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Sharmistha Chatterjee: Bhansali’s star voice

Sharmistha Chatterjee on singing for ‘Heeramandi’ and her love for Punjab

Sharmistha Chatterjee: Bhansali’s star voice

Sarika Sharma

Gauhar Jaan, celebrated as colonial India’s most renowned ‘tawaif’, had a mastery over several styles and languages, including French and English. This versatility and range have always inspired Sharmistha Chatterjee, the Bengali singer who recently wowed her audience in Delhi with Punjabi Sufi renditions. These days, she is busy garnering accolades for ‘Tilasmi Bahein’, a burst of melodies from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Heeramandi’ to which she has lent her vocals.

Sharmistha first worked with Bhansali as a backing vocalist in his 2007 film ‘Saawariya’. “That was my first experience of facing the mic in a huge studio and use of technology in recording,” she recalls. ‘Heeramandi’ is the first album to come out under Bhansali’s label. ‘Tilasmi Bahein’ exudes various influences, including Persian and Arabic.

Different musical influences inform Sharmistha’s training and practice, too. “I am hugely into world music and I like experimenting with vocal styles. So, I was called and told to sing it in my style. At the time I got involved with ‘Tilasmi Bahein’, just the mukhda was ready. I grew along with the song; from the creative stage to the final stage.” Understandably, she cannot stop raving about Bhansali, the man behind the film and the music. “Sanjayji is a great visionary. You have to completely surrender to his vision. He is so meticulous about every part, word, harkat. You can see it on screen, in every song. He has put out such a rich variety,” says Sharmistha, whose career between ‘Saawariya’ and ‘Heeramandi’ was peppered with jingles (in various languages again), title track of ‘Sacred Games’ (which sounds Bulgarian but is gibberish, she tells) and a thumri in the film ‘Bulbul’, among several others.

A few years ago, Sharmistha found herself drawn to Punjabi poetry. Shah Husain, Bulleh Shah, Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, Nusrat Fateh Ali — she rattles off the influences that led to the verses “seeping into my blood”. She now packages these as a contemporary offering. At a recent performance in Delhi, she was surprised to see how the audience connected with her music. “I have not experienced that earlier. This was something else.”

Sharmistha feels the history of Punjab and Bengal is similar. “Both have endured the common pain of Partition,” says Sharmistha, who aspires to bridge the histories and cultures of the two states through her music. For now, studying the music of colonial Punjab is taking up her time. “Music is not business for me. I want to understand what people sang and why.”

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