and without my beloved by my side, the lightning sets my body on fire.”
The lyrics, thought to be written by anonymous male musicians (rather than poets), are nearly always are in the female persona and allude to the many delicately nuanced emotions of a young woman who doesn’t feel entirely secure about her beloved, whether human or divine. Even when the singer is male, the objective is to evoke in listeners these essentially feminine longings.
Apart from being a song form in its own right, thumri is also a generic term for a number of North Indian sub-genres in the light classical vocal category like, dadra (not to be confused with the 6-beat rhythm cycle of the same name,) a song form usually composed of an opening verse in old Hindi followed by independent rhyming couplets in Urdu. Among other sub-genres which fall into the thumri category are songs known as sawan and kajri (both for the rainy season) and chaiti (after chait, the first month of the Hindu calendar).
Although it is a light classical vocal form, many khayal stalwarts have taken to thumri as a way of rounding off a performance. It still remains a popular way to conclude classical concerts, with audiences often making requests for specific well-known thumris.
Listen to the music | UK-based singer Nina Burmi trained under Begum Parveen Sultana, and here uses her smooth three-octave vocal range for a thumri, evoking the sorrow of a lover who is separated from Lord Krishna. Performed live at Darbar Festival 2006.
Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.
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