Thumri and her sisters, Dadra, Hori and Chaiti
Described by present day researchers like Vidya Rao as the `feminine voice’ of Hindustani music, thumri and its associated forms like dadra, hori and chaiti were till almost mid 20th century linked closely with tawaif or courtesan performers. Written almost always from a woman’s perspective and narrated in the first person, the predominant mood of most of these songs is erotic and romantic, describing the ecstatic passions, sexual longing, pangs of separation, jealousy, anger, flirtation and rejection experienced by woman in love; and the amorous play between lovers, usually, but not always, described as Radha and Krishna.
The virtuosity of a tawaif’s performance or mujra was judged to a great extent by her ability to tease out the differing perspectives and multiple meanings embedded within any given phrase of a thumri and its associated forms. This she would achieve through voice modulation and abhinaya that included dance gestures and facial expressions. The tawaif’s gathering or mehfil allowed for intimate eye contact to be made between the performer and her select audience, all men, some of who might also share a sexual liaison with the singer.
1. Your eyes brim over with charm
Come, dark one, come and I’ll embrace you
I love this thumri as sung by Siddheshwari Devi, the thumri diva from Varanasi. The lyrics give voice to the ‘nayika’ or heroine’s eloquence about the magical draw of her lover’s eyes. Infused with intense sexual longing, this song for me celebrates assertive feminine desire that I find extremely sexy.
2. It’s a deep dark night, my love
Will you stay or leave?
Part of the thumri genre of songs, dadra in its lyrics and rhythm patterns is derived from local folk songs. I love this particular dadra sung by Shobha Gurtu. Saucy in its lyrics, playful in its rendition, this song for me epitomizes sexy. Uninhibited in her invitation to the lover for a night of love making and other indulgences like good food that make for the ‘mazaa’ or pleasure, in life, the nayika of this song comes across as a worldly-wise woman, well versed in the art of seduction. A woman many of us would love to learn a few things from.
3. Drench my bodice with the colour saffron
O’ son of Nanda (Krishna)
An early recording by Begum Akhtar, known in her earlier years as Akhtari Faizabadi, this is a lovely hori - song types performed usually as part of Holi/spring festivities. The lyrics of many hori songs are amatory, celebrating the play of love between usually, but not always, Radha and Krishna. This particular hori is a beautiful example of the wonderful ambiguity that exists within thumri, and its derivative songs like hori, where the erotic and the spiritual coexist, overlap and provide meaning to each other. The metaphor of being drenched by the lover’s colour connotes in Sufi and Bhakti poetry the subsuming of the self in God. The spiritual aspect of the song is however playfully and ever so sensuously counter balanced with the sexually explicit demand of the uninhibited heroine that her lover drench her bodice/breasts with colour.
4. The pearl (from my nose pin) dropped somewhere here
Where should I find it?
This is a beautiful chaiti, or song of the summer, particular to Varanasi and its cultural hinterland. This particular song describes the morning-after search by a newlywed bride, for a pearl. The context is implicit - that the pearl came off from her nose pin during the previous night of ardent love making. It is the unspoken words that provide the sexual undertone to this song, sung beautifully by Nirmala Devi from Varanasi. The lost pearl can also be read as a metaphor for the sexual initiation of the bride and her loss of virginity; an event that the female protagonist is in fact celebrating even while seemingly fretting over the loss. This is languorous, understated, culturally coded sexy.
5. I have lost my head to Shaam (Krishna)
What magic has he spun…
I am losing my head to this evening (sham)
What magic has it cast…
And last but not least, a sexy, sultry dadra by the reigning thumri queen from Varanasi, Girija Devi. Celebrating the state of euphoric madness induced by love and lust this song is a great personal favourite.