Shobha Gurtu

Vocalist without peer in the art of the Hindustani song genre of thumri

Bhanumati Shirodkar (Shobha Gurtu), singer: born Belgaum, India 8 February 1925; married Vishwanath Gurtu (two sons, and one son deceased); died Bombay, India 27 September 2004.

The classical vocalist Shobha Gurtu belonged to that rare category of singers who mastered the art of simultaneously singing with their voice and eyes. As she sat cross-legged on stage, her eyes would communicate with the grace and symbolism of a Kathak dancer.

From song to song, she switched characters from the sensual or lovelorn to the coquettish and flirtatious. At one recital at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London in the 1980s, she "glad-eyed" Ravi Shankar, the guest of honour, without the slightest trace of impropriety. Only those with their eyes shut to hold in the musical moment could have stayed straight-faced.

Both dance and music figured in Shobha Gurtu's family background. She was born Bhanumati Shirodkar in 1925; her mother, Menakabai Shirodkar, schooled in the vocal tradition of Alladiya Khan of the Atrauli or Jaipur gharana (school or style), had also been a dancer and she became her daughter's first teacher.

On her marriage to Vishwanath Gurtu, she took the name Shobha Gurtu and left her Goan name Bhanumati Shirodkar behind. They had three sons, all of whom became percussionists; the eldest, Ravi, became especially noted for his playing on Bollywood film soundtracks for the Laxmikant-Pyarelal team with the playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.

Shobha Gurtu continued her musical education with Nathan Khan, with her father-in-law Narayannath Gurtu and, most important of all, with Ghamman Khan. Although she was accomplished in a variety of Hindustani classical song genres, including dadra, kajri, chaiti, hori and khyal, in her trademark thumri she was peerless. Historically, it had been the pre-eminent song genre of Punjabi tawaif (female courtesan) performers. With their honed performance skills, renowned tawaif vocalists such as Gauhar Jan and Jankibai were among the Indian subcontinent's first recording stars. The twist was that it became born-again high art, though not necessarily as an exclusively female preserve - the walrus-moustached Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was renowned for his authoritative damsel roles.

Female vocalists such as Begum Akhtar and Siddheshwari Devi assisted its passage into modern times. Shobha Gurtu was their natural successor, the quintessence of thumri, although she studiously distanced herself from the preachings of chamchars (sycophants) of all factions. She "had no concern about business or the outer world," remarked her youngest son, Trilok Gurtu.

She recorded extensively, although her international breakthrough occurred only with Shobha Gurtu (1990); its opening track, "Dil Leke Muijhe Badnaam Kiva" drips with betrayal and hachoir-shredded promises.

In 1988 she guested on her son Trilok's album Usfret on the German CMP label. It introduced a new Shobha Gurtu. Never timid, "Shobharock" placed her voice amid fuzz tones, polyrhythms and the high soaring wail of trumpeter Don Cherry. In 1988 it was so new, a source of initial bewilderment and then wonderment. Usfret ushered in a new era, becoming the pre-digital blueprint for drum'n'bass that Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney took to new levels of wizardry.

Loving it, Shobha Gurtu pestered her son to repeat the experience, guesting on his The Glimpse (1998) and Broken Rhythms (2004). She truly communicated across cultural barriers and the generations.

Ken Hunt