This past Saturday I had the wonderful opportunity to hear my dear friend Vidya perform some thumri’s. I was recently introduced to this genre of music and am so inspired by Vidya that I have started learning a Meera thumri myself! As much as I am into nondual thought the play of bakti in devotional music makes my heart sing in ways I just cannot articulate. Below is an article about her from the Hindu five years back.
Wearing skills with grace

For singer Vidya Rao, thumris speak of the pain of existence and eternal truth. This versatile disciple of Naina Devi tells GOWRI RAMNARAYAN that her life is in music.

SHE HAS years of experience as an editor at Orient Longman, New Delhi, working on books and monographs (social sciences). She has collected data from villages while on the research faculty at the Administrative Staff Training College, Hyderabad. With a Ford Foundation fellowship, she explored “Gender in Musical Form”, focussing on the thumri, and accompanied her guru Naina Devi on the stage before becoming a performer in her own right. Her biography of Naina Devi is slated for release this year. She has composed music for contemporary theatre.

Vidya Rao wears her skills with grace. Ask for details about family (her mother is principal, Vidyaranya School, Hyderabad), schooling (Rishi Valley), or memories of the musical scene in Hyderabad, her hands put up walls and curtains. “My life is in the music,” is her convincing cliche. Eventually we learn of her attachment to B. N. Datta who “made me understand what music is all about. Something fell into place then.” She managed her course at the Delhi School of Economics and subsequent jobs along with training in classical music. “Whatever I did, I did so that I could learn music.”

How did she decide to concentrate on thumri singing, a genre paradoxically dismissed both as `light’ and `too complex’? “As a child I had instinctively liked thumris but thought they were beyond my reach. Later I sensed that they spoke of the pain of existence which is our greatest joy and the eternal truth.”

When Datta died, Rao was coping with difficulties in her life. Exploring gender-related issues at the Human Studies Research Centre, New Delhi, “I became interested in the situation of women as artistes. And Naina Devi invaded my life.”

Born Nilina Sen, and granddaughter to the famous reformist Keshabchandra Sen, Naina Devi had returned to singing after widowhood, with a new name that suggested an old tradition. Says Rao, “She was a generous teacher. There were times when she would call me and say, come at once, I’ve remembered a cheez.”

The bonds grew stronger as Rao travelled with the guru, supporting her on voice and tanpura. At 36, when Rao sought permission to perform, the teacher said, “Of course, this is why we learn.”

At Naina Devi’s suggestion, Rao has confined herself to singing only the thumri and related genres like dadra, tappa, chaiti, jhoola and ghazal. Rao soon discovered more about the remarkably subtle and indirect ways in which the courtesan singers had subverted these genres to express themselves, their lives, their world. Nor did she see research and practice as different, both helped her to look reflexively at text, music and meaning. Some findings were recorded in journals, like `Seeing Radha, Being Radha’ in `Researching Indian Women’, anthologised by Dr. Vijay Nagaswami. Rao’s own generation had sung thumri and dadra as tail pieces, but she notes how younger singers are once again becoming specialists like the practitioners in the past.

Continuing her music after Naina Devi’s death with Pandit Mani Prasad and Shanti Hiranand, Rao has also been fired by the excitement of the theatre. “Basically, because (theatre director) Anuradha (Kapur) is such a good friend. In music you are always alone, even when you have accompanists. The tensions and energies of working with a large team is what I find fascinating about the theatre. I look at the text, come up with something, I see the actor’s face, I change the tune…it’s great fun!”

The fact that Kapur is open to a non-literal score made rich combinations possible in “Umrao”, “Navlakha” or “Sundari”.

At her recital for the Amir Khusro Sangeet Academy in Chennai, ably assisted by Janaki Rajagopalan (harmonium) and Rajesh Dhavale (tabla), Vidya Rao prefaced each song — thumri, dadra, bhajan and jhoola, with explanations that mingled scholarship with feeling. It was an audio-visual performance, Rao’s bhav and mudras recreating the varying moods as much as her vocal modulations did. Ask her how she sheds her offstage inhibitions onstage and she twinkles, “I am upheld by the music!”

Finally, Rao talks about meeting a traditional painter in Mithila who narrated the stories of each painting she unscrolled. “The last picture had a tree teeming with life. `What is this?’ I asked. After a long pause she answered, `Leaves, shoots, fruits, flowers, buds, squirrels, monkeys, peacocks, parrots, mynahs, doves, snakes, butterflies… All waiting for Krishna.’ I saw that this was life, it was music, it was thumri…”