<img width=”140″ height=”140″ border=0 alt=”” align=”left” hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″ src=/directory/getdata.asp?about_id=ac4cd63d92e48228cd2f90dbb7a9ca77-1> RANGMALLIKA: A Colorful Garden by Rita Sahai with Swapan Chaudhuri on tabla. OSMJ Music, P.O. Box 9598, Berkeley, CA 94709. osmjmusic@aol.com

Thumri occupies a curious place in the hierarchy that relates classical and popular music. The name “Thumri” comes from “Thumakana” which means, “to make a dance like movement,” and the first thumri performers did kathak dance while they sung. Most of these performers were courtesans, and at least part of their goal was to dance and sing in such a way as to make themselves as attractive as possible. Consequently, Thumri’s main goal was to entertain and delight, and it usually evoked the Shringara rasa (joy and love). It was usually written in lighter ragas such as Piloo or Khamaj. The lyrics were as important as the melody, and improvisation was based on those lyrics, rather than on abstract patterns like sargam or taans. One form, called bandish Thumri, usually had no improvisation at all. In many ways, it resembled the American popular song: the music was subservient to the story it told, and the drama enacted by the performer.

No doubt there were many purists who objected to thumri’s blending of music and dance, and its willingness to make music more accessible and entertaining. But there were also many classical musicians who were drawn to it, partly because it gave a freedom to combine notes from other ragas during the improvisations. So thumri became a part of the repertoire of many different kinds of performers, including not only male singers, but even instrumentalists. This resulted in several new forms of thumri, which re-introduced the more complex elements that the first thumri performers had deliberately left out.

Some kinds of thumri now use complex variations on the vowels of the lyrics, resulting in patterns every bit as abstract as the taans and sargam of classical khayal singing. A form called bol banao ki thumri uses slow tempos that set a pensive mood, and ends with the tabla player picking up the tempo, not unlike the jhala of classical music. And the dance movements became either reduced to hand gestures made while sitting, or in most cases were eliminated altogether.

Paradoxically (but understandably) there are contemporary thumri purists who resist this mingling of khayal elements as much as the purists of a hundred and fifty years ago must have resisted the original creation of thumri itself. Some complain that khayal singers treat thumri as a kind of “dessert” to be performed only at the end of a program. And Projesh Banerjee, former manager of the Uday Shankar dance company, has written a book arguing that the dance element is essential to thumri, and that modern performers have harmed its essence by reducing it to only a music form.

Thumri is usually referred to as a light or semi-classical form. But it is light in the sense of being joyous or playful; it is not trivial or shallow. It does have an integrity of its own, which can be harmed in equal amounts by refusing to let it grow in ways that are natural to it, or combining it with alien styles.

Berkeley based Indian classical singer Rita Sahai’s Rangmallika is in many ways a traditional thumri album. The lyrics deal with traditional subject matter that expresses the Shringara rasa. The love play of Krishna with the gopis and his consort Radha is a frequent theme, as is the pious eroticism of the Brindavan festival, in which couples douse each other playfully with powder and water of saffron and vermillion. There are two songs which describe traditional “wet sari scenes,” like those that later became obligatory in Bollywood movies. And the last piece on the album is in dadra tal, which is traditionally the final piece of a thumri concert.

But all of the songs are Sahai’s original compositions (except for one piece written for her by Ali Akbar Khan) and are written in Hindi rather than in the traditional languages of Braj Bhasha, Khari Boli or Urdu. She has also chosen a subtly innovative back-up ensemble. There is a little bit of synthesizer, and one passage in an alap which uses an electronic delay device. All of these new elements work well, although I would have preferred to have less reverb on the overall mix. There are also appearances by Bruce Hamm on sarod and Ravi Teja Bhyravabhetala on bansuri. These are traditional classical instruments, of course, but they are very rarely used to accompany vocalists. Both instrumentalists interact well with Sahai and with each other. Especially noteworthy is Hamm’s eloquent alap on the opening of the piece written by his teacher Ali Akbar Khan.

But of course, the primary feature is the songs themselves, and the beautiful tone with which Sahai sings them. She has deliberately refrained from the more flamboyant ornaments that are often used by khayal singers performing thumri (Although she is a fine khyal singer, being one of the few students to whom Ali Akbar Khan granted the title of Gayan Alankar).

“When I sing thumri, I am always singing the words, so that every note expresses the meaning of the lyrics,” says Sahai. This may make it harder for non-Hindi speakers to appreciate her virtuosity. But the feeling comes through in the dynamic flow of her phrasing, and the pulsing drift of her meends, which capture the sense of a heart caught in the throes of desire and love. And there are just enough explosive flourishes (such as the octave-long sequence of gamak that brings the melody to a halt in “Ranga Bhari Ranga Bhari”) to make whatever points are best expressed with classical technique. So how will the purists react? “When I played the album for {Ali Akbar} Khansahib, he said, briefly but sincerely, that it was good,” said Sahai. “When I heard that, I didn’t care what anyone else would say about it. Personally, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for 15 years with the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.