Girija Devi was born on May 8, 1929, in Varanasi, to Ramdeo Rai, a Bhumihar Brahmin zamindar. Her father was the harmonium player and also taught music. She also had starred in the movie Yaad Rahe at the age of nine.
Her first guru was Sarju Prasad Mishra (a high-quality singer, but mostly performed as a Sarangi accompanist) at the age of five or six. Though, Saraju Prasadji taught her by singing, yet most of her training by him was through his add-on Sarangi. This training session lasted until his bereavement after nearly eleven years.
For the first three years, it was only the basics of music. Then, for a year or two, it was the training of Khyals in Yaman, Bhairav, Bilawal ragas. With the Khyal, she learnt Tappas and Thumris. Once, in an interview, Girija devi expressed that the training with Sarju Prasadji played a vital role in her musical grooming, because it granted her vocal chords pleasing liveliness.
Shrichand Mishra from Seniya Gharana (Miya Tansen heredity), who was a singer, and the Tabla genius (and a Sitarist and the Sarod player also) was Girijadevi’s second Guru. Under his Dhrupad, Tap-Khyal, Khyal-numa, Kaul, Kalbana, Gul and Naksh training, she studied for about twenty years. Her training included Dhrupad, Khyal, Tappa, and Thumri.
Though Girija Devi made her public debut 1949 on All India Radio Allahabad, yet had opposition from her mother and grandmother, as those were the days when no upper class woman would perform publicly. In the decade of 1980s, she was as a faculty member of the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata and of the Banaras Hindu University during the early 1990s. She taught several students.
The state of affairs disturbs her, as the new Kheyal style has forced such an atmosphere that the Thumree and the related varieties were thought to be easy to learn and so mediocre. So, she practiced very hard on traditional Khyal and sings it at every concert and subsequent semi-classical pieces, with frequently a disappearing Tappa. Thus she does her best to keep traditional Khyal alive.
She never compares Thumree and Kheyal, as their nature is dissimilar. In the Kheyal, we understand the source of the melody of the raga, and in the thumri we appreciate touching intensity of the poetry. In her belief, if a singer has the its training, he/she can handle them both evenly. Once she had told that as her family background had a very deep attachment with poetry, she could handle poetry in thumri with feeling.
She sings the Khayal with the peaceful outlook and thumree with the romantic feeling (but without bold eroticism). For her, romantic feeling in singing has to be noble yet glamorous, but shouldn’t be negatively daring. She sings traditional Benares Thumrees in ragas like Desh, Tilak Kamod, Telang, Bihag, Khamaj, Kafi, Bhairavi etc.
She has a dislike for fusion and finds it ‘outrageous’. She trusts it to be difficult to sing the subtle descriptions of poetry with the noisy background. So, she never accepts any invitation from any fusion band. It is her strong belief that she wasn’t born to enjoy material goods, otherwise she would have been born as some wealthy person’s child instead of her parents.
She also has other great outlook and so thinks herself to be in the service of Goddess Saraswati (the Goddess of knowledge and the fine arts), as a musician. Therefore, she deems every of her concert as a prospect to nurture herself to become worthy of the goddess’s disciple. She always tries for peacefulness that comes from the every part of life. She endeavors to be equally capable and balanced in all her roles, viz. a musician, wife, householder and mother.
She has trust in her competent disciples that some of them will make the grade as a significant thumree singer to make the art living. She also believes in Khayal singers also for their significant passion. Many of them have had her guidance. For her, there is no scarcity of ability in the younger generation.
In her words, “A Thumree performance needs to encourage a state of continued state of trance and so the singer must give up the indulgence of clapping.”
Girija Devi was awarded the Padma Shri in 1972 and the Padma Bhushan in 1989, received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1977 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 2010.