Purab Anga Gayaki’s Rise in Bengal

An entire evening dedicated to thumri-dadra and that too by one performer only, is a rare phenomenon in Bengal at present. It is considered as a dessert or digestive after a heavy main course consisting of khayal. Even the Thumri Queen Girija Devi would open with a khayal session, before presenting her inimitable cheezes (items) belonging to Purab Anga Gayaki (PAG). But Shruti, Jadavpur presented ‘Rasotsav’, supported by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and Infosys Foundation, featuring Akashvani’s top-graded khayal and thumri exponent Vidushi Suranjana Bose alone at the Rotary Sadan on 4th March as an exponent of Purab Anga Gayaki.

This gayaki essentially consists of uniquely nuanced thumri-dadra, seasonal and ritualistic songs rendered by legendary musicians of Benares Gharana who made it richer. Later, as their torchbearer, Girija Devi won hearts with her impeccable manners and radiant stage presence along with aesthetically modified lyrics that was gladly accepted by the neo-modern moral values of both, the educated commoner and the elite alike. One such elite is Vinod Kapur.

By chance once in early 1950s, he experienced her music live and fell in love with thumri-dadras. A successful businessman and a resourceful one-man army with an ear for good music, he would organize warm sit-ins at his residence and request almost all Benares based musicians like Rajan Sajan Mishra, Channulal Mishra or even Girija-ji to sing only thumri-dadras; but all claimed ‘Hum to khayal gaate hain’ and would not like to sing only thumris in public.  

An astonished Kapur found out that this prejudice against thumri was due to its past that saw its Golden era at the ‘Kothas’ of Tawayafs (professional singers). Albeit ostracized by the society they were welcome in the mehfils of rich seths and royalties of pre-independent era. As such their art of singing developed a love-hate relationship with even those musicians who learnt it to polish their khayal rendition.

Kapur could not stop as an admirer only; because he could foresee this beautiful art dwindling. There was no one to replace Siddheshwari Devi, Begham Akhtar, Naina Devi or Shobha Gurtu of their generation; and none were coming up to follow the foot prints of Girija Devi either. This prompted him to become a crusader with a special mission of propagating this Purab Anga Gayaki that has such wide ranging stylized categories like thumri, dadra and tappa, seasonal songs like kajri, chaiti, barahmasa, jhula, hori, ritualistic songs like banna, sohar, bidayi, etc. He also decided to nurture this soulful culture of the Ganga-Yamuni region for posterity.

For this, he ventured out and roped in a few learned exponents of this art such as Girija Devi’s extremely erudite prime disciple Manju Sundaram, Purnima Chaudhuri, Rita Ganguly, Shanti Hiranand, Savita Devi and several others. To realise his dreams he conceptualized a pan-Indian talent hunt and give the unearthed talents an exposure in the Purab Anga Gayaki Utsav, which would be held in different metros in India every year, organised by his highly regarded organization VSK Baithak. After the first series of Utsavs, held in Kolkata, Delhi and Benares, Kapur was not surprised at the predominant presence of Bengalis. He found it ‘very natural phenomenon as Bengalis have an inclination to romance with melodic designs; while vocalists of Maharashtra tend to guard the pristine purity of the traditional classicism.’ The sequential Utsavs continued till Girija Devi was alive (2017). By this time it was crystal clear that almost all the awards, instituted by Vinod Kapur as ‘Girija Devi Puraskar’, with categories like Ankurit, Vikasit and Sarvottam Kalakar (budding, flowered and the best artiste) to encourage the talented participants, were bagged by Bengalis, led by Suranjana Bose.

It has been an onerous, enterprising journey for Suranjana, who initially trained in khayal with revered gurus Meera and Prasun Banerjee of the energetic Patiala Gharana. After the sad demise of her gurus, for decades she continued to learn at the feet of Girija Devi and imbibed her delicately nuanced style of exploring thumri-dadras. During the first Utsav in 2011 this senior disciple of Girija Devi participated and won the Sarvottam Kalakar award. Unfortunately, Girija Devi left for her eternal journey in 1917. The other very sincere and successful Kolkata-based guru, Purnima Chaudhuri was no more either.

Keen seekers for more taaleem, almost all their disciples were rudderless till Kapur’s new concept ‘Project Purab Anga Gayaki’ became effective by mid-2018. With his focus on Kolkata, he suggested each of them to travel down to a few agreeable gurus of this gayaki, already earmarked and convinced by him, and learn sincerely till they prove their mettle as the worthy torchbearers of their mentors and earn respect as the exponents of Purab Anga Gayaki sans the crutches of khayal. He also assured financial support by offering suitable honorarium to the gurus and reasonable stipend and traveling allowance to the students.

This opened the floodgates of learning and several brilliant PAGU participants, including Suranjana, started visiting Benares to get acquainted with the inner soul of Purab Anga Gayaki and the culture behind it under the guidance of Manju Sundaram who had chosen a life of recluse despite her grip on several languages like English, Sanskrit, Hindi and its dialects along with her boundless knowledge in music, literature, musicology, spirituality to name a few. With exemplary love of a mother and patient generosity of a guru, she literally adopted them all and encouraged them to reinvent the Gayaki.

‘Rasotsav’, the fountainhead of this heartwarming retrospection, proved that Suranjana, apparently, worked hard to reinvent and reorganize her emotive style even during the pandemic-induced long gap. She commenced the first half of her solo journey with an invocation of Goddess Saraswati, composed by Manju-ji and supported by her renowned co-artistes, harmonium wizard Gourab Chatterjee and sarangi maestro Allarakha Kalawant. The latter created the mood with a soulful Khamaj aochar before Suranjana delved in the depths of her chosen piece – ‘Aj ki raat na jawo’, a thumri soaked in earnest plea to stop the beloved from going away.  Tabla virtuoso Soumen Sarkar joined in unobtrusively with slow jat.

The melodic improvisations of the lyrics glimmered with multi-dimensional connotations. She handled the aesthetic balance between ‘Mano mori batiyan’ and ‘na jawo’ with extremely sensitive intonation – an art that develops with the familiarity with the culture and literature of the land of its origin. This is the secret that had been eluding Bengali khayal and thumri singers ever since these genres were introduced here. Aware of this drawback, Suranjana’s Guruma explained the real import of the lyrics. Its beautifully transliterated English version was written and read out by Dr Shikharini Majumdar. This helped many to enjoy themselves better.

It was a treat to listen to the harmonium singing Kirwani and Suanjana, through her innovations, narrating the heart-wrenching story of lovelorn lass in a dadra. She also sang another dadra (Pi ke nain, Desh, Addha) followed by two kajris that included Jhiri-jhiri barase, composed by Girija Devi.

With Sudhir Ghorai on the tabla, in the second half Suranjana ventured to interpret a Pilu based Hori thumri set to dipchandi tala. The tempo could have been faster to induce the spirit of Holi. Same goes with the chaity wherein Suranjana, instead of following, could ride the beats of chanchar (fast dipchandi). She regained her composure in her soulful Bhairavi dadra and brought her recital to an impressive end. One can hope that the journey of Project: Purab Anga Gayaki will fulfill the dreams of its original campaigner Vinod Kapur – an inspiration for many other bigwigs!