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Journey of Thumri from Lucknow to Calcutta

Credits : Originally : A Prelude of Thumri in Calcutta (Chapter from : Pearl by the River) – by Sudipta Mitra

Volume: 11, No: 07 ; July-2017

The dulcet notes of a song resonated across the long corridor of the Durbar Hall in Metiyaburj. The floor, covered with decorative carpets and enveloped in white linen or chandni, was graced by the assemble musician. Large mirrors and crystal and chandeliers added to the aura and reflected the admirer gathered in the Hall. The sound of ghunghurus was reverberating the alleyways of the palace. The ambience of was reminiscent of the lost glory of Lucknow. A Bengali bhadralok stepped down from a buggy and sauntered down the hallway of the durbar. He was cordially greeted by Wajid Ali Shah and seated next to him.



Raja Sourinder Mohan Tagore (1840-1914) was one of the greatest connoisseurs  of music of the time. Raja Sahib had travelled all the way from Pathuriaghata to Metiyaburj to enjoy the quintessence of Lucknowi Thumri. The music genre was not unknown to him, but yet the thumri that was sung in the Durbar of Metiyaburj had an Unique distinction. Raja Sourinder Mohan Tagore had a perfect understanding of the Hindu musical genre that had won him laurel from all corner of the world. But thumri held place of pride in his heart, especially when the King’s own composition were sung in the Durbar. With this, the story of an exotic and highly mellifluous musical genre started to unfold under banks of the Hooghly.

Wajid Ali Shah’s most popular thumris are those that are the saddest yet sweetest of parting songs. In the durbar of Metiyaburj, the badshah sang his own songs with great devotion and patriotism. Whilst singing, he would be in a state of joyous ecstasy, transported back to his beloved Lucknow, both in body and soul. He would sit quietly for a moment and tears would trickle down to his face. Thus, he lamented,

“All this time I was in a dreamland as though transported by unknown hands to my Kaisarbagh Baradari. Ah, what I have left behind! Now only the sweet memories lingr”.

The Durbar Hall of Metiyaburj would be brimming with eminent musician and music personalities of Calcutta who had assembled to cherish the archetypical style of Lucknowi thumri and kathak dance composed by Wajid Ali Shah. The Jadunath Bhattacharya (1834-80) popularly known as Jadu Bhatta, and Aghore Nath Chakravarty, were great admirers of Badshah’s Durbari thumri at Metiyaburj. Pandit Jadu Bhatta was also the music –guru of Ravindranath Tagore and a resident of Thakurbari at Jorasanko for some time. He sang dhrupad in the durbar of Metiyaburj and accompanied by the notable Pukhwaji Keshab Chandra Mitra.

Among several other musician of Calcutta who came to visit Metiyaburj. Murad Ali Khan was one.  The renowned North Indian dhrupadiya of Tilwandi gharana was a long time resident of Calcutta. Murad Ali was one of the very few singers who were  given the right to sing the Deepak rag in the durbar. It is said that he was a court musician of Wajid Ali Shah’s in Metiyaburj for a while and left the durbar during the Badshah’s lifetime. He was also the music guru of Aghore Nath Chakravarty.

The Badshah continued his Bhairavi thumri in bol banao style: 

Babul mora naihar chuuto hi jaaye,

chaar kahaar mil, mori doliiyaa uthaaye,

 more apanaa begana chhuto hi jaaye, 

anganaa to parbat bhaye, dehlii bhayi bides,

 je baabul ghar aapano, mai chali piya ke des. 

Meaning- O father; I depart reluctantly from my home.  Four men gathered to lift my palanquin and my loved ones will become strangers. The innermost portals of my home will be unreachable as I leave my father’s home and go to my husband’s country. 

This immortal piece enthralled not only the honourable guests of Metiyaburj, but continues to enliven the hearts of millions of listeners even today. Hidden in these lines is an esoteric allegory of a desolate heart after he is separated from his homeland and banished from his kingdom. The four bearers of the palanquin (‘chaar kahaar mil, mori doliiyaa uthaaye’) are symbolic of the four bearers of his coffin. The Badshah might have been contemplating to end his life in self-exile and thus his song had taken him away from all mores of life. However, it was his passion for music that incited him to keep his sweet memories of Lucknow alive. Soon, Metiyaburj, his kingdom-inexile, blossomed as a centre of classical vocal and instrumental music, where a large number of musicians from northern India Would congregate. 

Initially referred to as a raga rather than a genre, thumri in the latter form is believed to have originated in the court of Lucknow under Wajid Ali Shah. The common theme that runs through most of his durbari thumri is ‘separation’. Although some texts epitomized the heavenly joy of lovemaking, it was eclipsed by the pangs of departure. While the throne of Delhi was losing its lustre by middle of the eighteenth century, Lucknow was emerging as a political, economic and cultural centre of northern India. Lucknow was gifted with an elite class that had both the taste and wealth to patronize innumerable courtesans and musicians that had migrated from Delhi. The Lucknow tawaifs were diligently trained in classical music and were exalted as eminent exponents of classical art. But unlike the Mughal penchant for classical music, the Lucknowi durbar tended to renounce the demanding dhrupads and kheyal for the lighter and more adaptable thumri and ghazal.

In the two decades preceding the great revolt of 1857, thumri reached its apogee of popularity in Lucknow court. Thumri in combination with kathak made its debut in the court of Wajid Ali Shah and remained enmeshed in the kothas of the Lucknowi tawaifs till mid-nineteenth century. While Wajid Ali Shah is ascribed as the father of present-day genre of thumri, it was his courtier Sadiq Ali Khan who was the single most important figure to develop Lucknow gharana of thumri. Sadiq Ali Khan was trained in kheyal and was one of the very few masters whose name is associated with the transformation of thumri from kheyal. Chroniclers believe that it was he who refined and introduced the bandish thumri in Lucknow. Believed to be a centenarian, Sadiq Ali Khan had many renowned disciples including the Badshah himself as well as Bindadin Maharaj, Qadr  Piya and some distinguished tawaifs like Haidar Jan and Najma.

Thumris were traditionally composed in Braj Bhasa, or the dialect of Agra-Mathura region of North India, which was closely associated with the devotion of Lord Krishna. Some were composed in Khari Boli and a few in Urdu. Incorporating Urdu vocabulary in some of the compositions is indicative of the region’s desire to adapt to Muslim taste. Wajid Ali Shah was an adept composer of light classical thumri under his pen name, Akhtar Piya. The King composed his thumris in Braj Bhasha and some in Urdu as well. Together with Bindadin Maharaj, Wajid Ali composed melodies of light classical thumris to blend with kathak. Dadra also emerged along with thumri in the court of Wajid Ali Shah. Dadra, a genre of light classical Hindustani music, resembles thumri in many aspects and gave much more freedom to the artists. The text that dealt with love and passion was originally sung in Dadra tal (rhythm) in the King’s court. Another important thematic form of thumri was one that was composed to celebrate the vernal festival of Holi. The deposed king was a secularist and his compositions of thumri crossed the narrow boundaries of religious chauvinism. Based on the sensuality of Krishna-cult, Wajid Ali’s lyrics comprised several names of Hindu avatars such as Hari, Radha and Jugal Kishore.

A much lighter classical music-genre called ghazal had flourished in the court of Lucknow during the heyday of Wajid Ali Shah. The Badshah was passionate about Urdu poetry and composed some immortal ghazals, which are sung even today. Ghazal, a Muslim oriented semi-classical genre, lay outside the tradition of Sanskrit-based musical themes. The efflorescence of Lucknow culture played an important role in bolstering the more adaptable ghazals and thumris than the austere dhrupad and kheyal. The famous Urdu poet and composer of some evergreen ghazals-Amir Meenai (1826-1900) served in the court of Wajid Ali Shah for five years till the mutiny broke out.

Chroniclers narrate that Wajid Ali Shah brought with him a bevy of gifted musicians in his mimic capital of Metiyaburj. However, no authentic record is available to testify that the great maestros of Awadh had settled in Calcutta along with the deposed king. The connoisseurs either stayed back in Lucknow or migrated to enrich the durbars of other princely states. Calcutta was never considered productive by the genius players before the beginning of the Nawabi era.

Unlike classical dance, Bengal had perceived the taste of classical music long before Wajid Ali Shah’s arrival. A dhrupad Style of Bengali classical music made its debut in the court of Malla King Raghunath Singha II of Bishnupur in Bankura district between 1702 to 1712, after he brought in Ustad Bahadur Khan Se’nia and his pukhwaj player Peer Baux, from Delhi on a very high remuneration.Bahadur Khan, a descendent of Tansen’s lineage developed the famous and the only classical genre in Bengal, the Bishnupur gharana.

Pandit Jadhunath Bhattacharya (alias jadu Bhatta) the distinguished musician who also attended the court of Metiyaburj, was a dhrupadiya of Bishnupur Gharana. Although dhrupad started losing ground to kheyal in North India from eighteenth century onwards, the metamorphosis happened much later in Bishnupur. Aghore Nath Chakravarty of Bishnupur gharana and a celebrity in Metiyaburj durbar experimented with Bishnupuri kheyal. Wajid Ali Shah got a flavour of Bishnupuri gharana when these guests visited his durbar in Metiyaburj and sung in their own style.

Wajid Ali Shah’s presence led to the decision of innumerable musicians to migrate to Calcutta. It was then that Bengal got the taste of a distinguished North Indian semi-classical gharana. The Badshah brought with him to Calcutta his thumri along with his nautch girls and musicians who could create magic on their instruments. Thumri as a genre soon percolated down from the zamindars to the womenfolk of the city’s bordellos. Chitpore was one such area where the courtesans followed the lifestyle of Lucknowi tawaifs. A new generation of talented musicians was born who further refined the thumris. Lucknow never encouraged pure classical music; rather it bolstered a variety of light classical styles and made them popular throughout the country. The musical culture of Bengal preferred the lighter style of thumri to the abstruse kheyal and dhrupad. In Calcutta, similar to Lucknow, thumri went concurrently with kathak.

 When Wajid Ali Shah came from Lucknow to settle in Calcutta, the babu culture was already tuned to accept the brilliance of his thumris. Wajid Ali Shah aroused much interest amongst the elite in Calcutta to whom the grandeur of Lucknowi thumri was net unknown. Rather, the influence of Lucknowi thumri was so strong in Calcutta that classical music was completely swamped and replaced by light classical style after 1860. The King composed several raginis under his pseudonym Akhtar Piya and named them Jogi, Juhi and Shah pasand, the last meaning ‘favourite of the king’ and charmed his audiences who were hitherto alien to him.

Although some of the most mellifluous ghazals were composed by the King for his books Diwani-Akhtar and Huzn-e-Akhtari in Calcutta, the Muslim oriented genre of music was not enjoyed by the Hindu dominated Bengali bhadralok society. The amicable cultural interaction between the two religions, Which was a distinctive feature in Lucknow was somewhat missing in Calcutta. Calcutta which was greatly swayed by the egos of Hinduism, unlike Lucknow, looked down on ghazals as a product of Islamic culture The new style of North Indian majlishi music found no place in the heart of Bengali elite. Traditionally, ghazals are poetic expressions of the pangs of separation and loss. Wajid Ali’s own ghazals were full of pain and pathos reflecting his grief-laden heart. But Urdu and Persian lyrics baffled the people of Calcutta’s music circle and in the durbar of Metiyaburj too.

Before the advent of thumri in Calcutta, another semi-classical form of North Indian music called tappa found its Way from Lucknow into the heart of Bengali music lovers, Tappa is said to have developed in the court of Asaf-ud-Daulla from popular folk songs of camel riders in Punjab and Sindh and the credit for it goes to Asaf-ud-Daulla’s court singer Shori Mian (1742-92). Wajid Ali Shah’s penchant for tappa is not very evident, although scholars believe that during his time kheyal Was sung in tappa style and a new sub genre called tappa-kheyal was developed by him.

According to some authors, Imam Bandi, the famous tappa singer of Benaras, spent many years in Metiyaburj. She trained a number of students including her son Ramzan Khan and Nagendra Nath Bhattacharya. Ramzan Khan became a famous singer of tappa-kheyal style, who stayed in Calcutta till his death.

A large number of composers from Delhi and Lucknow had dissociated themselves from their erstwhile Muslim supporters and migrated to Calcutta in early nineteenth century. Now they thrived under the lavish tutelage of Hindu bhadraloks despite the presence of a decent Muslim population in Calcutta. The deposed king was poised to be the leader who prodded the budding Muslim gentry of Calcutta to patronize great performers of music.

Though the King was accompanied by a bevy of adept musicians, his hunt for talent never stopped in Calcutta. Sharar once narrated an incident when Wajid Ali became restless to meet one Dhunni Khan, a famous singer in Calcutta. Dhunni was performing in a majlis at Metiyaburj in the house of a noble and his melodious voice reached the ears of the banished King. Dhunni Khan obliged to sing before the court, but after hearing his songs the King commented, ‘He has a good voice but does not know music. The King therefore rejected him and Dhunni Khan found no place in his court.

The quest for talent went on till his last days. Near the end of his life the King gave refuge to a twenty-six-year-old jewish Armenian lady, who had come to seek fortune in Calcutta from Benaras. Malka Jaan, as she was called, had her training in music under Kalloo Ustad and had learnt dance from Ali Baksh of Lucknow. Her original name was Victoria Hemmings who later embraced Islam and renamed herself as Malka jaan. Malka was known for her stunning beauty cloaked in white skin, personal appeal and excellent skill in Hindustani classical music. When she was invited to perform at Qasr ul Baiza in Metiyaburj, the tawaif enthralled the Badshah by singing two of his own thumris. A wave of emotion rippled through the court and an overwhelmed King was struck with nostalgia. The long cherished dream of Malka Jaan of Azamgar to establish herself in the court of Wajid Ali Shah was realized. She was appointed the court singer and her illustrious musical career started to bloom. Malka Jaan settled in Calcutta in 1883 with her ten-year-old-daughter, Angelina Yeoward alias Gauhar. Malka Jaan was a gifted poetess. Her Urdu verses were complied as Makhzan-e-Ulfat-e-Mallika and published in Calcutta in 1886. Malka bought a house at Chitpore where she lived for the rest of her life. Gauhar was brought up in the cultural milieu of Chitpore. She would often lurk in a corner of Wajid Ali Shah’s durbar to watch her mother perform. Gauhar was exposed to North Indian classical gharanas in Metiyaburj. Gauhar blossomed as the iconic Gauhar jaan and became the first Indian artist to press a gramophone record in 1902.

The kheyal exponent Ali Baksh was employed in the durbar of Metiyaburj, but the exact year of his arrival in Calcutta is not known. Ali Baksh stayed in Metiyaburj while the King was alive and afterwards he spent some years in the Barabazaar area of Calcutta and finally went back to Gwalior. The only Bengali student he had in Metiyaburj was Pandit Bamacharan Bandhopadhyay who eventually became a legendary kheyal singer in Bengal. Ali Baksh’s blessings on his favourite student gave him an opportunity to sing kheyal raag Bhopali before Wajid Ali Shah. The King’s commendation in the durbar was indeed the lifetime recognition for Bamacharan in his music career.

Abdul Halim Sharar in his commentary mentions the names of Ahmed Khan, Taj Khan and Ghulam Hussain Khan as distinguished singers in the court of Metiyaburj. Ahmed Khan was an exponent of kheyal and tappa in Lucknow who came to Calcutta after the King was deposed. But how long he stayed in Metiyaburj is not known. Ahmed Khan had many Bengali students of whom Benimadhab Adhikari, alias Beni Ustad, was the most eminent. Pandit Bamacharan Bandhopadhyay also took training under Ahmed Khan for some days in Metiyaburj.

Little is known about Ustad Taj Khan, except that he was a dhrupad and kheyal singer of Senia lineage in the court of Lucknow and came to Metiyaburj with the King. Afterwards, he left Calcutta and joined the royal court of Nepal. Bamacharan Bandhopadhyay came in contact with Taj Khan during his stay in Calcutta. There is hardly any information available on Ghulam Hussain in the music circle of Bengal.

A host of North Indian musicians were engaged in the durbar of Metiyaburj though their names are not known. However, some of them can be traced from the oral tradition of Bengal and the memoirs of many distinguished Bengali musicians who spent their student years in Metiyaburj.

The debut of Lucknowi thumri in Calcutta by Wajid Ali Shah triggered a spurt of creativity in the sphere of Hindustani classical music of Bengal. Soon Calcutta emerged as an edifying hub of classical music in India and for this the credit goes to the King. Wajid Ali was not only a benevolent patron of music but was himself a gifted composer. His experiment with Hindustani music opened a new horizon in the history of semi-classical genre. But his reputation did not remain unblemished. While the popularity of thumri was widely attributed to the munificent support of Wajid Ali Shah, his ardent generosity could not escape the criticism of one of his contemporary writers Ustad Asadullah Kaukab. Kaukab, a renowned Sarodia and musicologist of his age who stayed in Metiyaburj wrote:

“Wajid Ali was a master at the art and possessed the knowledge of an expert but cannot escape the criticism that it was his conventional and cheap tastes that made the music of Lucknow frivolous and easily understood by all. In accordance with popular tastes even the most discriminating singers omitted difficult techniques and based their music on light, simple and attractive tunes which could be appreciated by everyone… During the reign of Wajid Ali Shah there was a large number of musical experts in Lucknow, but the singers which had influence at court and received royal titles, were not among the most adept… There was much talk of music at the time of Wajid Ali Shah, but the art had fallen from favour and only the commonplace aspects were in vogue. In Lucknow, Kadar Piya (one of the pseudonym of Wajid Ali) composed Thumris, which became popular with the masses with the result that music was cheapened. Most music lovers lost interest in the classical forms of ragas and raginis and began to enjoy Kadar Piya’s Thumris.”

The criticism was undoubtedly idiosyncratic and unfortunate. Asadullah Kaukab, a keen observer of Hindustani gharanas of fine arts since the beginning of his career, was puritanical in his views. The King’s innovation was therefore frowned upon Probably he was right in his own wisdom. Yet, the King’s generosity in developing a variety of light classical styles explicitly whetted the appetite of the Bengali intelligentsia.

Credits : Originally : A Prelude of Thumri in Calcutta (Chapter from : Pearl by the River) – by Sudipta Mitra


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