Playing music back and forth

May 17, 2015

Rekha Bhardwaj, whom not many people knew about until they had watched Haider, is a serious singer trained in and passionate about classical music

Playing music back and forth

I was at Ville Parle railway station when I received a text message from Rekha Bhardwaj, confirming the appointment for the interview. I wondered whether the fluke affirmed the popular Bollywood stereotype -- that one could encounter the best things in life waiting at a central railway station. The appointment was for 11am at her residence in Andheri, a residential cum commercial neighbourhood in the West of the Mumbai city.

The next day, close to the destination, I drove along a tree-lined avenue, crossing a busy intersection to finally arrive at the noted Indian playback singer’s residence. An elevator in the doorway of a towering apartment building took me to Bhardwaj’s sixth floor home. The room I was shown in served as both a study and recording studio. The walls were adorned with posters of Vishal Bhardwaj’s films. On a bookshelf, in the right corner of the room, I caught a glimpse of Jagjit Singh’s pictorial semi-autobiography titled Beyond Time among several other books on literature, music and history.

At dot 11am, Rekha Bhardwaj entered the room dressed in a green coloured suit: her voice warm and vibrant, her expression cordial.

The discussion flourished as soon as I posed my first question about her practice of Hindustani classical music. "I devote two and a half hours to my riyaz daily. That’s the discipline I have been following since 1986." Every day, at the break of the dawn, she meditates with ‘Om’ on her tanpura in Raag Bhairav. "In the morning, I spend some more time practising paltas, alaps and bandishes preferably in Raag Mian ki Todi." However, she tells me that Raag Puriya Dhanashree is her usual choice for practice in the evenings. "All of my favourite raags are set in the minor scale." (laughs)

In Hindustani classical music, different raags set in either the major or minor scales evoke distinct moods and human emotions. While the major scale is associated with a bright, jovial mood, the minor scale shares a primary bond with darker and more serious moods.

Be it the feeling of melancholy, loneliness, grief or sorrow, Rekha Bhardwaj in her earthy voice, captures it the best. Perhaps, it’s also because these are the significant characteristics of her favourite raags Lalit, Mian ki Todi, Bhairav and Puriya Dhanashree.

Her song Aaj ke naam by Faiz Ahmed Faiz from film Haider is dark and intense. With soft vocals, Rekha has expessed the grief, revealing every note bit by bit. She also mentions some Carnatic raags adopted by Hindustani music as her favourites including Kaushik Ranjani, Hamsadhwani and Jansam Mohini. However, nothing beats her love for Todi as she says "My guru ji would tell me that if Mian ki Todi is perfected, most of the raags are done."

I want to know what inspired her to become a musician?

"I was into music as a child. The main thing was the environment at home: my eldest sister used to do her riyaz of classical music because she was learning. We also used to have house concerts. As a child, I would also listen to classical, semi classical ghazals and thumris played on the radio. Those are the impressions that I have."

She continues talking about her passion for music. "I think now I can say that it’s a blessing. I am blessed with certain qualities including a good voice, roohdari, soz and thehrao. I think all these components are needed for singing and may be people cultivate it by doing riyaz. However, in my case I got all these as a gift. So, I feel that I was supposed to sing."

What genre of music does she like the most?

 "Lately, I have been telling Vishal to get some songs recorded in Pakistan. We went to Dina to visit Gulzar sahab’s hometown and it was such an overwhelming experience.

"I wanted to sing classical music and ghazals but that changed with time when I moved to Mumbai after marriage. Coming here, I assisted Vishal and saw the process of film song getting composed. I became familiarised with how the songs are rehearsed after being selected for a film. The process of recording and voice dubbing was so fascinating. By then, some change had come in the film music as more semi-classical songs were being given preference by music directors like Anu Malik and Nadeem-Shravan. I felt I could, perhaps, do that sort of music."

She says she was aware that in the film industry, the icons were Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.

"That was the yardstick; so a sharp high pitched voice was preferred by the music directors. I never prepared many film songs because I always wanted to do something of my own that appealed to me without trying to imitate anyone. So, that wisdom was there as a very young child."

For that reason, she says she had never thought of striving for playback singing. "I knew my voice is different. I had a low pitched voice and was trained in Hindustani classical music. So I was sure there is no way, I would make it to the film industry."

She goes on talking about her initial training, the music gharana she follows and her family’s interest in music.  "So after learning from my eldest sister initially as a child, after she got married I joined Gandharva Mahavidyalya in Delhi. I learned music there for seven years and then in college I took music as my main subject.

"At the same time, I was under the training of Pandit Amarnath ji following the Guru-shishya tradition. He was the senior-most disciple of Ustad Amir Khan sahib of Indore Gharana." She explains some of the peculiar characteristics of the Indore Gharana which was founded by Ustad Amir Khan. "The improvisation in raags is mostly done in lower and middle octaves, the emphasis is on melody and the bol, alaap and sargam follow the merukhand patterns."

"So, I follow the Indore Gharana. My ultimate goal is to be able to sing classical some day whether it is drut, khayal or something else." She says that in her music she always tries to incorporate some elements of classical music. "When I perform thumri, I improvise a lot. I try to practise lay kaari. I am happy that I am able to express musically what I have learnt. I can proudly say that music is my forte."

She states that as a child she would attend live music conferences with her father. "Even if I would fall asleep, I would be there till early morning, listening to the melodious raags that I loved. All that got recorded in my subconscious and now when I get an opportunity to perform it comes out as my interpretation."

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Her father was a keen lover of music and because his own parents did not allow him to learn music, he had decided that he would make all of his children practice music.

"That’s how all five of us including my three sisters and one brother were exposed to music. But I became professional as I knew it was my only passion."

To Rekha, music is a quest for exploring her inner-self, understanding peace and celebrating life. "Music is a personal journey -- of self-discovery." She thinks that music helps in enlightening and awakening of the soul.  "It healed me even when I was not practising music professionally; listening to music has always healed me, since my childhood."

Our discussion shifts to the state of classical music in the subcontinent. "It’s doing well in the sense that a lots of youngsters are taking up classical music which is a good sign." She however, thinks that in India film music is most popular and "everything else takes a backseat which is sad on one level".

She asserts that in Pakistan mellifluous Urdu poetry and rich traditional music are being retained by the Coke Studio. "Thanks to Rohail Hyatt for coming up with this initiative. I really appreciate and love him for doing that. With Coke Studio, he has revolutionised the music industry in the subcontinent."

One point she wants to make to all musicians, to listeners and everyone is that "classical music is actually not for everyone and that is why it is called classical. It is important to identify the select group or audience for it. There should be a balance when sponsors and organisers look for the commercial element." She finds commercialisation of classical music ironical and thinks that organising more gatherings on a smaller scale for people who appreciate and understand it would continue its legacy.

She mentions Spic Macay for doing a marvellous job by holding lecture demonstration to conserve and promote an awareness of the rich cultural tapestry of subcontinent among the youth by focusing on rituals, mythology and philosophy.

In the year 2013, Rekha Bhardwaj and Vishal Bhardwaj accompanied Gulzar on his trip to Pakistan. Before that in 2006, both Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj had attended the Kara Film Festival held in Karachi. She remembers her visits and narrates the several emotional anecdotes and experiences she has had in Pakistan. "Last year, we went to record Rahat Fateh Ali Khan in Lahore. Gulzar sahib was with us too. After the recording, his family would cook delicious meals for us. We would sit down together and chat about music, poetry and even politics."

"Lately, I have been telling Vishal to get some songs recorded in Pakistan so that we can visit Pakistan again. Last year we visited twice. We went to Dina to visit Gulzar sahab’s hometown and it was such an overwhelming experience. I think it has been more than two years but still that feeling of crossing Wagah border and how we had cried still enchants me."

She stared at the wall for some time, recollecting the nostalgic moments trying to relive them. They do somehow warm her up from inside but also break her heart.

"Unknown people would come, shake hands and warmly hug Gulzar sahab. Those smiles and gestures of love can never be compromised by any amount of violence. So I think border is just a three inch white line which separates us otherwise wohi log hain wohi complexions wohi kapre pehnawa aur hawa bhi wohi hai."

Does she plan to collaborate with any Pakistani artist or perhaps sing for peace between the two countries? "Oh yes, I have already perfomed at an Aman ki Asha concert which was organised by the Times of India in Hyderbad. I performed Dama Dam Mast Qalander with Sanam Marvi. I also performed in Dubai for an organisation with Meesha Shafi. We both performed four songs together including Susral Genda Phool and Jugni.

"We also thought of collaborating for Coke Studio but unfortunately it hasn’t been possible so far." She feels with Meesha Shafi "the soul, the voice, the genre and mutual love all gets merged to have an intense musical impression."

"I have grown up watching Pakistani tv plays Tanhayian and Dhoop Kinare. I am a diehard fan of Marina Khan. When I went to Pakistan for the first time for Kara Festival in 2006, my only wish was to meet Marina Khan and luckily it was fulfilled by Hasan Zaidi."

Currently, she is working with Ali Pervez Mehdi on an album. "We have taken some tracks of Noor Jehan ji and it will come out very soon. I hope to collaborate with more artists and poets from Pakistan. The more, the merrier."

Playing music back and forth