Folk singer Malini Awasthi, one of the desciples of Padma awardee Girija Devi, speaks on her guru and her musical journey.
On the eve of Padma Vibhushan Girija Devi’s birth anniversary (May 8th), her most popular representative musically, Malini Awasthi was in a reminiscent mood. “Appaji” as she was universally known, was indeed an extraordinary musician, and human being. Everyone who came into contact with her could not help but be effected by her warmth as well as her music. She gave “thumri” a respectability that its women exponents had not enjoyed before, and today has a host of disciples carrying forward her musical legacy.
Malini Awasthi is one of her senior disciples, having learnt from her for more than 20 years. In her words, “Appaji was more than a mother to me”. During our interaction, Malini tried to converse on a host of issues, but kept being pulled back, as though by an invisible string, into talking about her Guru. Some excerpts:
Tell us about your journey in music:
Originally I learnt from Ustad Shujaat Hussain Khan, grandson of Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan of Rampur, when he was in Gorakhpur. He was a very learned man, a real Ustad. I then moved as my father got posted away, to Lucknow. There, I started learning from my second Guru Ustad Rahat Ali Khan of Patiala gharana. Though his music was essentially in the Patiala style, having lived in Lucknow all his life, his aesthetic had that “Lucknowi” finesse. There were touches of “Purabi” (Eastern, Banarasi influence) in his music. My third and last Guru was of course Appaji (Girija Devi) from whom I started learning when I moved to Banaras with my husband.
I had a direct consecutive interaction with her for 20 years but even before that, in around 1972-73 I heard her sing at the Vindhyachali Mandir, and was very drawn to her since then. She had offered to teach me in 1988 when she heard me sing at the Bhatkhande Jayanti in Lucknow, but then I was to get married and she endorsed that and said yes marriage is very important, don’t postpone it to start learning from me. Life took a different turn for me after marriage – I travelled all over with my husband and children. But I continued to sing and perform and was in touch with Appaji throughout my life.
When my husband got posted to Banaras I realized life was giving me another chance to learn – even my husband told me you missed that bus in Lucknow, don’t miss this one now!! So I started learning formally and regularly from Appaji in Banaras.
When I think of it, all my three Gurus really were Sufis in temperament. They were truly angelic personalities. “Sacha sur sache insaan mein se nikalta hai” was true in these three cases (true pure notes came from true pure artists).
Surely it was difficult absorbing two different styles of singing thumri, Punjab and “Purab ang” (Banarasi)?
I’ll tell you – when I started learning from Appaji, she asked me to sing a thumri. I sang what I had learnt in the Patiala gharana tradition. She said Banaras “thumri” has to have a lot of “chain” and “sukoon” (calm and peacefulness); for you to pick this up now at this late stage, when you are already a trained singer, I don’t know if it’s possible. I clutched her feet and said I will be a clean slate, try me, and that’s how it started.
I find it fascinating that the “purab ang gayaki” went to the Punjab and “thumri” was adapted there, and yet the “tappa” (a jerky, fast paced genre) from Punjab is today so much a part of every “purab ang thumri” singer. Genres influence each other. Look at Begum Akhtar; she literally made a distinct gharana or style of her own in Lucknow “thumri”, despite having learnt from an Ustad of the Punjab.
So, who are your idols in the world of thumri?
I have three idols in the “thumri” world – Appaji, Rasoolan Bai for her “pukaar” and Sidheshwari Devi as she was really an all rounder, “unhone kuch chora hee nahin”!! (She left no genre of music, and mastered them all). Two artists who never copied another and who really were individualistic singers - Begum Akhtar and Nirmala Devi. Bhimsen ji (Bharat Ratna Pt Bhimsen Joshi) I feel was another “kamaal ka” (wonderful) “thumri” singer.
Of course it was Appaji who truly changed the perception of people about “thumri” singers due to her unique personality.
Thumri is clearly your forte, yet you are equally known for your folk songs. How is this?
I have often been asked why I stick to my tag of folk; it is considered a lower genre of music. But the more people sneered the more I was determined to carry on and despite being a trained singer in the classical mode I never tried to hide behind the classical singer tag and have been proud to be known as a folk singer. All music has evolved from the folk tradition, and I am not ashamed of the fact that I am sing folk music. For me music is music – I sing “thumri”, a folk song, “Ram janam katha” – whatever you sing should be authentic that’s all.
The folk songs of regions like Punjab and Himachal should be promoted too; I personally find there are so many dialects within even just UP that are neglected which I would like to focus on. There are 5 dialects in Uttar Pradesh- Awadhi, Kashika, Bundeli, Braj and Bhojpuri. To present their compositions is in itself a big task!
I remember how Appaji, even at her age would lovingly ferret out compositions for me from whoever she met, who had unknown songs. She wanted to constantly learn; she would note down the composition and give it to me to sing! “Suraj sab ke liye chamakta hai, alag jagah alag leeya jaata hai” (the sun shines equally all over; certain places are able to receive more sunlight than others) A Guru is like that – she gives her all to everyone; it depends on you as a disciple how much you can take. Appaji was such a strong lady, a real fighter. I can go on and on about her, she had and has such an influence on me!!
When did you speak to her last?
I remember talking to her about 5-6 days before her death – as usual she asked about every member of my family before chatting. She was like that; she connected with one at every level, not just at the level of music. It was the same with everyone she interacted with. She survived in the music world, at a time when women singers were looked down upon; she must have endured a lot but she never spoke of it. She never criticized anyone ever; in all the years I knew her. She was a person without artifice – she was what she was, whether on stage or at home. Appa was a very open pure person with nothing to hide. Her honesty as person transmitted into her art, permeated into her stature as a teacher and Guru. My mother died of cancer 11 years ago, and really Appaji has been more than my mother since then.
After Appa’s death, I still feel her presence – I have felt her praising me with her typical “bah bah” when I sang a “thumri” in Raga Jogiya that she had taught me, at a recent concert in Ludhiana, and again at the Sankat Mochan festival in Banaras last month. This time at Saptak, (in Ahmedabad) where she unfailingly sang every year, all the seniors said I reminded them of her so I feel the responsibility on me after her going is even greater. I truly feel I owe it to her memory to give my very best. I got my Padma Shri the same year as she got her Padma Vibhushan; she truly gave me a second life. I was like a toddler in music terms when I started learning from her, even though I had for years been a concert musician. Truly, what one witnessed here, was a connection between Guru and shishya that transcended death!