More than twenty years ago, a hassled mother wanted to attend a concert by Smt. Girija Devi. But she had no idea what to do with her restless three-year old brat. She finally hit upon the solution. There was only one way in which her little daughter could be kept engaged. Food. She took a bag of seedless grapes to the concert, and proceeded to feed the kid. But the little one did not like the skin on the grapes. So the mom actually spent three hours, skinning each grape, and shoving the soft sweet pulp of the grape into the kid's waiting mouth. The little girl was totally occupied, and the mom got to listen to three hours of wonderful music.
If you have not already guessed, the harassed lady was my mom and the brat was, well, yours truly.
Actually I am surprised that my mom had to resort to this to keep me silent, because she tells me that I was a great fan of Girija Devi even then. If my mom hummed or sang as she moved about the house, I would order her to stop, and play a tape of Girija Devi instead.
Well, that was a long long time ago. Yesterday, I listened to Girija Devi again. Live. At the Chowdaiah Memorial Hall, Bangalore. And before you ask, no, this time, I did not need grapes to keep me occupied.
I was a little hesitant at first, to actually go and listen to her sing. I knew that she was far into her seventies. I writhe uncomfortably listening to Lata Mangeshkar, who is around the same age as Girija Devi. Lately, even Asha Bhonsle makes me want to clap my palms on my ears and run for my life. And she is younger. Then how would I be able to sit and listen to this seventy-six year old sing?
[Disclaimer: I am a big fan of both Lata and Asha, and mean no disrespect to them. I have spent many happy hours listening to Lata's unbelievably sweet voice and Asha's tantalizing, versatile music. But they should know when to stop. Or, music directors should stop asking them to sing for them. I have lost count of the number of beautiful songs that would have sounded far better if sung by singers who did not sound like they had marbles stuck in their throats].
Before Girija Devi began, she spoke to the audience in a soft, quavering voice. I was now almost sure that it was going to be an evening of respectful squirming in my seat.
Then she began. The first few notes of the beautiful and plaintive Raag Jog. The hall fell silent. My mouth fell open. Her voice filled the auditorium. Rich. Clear. Vibrant. Resonant. Like the tinkle of a rich brass bell. Effortless. Powerful. She sang like the stage was her domain, and the Raag was her playground. The magic in her voice was undiminished. The lady sitting on the stage was no longer seventy-six years old. The power in her voice belied her age. Her range, her effortless movement from note to note, her absolute ease while singing the high notes, the total command over her voice - it was a captivating performance.
I wished she would never stop. I was hungry and tired and it was very late in the night, but I would have gladly stayed on if she had continued. But everything has to come to an end! At the end, of course, she received a standing ovation, and after the concert, the crowd back-stage was unmanageable. But still, my sister and I pushed through the crowd and paid our respects to her.
One of the pieces she sang was a Thumri, the first line of which goes "Kya Jaadu Dala, Deewana kiye Shyaam" [What magic have you played upon me? You have driven me crazy, O Krishna]. Actually, I could sing that about her. She was the one who wrought magic upon the audience. And how!
May her tribe increase.