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SIDDESHWARI DEVI (1908–1977)


Siddheshwari Devi was a Hindustani classical singer from Varanasi. She popularised the Varanasi modes of singing thumri, thappa, dadra, purvi, holi, chaiti, kajri and other forms of song. She came from a long line of kotiwalis or courtesans, and was famed for her range and variety of expression, especially in khayal. She recalled in middle age that some hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, her ancestor Rati Bai had come to Varanasi and established herself as a singer and courtesan. After her death Rati Bai’s mantle fell on her niece Maina Bai, whose daughter Chanda Bai was Siddheshwari Devi’s mother. She lost her mother when she was a baby, and her father Shyamji when she was 11 years old. Her aunt Rajeshwari brought her up, but one day after a quarrel, threw her out of the house with nothing more than the clothes on her back. She lived in a hovel with a rent of Rs two a month and threw herself on the mercy of the singer Vidyadhari, from whom she borrowed her pakhwaj. Slowly she attracted a growing following and reputation. She continued to live in a red light area of Varanasi. Siddheshwari had great powers of improvisation and could elaborate intricately on a single bol. Ustad Siyaji, Razab Ali Khan of Dewas and Inayat Khan of Lahore, taught her, as well as Shri Bade Ram Das of Varanasi who taught her after she had already become a well-known classical vocalist. She sang in several films for the Usha Cinetone Company.

In her last years she moved to Delhi and got a post teaching thumri at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra. In 1967 she received the Padma Shri, and later from Vishwa Bharati University, a D.Litt. She earned the title of “Thumri-Queen”, her daughter Savita Devi established “Smt Siddheshwari Devi Academy of Indian Music” in the loving memory of her mother in 1977.
 
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