Well-known singer and musician Vidya Shah has been a supporter of Indian classical music for years. Shah, who started at the age of 10, has had an incredible musical journey through genres. “Music is really my breath,” she says.
Not only that, the prolific singer also doesn’t hesitate to engage in important conversations about gender and sexuality through her music. Shah also spoke about the contribution of female performers in Indian music through her “Women on Record” project and her book, Jalsa.
We caught up with the singer to find out more about her background, her music, her projects, her favorite artists and her last concert. Dastaan-e-Thumri at the “Art is Life: SoundFrames” festival at the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, where she sketched the evolution of thumri using visuals from the museum’s collection. Excerpts:
What does music mean to you and how would you describe your journey?
Music is really my breath and I feel like I had a very reasonably unconventional but very rich journey. I started with Carnatic music, which is the classical music form of South India, for many years. Then I moved to Khayal Gayaki, and further to learning Thumri dadra and the Ghazal. So pretty much on the classic spectrum, I went through various genres, learned with amazing gurus, and also worked in film. So, there were a lot of experiences that I wouldn’t really trade for nothing. It was a good trip!
You often strive to create conversations around contemporary issues with your music. Tell us more.
It is true that it has been my effort and my sincere commitment to create a conversation and make connections in the contemporary world through my music. So whether it’s incorporating ideas into the story or examining conversations about gender and sexuality, I really enjoyed this trip. Even when I talk about Begum Akhtar, whose work interests me deeply, and try to sing a bit of that repertoire, it interests me to see the fiery and independent feminist that she was and how she juxtaposed that. with her dilemma of wanting to be a “respected woman” in “mainstream society”. So, I feel like culture has always strived to relate, to bring a more intense understanding of society to what is normative and to raise those kinds of questions be it their music, their poetry. or his painting. Therefore, I feel really happy that I can do that too.
How do you bridge the gap between traditional music and contemporary music?
Traditional music doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not contemporary. The fact that I practice it today and have audiences that listen to this music or listen to variations within the music or the fact that I have adapted over time through the decades, suggests that there is a certain possibility of contemporary in the space too. However, if you only hear the sounds that traditional or contemporary music conveys, then yes, we are trying to see how you can take familiar music and bring it into a traditional setting and talk about its context. For example, if I sing a popular song like Humari Atariya, it was originally recorded by other artists, then it goes into the movie, then it takes another form, but to me those two forms mean a lot. In that sense, those bridges tend to happen quite naturally, as far as I’m concerned. The other way to do it is a fusion that a lot of artists like to engage with or dabble in.
Your ‘Women on Record’ project and your book Jalsa intends to highlight the contribution of female performers. Can you tell us about the role played by women in Indian musical narrative?
Women have played a very central role in the development of Indian music and the way it has evolved over the past few centuries. They played a role in how they were important performers, in how, despite several obstacles, they managed to become part of a largely male-dominated learning system. By being singers on record, they have also played a vital role in documenting what is widely celebrated as an oral tradition. Moreover, despite the marginalization they faced in postcolonial / independent India, they paved the way for the democratization of music. They have been a very central aspect of the musical narrative. Especially if we took a look at traditional Indian music, which is essentially a male dominated patriarchal setup.
Your favorite artists, and those who inspired you?
There are many artists who have deeply inspired my understanding of music. One of the names I would like to say right off the bat is Begum Akhtar, who inspired me in more ways than one. I feel more connected to her because I learned from her student, her oldest student, Shanti Hiranand. But other than that, I have been a big fan of the music of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the music of Vidushi Kishori Amonkar and I really like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I also heard a lot about ML Vasanthakumari, he was a huge name in the Carnatic world. I am also deeply inspired by my gurus Shubha Mudgal Ji, Shanti Hiranand, Mujahid Hussain Khan Saab and several other people who have inspired my music.
Do you think that in modern times the inclination is moving away from traditional art and culture? How do we keep it relevant?
I think any effort that is made to keep traditional forms of art and culture alive should really be applauded. The MAP festival, ‘Art is Life’, is very special because it not only celebrates tradition and culture, but examines the various interconnections between cultural spaces. As for whether the inclination is pulling away a bit, I think I would sound like I was in denial if I said it didn’t happen, but I think what happened. really past is the implosion of various types of experiences that have entered the lives of audiences. To that extent, it becomes a little more difficult to keep the traditional arts, to make them more mainstream, to make them as accessible and available as some of the other forms that may be considered or referred to as more popular.
Can you tell us about your concert Dastaan-e-Thumri?
I have been particularly interested in the social history of music and my work has focused on performers of the early 20th century and also specifically on genres of music. Thumri Dadra and Ghazal. In this context, I feel that there is a very strong connection between the image and the voice and the song, in fact. During this time there was a reasonable amount of photographic documentation by various photographers and they had documented the singers, the ladies of the tawaif background, and so on. One of these series is also from Abbas Ali and in this regard it was a wonderful experience for me to do this for the festival as I was able to bring my own understanding, research and interest in courtesan communities. and using some of the images from the MAP collection. I’ve always thought there should be that kind of intersectionality, synergy in the approach to performing as well as in the visual arts because that’s how it has always been. For example, even in Raag mala’s paintings there are so many references to the visual in terms of classical and semi-classical Indian forms. I am therefore delighted to create the ‘Dastaan-e-Thumri ‘ show for the festival.