119 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, June 27, 1999
Bollywood Bhelpuri

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ghazal is being sung as geet

in India"

REKHA SURYA looks more like a model than a ghazal singer. However, when she starts talking she comes across as an intelligent person, who is pretty bindaas about life. Though Rekha talked frankly about her experiences as a singer, she was a little wary that as a women staying alone she should give no wrong impressions. She is an extremely sensitive person and is a Luckhnavi to the core.

Rekha spoke passionately about her music-- her beautiful expressive eyes saying more than the words. She said that though she has achieved recognition for her art, she still has miles to go before she can relax and look back. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Belu Maheshwari:

Do you feel that even in today’s age there are connoisseurs of traditional forms of music ?

Definitely. I am following the traditional style of ghazal gayaki in my concerts. It is not foot-tapping music. I have my fans who are very loyal, including the young. Even today, Begum Akhtar’s music commands its fair share of music aficionados. Music is not limiting, it does not have boundaries.

How did you, with no background in music, get into this field?

I have no musical pedigree, though I liked singing from childhood. When I joined Miranda House, Delhi, to do my graduation in literature, I was exposed to different styles of music. I met Begum Akhtar through an acquaintance and asked her to make me her shishya. She had stopped teaching because of some bad experiences with her disciples. But I persisted. She asked me to sing, and after hearing me said that she would not let my voice go waste. I was her sishya for a year. She died thereafter. She gave me a lot.

What was Begum Akhtar like as a person?

Till the last she was busy giving concerts. She was a wonderful person. She made my father agree to my giving concerts. Begum Saheeba taught me how to behave with fellow musicians, audiences, organisers, etc. Her dictum was: Kisi ka dil nahi dukhana chahiye. She was graciousness personified, wore only sarees and always advocated dignity as the basic virtue for a performer. I was her akhri shagird.

How have you evolved as a singer. How different are you from Begum Akhtar?

Begum Saheeba used to say that learning music was more difficult for my generation because of the many distractions. I have been open to many influences, different styles, other gharanas. She always said, try to imbibe good from all, even from film music. I have been a shishya of others also ---Bashir Khan and Girja Devi. I am a mixture of the Benaras and Patiala gharana.

What did you learn from Bashir Khan, and Girja Devi?

Bashir was basically a sarangi player-- brilliant, eccentric, a great believer in creativity. He taught me how to use my head while singing and the importance of riyaz. Girja Devi was a great believer in the physicality of music because she was a virtuoso. She believed in dazzling -- her command over Palta and Taan were unbelievable. I learnt from her on and off, never over a long period of time.

Did you have to struggle to be on your own?

My first concert was at the Prithvi theatre. It had Shabana Azmi and Kaifi Azmi in the audience. The response was warm. I did struggle for about 3-4 years initially. I have sung all over the world-- U.S.A. Canada, Sri Lanka. My first priority was to buy a flat, have a physical niche in the world. Now I am settled. I have enough work.

How do people react to a young, good looking singer?

Life has been difficult. I belong to Lucknow and Lucknavi tehzeeb teaches politeness. This tehzeeb got me into difficult situations because some people mistook it for weakness. Now I am very careful in picking and choosing private concerts. We generally have knowledgeable listeners but some can be crass also. I am a headstrong person and have lived life on my terms. I do not now take nonsense.

Isn’t your style of singing akin to the courtesan way of performing?

The word courtesan now carries negative connotations, but in those times they were great performers. Some of the greatest contributions in Hindustani music have been from Sidheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Begum Akhtar, all courtesans, basically pandering to male audiences.

In this style of singing there is an element of phampha taal, it is not necessarily negative. We have to communicate one to one with our audience-- aankhon mei aankhein dalane wala music hai. It is not a Khayal which can be sung with eyes closed; it is interactive singing.

I communicate with women also. I find them more sensitive as audiences. I play my own harmonium so there is no scope for adda.

What is the difference in classical singing and your style?

In classical singing they start with Kajri, Dadra. Thumri is sung as dessert piece at the end. Khayal singers are not trained to pour passion in their singing. Thumri singers are. Ours is specialised singing. It demands fulsomeness of voice. Bhim Sen Joshi is not a Thumri singer though in his field he is brilliant.

What genre does your singing fall into?

Ours is semi-classical, based on ghazal gayaki. What you hear is not really pure ghazal, Jagjit Singh is a very good nazm/geet singer. He is not a good ghazal singer. He has a lovely voice and has popularised the so-called ghazal singing. But he has also diminished the original standards of ghazal singing by diluting it.

Do you think Thumri will survive?

Thumri is surviving, will survive though its allied forms may not survive. I am confident of its survival because of its inherent beauty. I have a dream to build a Thumri and allied forms foundation in order to ensure its continuation in the future. Good Khayal singers will come, they have to.

Tell us about your personal self?

I hail from Lucknow, and I am a modern working woman. An artiste basically leads a lonely life, there is an emotional void. Living on your own is not easy but my family helps me not to derail. I draw my strength from music, family and friends. I feel uncentered if I am away from music for long.

What are the qualities you seek in people you want around you and who do you shun?

Sincerity, honesty. I feel artistes can be friends because they are like-minded and can interact at least at one level. Somewhere, all artists have a certain degree of estrangement from society.

I cannot stand altu-phaltu people. I am upset by peoples prejudices and biases. I cannot tolerate those people who perceive me as a light and frivolous person when they see a package of good looking singer. I am an educated, accomplished and an intelligent woman whose music is serious.

What according to you is true ghazal singing?

Today, ghazal is being sung as geet in India. Pakistani ghazal singers have another style in Khayal which has Sargam and Teehai, which are Khayal characteristics. While I am not against experimentation and innovation, I think the correct manner of rendering ghazal is by using a Thumri approach. Mehdi Hassan is a brilliant ghazal singer, he has given it a new direction and seriousness. But because he does not have strong training in Thumri singing, he tends to be sentimental rather than passionate.

What would you list as your achievements?

In spite of the commercial pulls, I am sticking to pure ghazal gayaki and holding my head high. And I do consider myself as a purist because I believe in being true to a form.

How do you choose your ghazals?

I work on choosing my songs very painstakingly. I have dug out old Jhula, Kajri, Cheti and Hori in the form of Dadra to add to my repertoire. Then I have learnt Urdu. I read a fair amount of poetry and interact with contemporary poets. While ghazal gayaki has deteriorated ghazal writing has not. Issar Ansari a poet in Bombay is my favourite. I want to sing contemporary poets who use contemporary idiom.

Does it mean you have made no compromises in your singing?

I have accepted the changing realities of time. In terms of language, I have simplified the words. I try to avoid chaste Urdu words as people are not erudite enough. I explain what I am singing to the audience. I give the text, explain the context. Back

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