A tribute to Purnima Chaudhuri
By Meena Banerjee
At the peak of a busy music career, top-ranking thumri exponent Purnima Chaudhuri breathed her last on 4 March 2013. She had an exceptionally busy season this winter and a number of concerts were lined up across the globe. She was held in high esteem for her music as well as her simple, genuinely affectionate nature.
When sitar maestro Ravi Shankar went to tabla wizard Mahadev Prasad Mishra to persuade him to teach Lakshmi Shankar thumri, Mishra asked him to go to Purnima Chaudhuri, one of his disciples who, according to him, had mastered his style of Purab anga thumri in its pristine form. It was high praise coming from a dhrupad exponent, a wonderful harmonium player, a master of thumri and above all an extremely successful guru who shaped several disciples including veteran tabla maestro Ananda Gopal Bandopadhyay, shehnai players Anantlal and his son Dayashankar, and violinist Dr. N. Rajam.
Benares was then on the world map because of the presence of legends like Ravi Shankar, tabla and shehnai maestros Kishan Maharaj and Bismillah Khan. Purnima was noticed immediately by the local music circle which could hardly boast of newcomers in thumri singing. She won the ‘Top grade’ of Akashvani and was invited for National Programmes of Doordarshan. Very soon she began receiving invitations from prestigious organisations in different parts of the country. Film Director Gautam Ghosh focused his camera for one of his films on this unassuming thumri singer while depicting a floating sit-in on a huge bajra – a typical Benares scene of yore. Rituparno Ghosh used her voice in his hit film Chokher Bali. Purnima Chaudhuri was perhaps the first Bengali who, despite hailing from a conservative family, scaled the peaks of authentic Purab anga thumri gayaki – a genre hitherto dominated by professional singers.
Born on 28 January 1945 at Behrampur in West Bengal, Purnima was the youngest daughter of renowned lawyer Shashanka Shekhar Sanyal. Her passion for music was noticed by her mother who encouraged her to enter the world of the radio station while on a tour of the city of Calcutta in the 1950s. So Purnima stayed back with her law-practitioner elder sister for schooling and to learn classical music from renowned vocalist and guru A. Kanan. She was barely four when her musical journey began. But according to her, she was a late starter, as she was married off at 17! And as usual, a happy marriage meant lots of give and take. Purnima, as a young bride, made Bilaspur (Madhya Pradesh) her home with her husband, caring mother-in-law and two sons. Her first love, music, took a back seat, though at parties they attended. Her husband was a popular harmonica player. Her mother-in-law played the organ and sang Rabindra Sangeet and popular devotional songs. She once asked Purnima what she liked in classical music, which had hardly any lyrics! This was a turning point and Purnima soon learnt some light numbers to please her affectionate in-laws and local listeners. Some devotional numbers thus found a place in her enviable repertoire. But that happened much later when after almost after a decade the family migrated to Benares, the former mecca of thumri and she met Pandit Mahadev Prasad Mishra. By then her boys were grown up enough to let their mother pursue her music with renewed enthusiasm.
This time Purnima ventured to blend intangible classicism with tangible lyrics – and what better genre than the thumri! At the feet of her guru Purnima found a fantastic world of sur-taal-laya and sahitya steeped in the culture of the Hindi heartland of India. By this time she was more than comfortable with Hindi. She took to it like a fish to water and very soon emerged as a thumri exponent who could handle the intricacies of rhythm like no other – not even Girija Devi who became her mentor after the demise of her guru. He had instilled in her the rhythm-encrusted bol-baant ki thumri (melodic divisions of lyrics) inspired by dhrupad-dhamar, laggi (the exciting tailpiece or interlude of light classical genres) and tappa replete with chiselled loop-taans with pin-point accuracy in rhythmic designs.
During the ITC SRA Sangeet Sammelan in 1998, unseasonal heavy rains delayed the schedule. Though Purnima was not so well-known in Calcutta circles, she captivated the listeners who had turned up in large numbers to listen to renowned flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia in the final slot. Purnima’s gayaki reflected the exuberance of her fun-loving persona – so very different from Girija Devi’s slower, peaceful style. This success made her famous and encouraged the Chaudhuris to shift base to Kolkata by 2000. Soon enough Purnima became a most sought-after guru, who took great care in teaching this light classical genre as well as the culture associated with it. She was among the most easily approachable masters of this widely loved melodic form in Bengal. Her mischievous smile invariably lit up her eyes and added a twinkle, infusing indomitable optimism. She would giggle like a small girl at any given opportunity – while grooming her students, even during her stage shows, when she had to turn her face away from her listeners to take puffs to keep her nagging asthma at bay.
Purnima’s disciples looked up to her as their loving aunt, `Pishi’, who would lovingly address their emotional problems. She helped each student flower according to his or her individuality. Her success as a guru was evident when, as a member of the jury of the pan-Indian Purab Anga Gayaki Utsav 2011, I found a cluster of her students climbing the top slot with perceptible ease and winning the prestigious ‘Girija Devi Puraskar’ instituted by the famed VSK Baithaks (Delhi).
Through her organisation ‘Swar Ganga’, she strove to celebrate the seasonal moods with their authentic Banarasi flavour, and the festival of Holi was one such occasion.
Now, Purnima, the full moon of the world of thumris has been eclipsed forever and gone. It is hard to believe that someone as lively and strong-willed as Purnima could have given up on life after a brief tussle with illness. Her sudden demise has left the music fraternity shell-shocked.