Well-known singer and musician Vidya Shah has been a proponent of Indian classical music for years. Shah, who started at the tender age of 10, has had an incredible musical journey spanning across genres. “Music is really my breath,” she says.
Not just that, the prolific singer also doesn’t shy away from striking important conversations around gender and sexuality through her music. Shah has also been vocal about the contribution of women performers in Indian music through her project ‘Women on Record‘ and book, Jalsa.
We caught up with the singer to learn more about her journey, music, projects, favourite artists and her latest concert Dastaan-e-Thumri at the festival ‘Art is Life: SoundFrames’ by the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) 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 that I’ve had a very reasonably unconventional yet very rich journey. I started with Carnatic music, which is the south Indian classical form of music, for many years. Then I moved to Khayal Gayaki, and further on to learning Thumri Dadra and the Ghazal. So pretty much in the classical spectrum, I have traversed various genres, learnt with some incredible gurus and also worked in film. So, there have been many experiences which I would not really trade for anything. It has been a good journey!
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 sincere commitment to create conversation and make connections in the contemporary world through my music. So whether it is mainstreaming ideas in history or looking at conversations in gender and sexuality, I’ve enjoyed this journey very much. Even when I talk about Begum Akhtar, whose work I’m deeply interested in, and I try to sing a little bit of that repertoire, it interests me to see the feisty, independent feminist that she was and how she juxtaposed that with her social dilemma of wanting to be a ‘respected women’ in ‘mainstream society’. So, I feel that culture has always strived to relate, to bring a more intense understanding of the society of what is normative and raise those kinds of questions whether its music or poetry or painting. Therefore, I feel really happy that I can also do that.
How do you bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary music?
Traditional music does not necessarily mean that it is not contemporary. The fact that I’m practising it today and that I have audiences who listen to this music or listen to variations within music or the fact that I have adapted with time through the decades, suggest that there is a certain possibility of contemporary in the traditional space as well. However, if you mean just the sounds that the traditional or contemporary music convey, then yes, one tries to see how one can use music that is familiar and bring into a traditional framework 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 comes into film, then it takes another form, but for me, both those forms make a lot of sense. In that sense, these bridges tend to happen fairly naturally, as far as I’m concerned. The other way of doing it is a fusion that a lot of artists like to engage or dabble with.
Your project ‘Women on Record’ and your book Jalsa intend to highlight the contribution of women performers. Can you tell us about role women played in the Indian music narrative?
Women played a very central role in the development of Indian music and the manner in which it has evolved over a few centuries. They played a role in terms of how they were important performers, in terms of how despite several odds, they managed to be part of a learning system that was largely male-dominated. By being singers on the record, they also played a critical role in documenting what is largely celebrated as an oral tradition. Further, despite the marginalisation they faced in postcolonial/ independent India, they paved the way through democratisation of music. They have been a very central aspect of the musical narrative. Especially, if we were to look at traditional Indian music, which is essentially a male-dominated patriarchal setup.
Your favourite artists, and those who have inspired you?
There are many artists who have deeply inspired my understanding of music. One of the names that I would like to state upfront is Begum Akhtar, who has inspired me in more ways than one. I feel more connected to her because I have learnt from her student, her senior-most student, Shanti Hiranand. But that aside, I have been a huge fan of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s music, Vidushi Kishori Amonkar’s music and very fond of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I have also heard a lot of ML Vasanthakumari, she 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 in modern times, the inclination is shifting away from traditional art and culture? How can we keep it relevant?
I feel any effort that is made towards keeping the traditional forms of art and culture alive are really to be applauded. The MAP festival, ‘Art is Life’, is extra special because it’s not merely celebrating tradition and culture but is looking at the various interconnections between the cultural spaces. In terms of whether the inclination is somewhat shifting away, I think I would sound like I’m in denial if I said that’s not happening, but I think what actually has happened is the implosion of various kinds of experiences that have entered the life of audiences. To that extent, it becomes a little more challenging to hold on to the traditional arts, to make them more mainstream, to make them as accessible and available as some of the other forms that can 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 early 20th century performers and also specifically genres of the Thumri Dadra and Ghazal. In this context, I feel there is a very strong connection between the image and the voice and the song, in fact. During that time, there was a reasonable amount of photographic documentation by various photographers and they had documented the singing ladies, the ladies from the tawaif background, so on. One such series is also by Abbas Ali and in that connection, it was a wonderful experience for me to actually do this for the festival as I was able to bring in my own understanding, research and interest in looking at the communities of the courtesans and using some of the images from the MAP collection. I’ve always felt that there should be that kind of intersectionality, synergy in the approach to performing as well as the visual arts because that’s how it’s always existed. For example, even in the Raag mala paintings, there’s just so much reference to the visual in terms of the Indian classical and semi-classical forms. So I’m delighted to be creating the ‘Dastaan-e-Thumri’ performance for the festival.