Thumri: An Introduction to the light classical of India

While not many young Indians are aware of this vocal genre or style of Indian music, I and my sister were introduced to this “North India’s most popular light-classical song form”, at a very young age. One reason being my parents’ admiration for classical music and another reason for us being students of ‘Kathak’. We both grew up listening to the famous Girija Devi and Shobha Gurtu (India’s unchallenged Queens Of Thumri) almost every morning, and later got introduced to many more Thumri artists in our Kathak classes.

While going through the old cassettes collection of my parents, I was fascinated to write this article.

Thumri developed during the 19th century at the court of Lucknow’s ruler Wajid Ali Shah. At that time it used to be a song sung by courtesans accompanied by dance.

Also it is said to be originated from the songs of Northern Indian folks, specifically from the region between Ganga-Yamuna Rivers.

That was the ‘bandish ki thumri’ or ‘bol bant ki thumri’. When this style of thumri went out of vogue, a new style became more popular, which is known as ‘bol banao’, sung in Varanasi. In contrast to Indian Classical Music, Thumri elaborates on the bhava (the emotional content) while the other elaborates on the raga. The term “Thumri” is derived from the Hindi verb thumakna, which means “to walk with dancing steps so as to make the ankle-bells tinkle.” 

Thumri also has a very strong association with kathak, North India’s main classical dance style, of which the Shah was also a leading exponent.

This North Indian vocal includes folk or semi-classical or light classical styles, as they often do not adhere to the rigorous rules of classical music. Its text is romantic or devotional in nature and mostly the main character in the lyrics is a woman who is in love, and the illustration differs throughout the song with reference to the age, social status, etc. The lyrics are usually in Uttar Pradesh dialects of Hindi called Awadhi and Brij Bhasha. Thumri is characterized by its sensuality, and by a greater flexibility with the raga.

Types of Thumri:

  • Bandish Thumri: In this pattern of thumri, the composition has high musical value. Here, the text is longer having a literary charm, and the composition may be in a raaga and the rendering restricted to it. Kathakars are better reputed to know this type of thumri. This type is practiced less frequently nowadays. The reason for this appears to be the fact that bhajan, Gita, pada, and other such fares, called light music, offer nearly everything that a Bandish Thumri may have to offer musically.

  • Bol Banao Thumri: It is known as artha-bhava. Artha means meaning and bhava means emotions. The bol-banao thumri is performed at a much slower tempo than the bandish thumri. In the choreographic context, this form was appropriate for dance formats devoid of fast or intricate footwork. By the early twentieth century, it stabilized at a rendition tempo approximately twice the beat-density of the contemporary bada khayal.


Some of the most commonly used ragas are Pilu, Kafi, Khamaj, Gara, Tilak Kamod, and Bhairavi. The compositions are usually set to kaherava taal of 8 beats, addha tal of 16 beats, dipchandi of 14 beats or jat of 16 beats, and in dadra tal of 6 beats.

There are mainly two Gharanas(styles) of Thumri : “Lucknowi and Banarasi” 

To elaborate on the difference between the two Gharanas :

  • While the preferred language for both was Braj bhasha, the Lucknow thumri incorporated the 19th-century dialects spoken in and around the region: like a blend of Braj and Avadhi with a smattering of Urdu terms.
  • On the other hand, Banarasi thumri extends its reach to include Braj, Avadhi, Magahi(Magadhi), and Bhojpuri.
  • While Lucknowi thumri shows marked influence of Kathak, ghazal, and tappa, the Banarasi thumri variety seems more inclined towards adapting melodies from the folk repertoire of kajri, chaiti, and jhoomar.
  • Lucknowi thumri illustrates the impact of the courtly culture of the Nawabs of Avadh, while Banarasi thumri uses elements from folk culture.

Shobha Gurtu is called “The Thumri Queen”. She was honored with the Padma Bhushan in 2002

“The Unchallenged Thumri Queen”, Girija Devi was also honored with the Padma Bhushan in 1989

Some of the other most famous thumri artists are – Badi Motibai, Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Devi, Savita Devi, Gauhar Jan, Begum Akhtar, Prabha Atre, Naina Devi, Purnima Choudhuri, Shubha Mudgal, Pandit Chhannulal Mishra, Abdul Karim Khan, Nazakat-Salamat Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

P.S: We will publish a separate article to honor the life and works of Girija Devi and Shobha Gurtu in our next month’s edition.

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