Indian classical vocalist Vidya Shah performed recently at the annual Sarangi Festival organised by the Tehzeeb Foundation. The two-day programme featured skilful sarangi players and classical singers from across Pakistan and India.
Trained in singing khayal by Shanti Hiranand and Shobha Mugdal and in Carnatic music, Vidya Shah sang Begum Akhtar’s renditions beautifully, paying tribute to the singer on her 99th birth anniversary. Her offerings also included dadra, thumri, a ghazal by Ghalib and a nazm by Faiz.
Here, social activist, musician and writer Vidya Shah talks to Images on Sunday about her commitment to classical music and social issues.
Q. What is the link between your work as a social activist and your heavy involvement as a classical singer?
VS: I feel very deeply about a range of issues, and as an artist as well. I come from a South Indian family where you learn music fairly early on. Music has been very much part of my growing up, and remains at my conscious and subconscious level. I haven’t compartmentalised it. I am able to combine all my interests that way.
Talking of social commitments, I believe in connecting with people. Music in itself is such a powerful vehicle, which is broadly culture. Culture plays a very significant role in bringing people together.
I feel that it would be a little extrapolated to say that khayal gayki came out of a certain social requirement. It didn’t, it served another purpose, so it is patronised in a certain way, it evolved in a certain way and it has come to be in a certain way.
Q. How does the idea of a gharana appeal to your view of people coming together?
VS: Gharanas had a very specific function when they evolved. It essentially meant stylistic perspectives and approach to music. But there was another very important reason why gharanas emerged, remained and located themselves in certain ways: patronage.
Gharanas were placed in certain areas of Jaipur, Atrali, Gwalior, etc, came to be in those areas or places because the ustad was patronised along with the lineage.
However, there was always a situation of mobility. I want to say this emphatically that gharana never meant that if you step out of it, you will be exterminated. There wasn’t any kind of dogma then.
Q. Is that the case today?
VS: Well, Pundit Bhimsen Joshi used to sing borrowing from so many gharanas. There is osmosis when you sing and borrow; you don’t want to slot your singing because that limits your endeavour.
Gharanas may not be as relevant today as they used to be in late the 19th century; today it is more of a rigour, more of a discipline. If you are singing by a certain gharana, you have a set of rules, and that’s extremely useful and pertinent. But the reasons and the relevance are different today.
Q. Was your experience of tribal music, Sufi music and bhakti music?
VS: My interest in tribal music was because I love sounds. Tribal music for instance is very interesting in the sense that there is a great deal of repetition. And it’s their way of celebration, it’s their way of catharsis, their way of relaxing. And in this repetition you will see that there are very interesting rhythmic cycles. That is what attracted me.
Bhakti music is again such a social movement, all the bhakti Sufiana poetry was in response to what was happening in society. And because I am interested in the social movement and the lyric as well, I am also interested in how it transgresses all that we keep creating as problems for ourselves.
The Bhakti and Sufiana movements did not believe in castes, they did not believe in gender, or any kind of polemic which is dividing up societies today. So despite the fact that they were movements many several hundreds of years ago, the relevance is very much there, in fact I would say even more in today’s time.
Q. Do you think the effort made in Pakistan is at par with that in India to promote and resuscitate South Asian classical music?
VS: I think we have to seriously understand and contextualise classical music in Pakistan versus classical music in India. In Pakistan the spaces are much more limited.
That has not been the case in India. It has always remained a part of our cultural programming. We can keep complaining and raving and ranting about whether it is less or more, but it has always gained state support. The government has had some cultural intervention happening throughout the year, whereas Pakistan has had to deal with a great deal of backlog. It has had to deal with political repression vis a vis classical music. In such a situation, if institutions like the Tehzeeb Foundation are able to put together an effort like this it is a phenomenal contribution.
It is quite commendable to see in these times that you can still do it. And that you can reinstate some visibility because today there is a lot of music now in Pakistan.
There are wonderful bands, and they keep coming to India and are very popular there. Coke Studio is a brilliant initiative; Indians hugely admire Rohail Hyatt and his work. And the music that has come out of the CS is brilliant.
However, classical music will always struggle to keep reappearing and the more you have a certain kind of cultural implosion, the more you’ll have to struggle.
Q. Should Pakistani and Indian music be considered as world music or does it have an identity of its own?
VS: I wrote about this for the Hindustan Times as well. I think the beauty of music is the fact that it has many diverse aspects to it. The moment you start classifying music into categories, you lose the beauty of the layered-ness of it. That is a big problem with world music.
World music is really a perception of a community of musicians, music lovers, connoisseurs, patrons, who don’t understand the variety that music can offer.
Q. How do you feel about fusion music?
VS: I have nothing against fusion music and I do a lot of fusion myself but I would like to be very aware of my participation when I experiment. A lot of the fusion is not properly choreographed and composed.
Q. Is the sarangi becoming extinct?
VS: There are many musical traditions that are going extinct partly because preserving a tradition needs commitment, investment, time, energy, political commitment. Sarangi is a very difficult instrument and has been displaced.
In India, as an accompanying instrument, it is slowly being pushed out and the harmonium is taking its place, which is unfortunate.
Having said that, it’s not really extinct in India. There are still many families which have very bright sarangi nawaz.