Flitting like a nightingale from Kashi to the world stage [Interview]

Receiving the Padma Shri from President Pranab Mukherjee;
Receiving the Padma Shri from President Pranab Mukherjee;

The best music comes directly from the heart. This year’s Padma Shree awardee for classical Hindustani music, Dr Soma Ghosh, has passionately delivered historic performances with maestros like Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan, Bharat Ratna Bhimsen Joshi and Pt Birju Maharaj. Her malleable voice lends itself mellifluously to different Gharanas of music, enthralling audiences.

She has the rare distinction of being the first woman musician to perform a jugalbandi with her foster father and mentor Bismillah Khan before the Parliament of India. After attaining name and fame in traditional Indian classical music, Soma has come forward to give back to society with her unique concept to preserve endangered Indian instruments, Gharana styles and traditions by establishing ‘Sangeet Gram’ in the name of her mentor Ustad Bismillah Khan on the pattern of Banaras Hindu University (BHU). She has submitted a detailed proposal to the Modi government for support and funding, now being examined by the Ministry of Culture. Irrespective of whether any help comes from the government, she is determined to see the materialisation of her visionary project, designed to revive vanishing traditional music instruments and gharanas.

Soma was in Lucknow for a series of performances planned all over the world to commemorate the memory of her mentor, legendary shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. His centenary celebrations have been organised under the banner of her NGO ‘Madhu Murchhana’ with government sponsorship. The UP Sangeet Natak Academy also joined hands for a concert on 26 September as part of a tribute to the great shehnai maestro who spent most of his life on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. In the midst of her hectic schedule, Soma Ghosh shared her future roadmap with Mudit Mathur. Excerpts from an interview.

Q How did your journey in the world of music start?
A (Laughs) It appears that my placement in the musical world begun right in my mother’s womb. My mother Archana Chakravarthy belonged to the Senia Gharana of music. When she was in the family way, she started teaching music in Varanasi. So, in a way, I feel my journey to this world began then!
Having trained under my mother, I went on to learn from Narayan Chakravarthy, who taught me the voice techniques unique to the Senia Gharana. I graduated in literature, got my Master’s in Music and further pursued a doctorate under Chittaranjan Jyotishya of the Gwalior Gharana. Under Bageshwari Devi, I specialised in the genres that personify Benaras singing, namely thumri, tappa, hori, chaiti, kajari, dadra and ghazal in Vindhyachal (Mirzapur) where my Guru Ma used to live in a small temple. I was fortunate enough to have trained under the two distinguished Gharanas and specialise in Banaras Gharana. The emotions of Gwalior and the technique of Senia blended newness into my style of music.

Your Guru Ma sounds intriguing. Tell us more about her influence on your singing.
Transformation in my singing began when I met Bageshwari Devi. She was as an expert in the music peculiar to Banaras Gharana. She lived alone in a temple. Whenever she sang, her face used to glow with divine grace like a rainbow, saathon rang khilte the unke chehre par. She used to say ‘Hum jab gaate hain, hum dil se nritya karte hain’ (When we sing, we actually dance at our heart). She was from the same Gharana as Rasoolan Bai, Siddeshwari Devi, Gauhar Jaan and it was she who introduced me to Bismillah Khan’s shehnai. Bageshwari Devi died in 2000.

Tell us about your first close contact with Ustad Bismillah Khan.
My Guru Ma was very fond of Ustad Bismillah Khan’s mastery of the shehnai, so when I organised a tribute concert, Shraddhanjali, in her memory, I invited him as our chief guest in March 2001. It was a two-day concert. One day was dedicated to her work and the other to tabla maestro Allaha Rakha. Maestros Bismillah Khan, Tarun Bhattacharya, Pt Kishan Maharaj, Neela Bhagwat, Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia gave performances in the programme.

The plan for the concert was such that I would sing first and then Khan Saheb would play the shehnai later. I didn’t think that he would arrive earlier. I began singing at 7.45 pm, ‘Janimaro Pichkaari’ in Raag Kafi, the traditional Banarasi exponent style of Guru Ma. Ustad Bismillah Khan came early and actually listened to my singing for a few minutes. He was so influenced that he asked me to perform a jugalbandi with him. I was overwhelmed, because such a giant legendary personality was actually saying that he wants to collaborate and perform with me. He told me that he has adopted me as his daughter as he felt resemblance of Rasoolan Bai in me. I maintain the relationship even today. But I never knew that that concert would change my life forever and transform music in me even more. Thereafter we performed five to six jugalbandi concerts together and all of them have been unforgettable for me.

In an event to pay tribute to her guru Bageshwari Devi, who died in 2000, Soma’s vocals were matched by Bismillah Khan’s shehnai
In an event to pay tribute to her guru Bageshwari Devi, who died in 2000, Soma’s vocals were matched by Bismillah Khan’s shehnai

How was your experience singing in Parliament?

It was in August 2003 that I became part of a historical jugalbandi with Bharat Ratna Bismillah Khan at Parliament House. I got the opportunity to become first women musician to perform before the elite gathering of our nation. Bismillah Khan was an ego-less fakir (saint) who only did what appealed to his heart. I remembered that he wore the rare black topi (cap) during his performance with me and even sang a few lines of Behag, a raag I sang that day. In March 2006, I again performed a jugalbandi with Bismillah Khan for President APJ Abdul Kalam at Rashtrapati Bhawan. A year earlier too I was fortunate to be part of Darbari Mehfil, a concert with Bismillah Khan and Pt Bhimsen Joshi at The Leela, Mumbai.
Khan Sahab and I were performing at Nehru Centre in 2002 and there was Naushad in the audience. I was singing Raag Bihag, “Lat ulajhi, suljha ja balam”. And Khan Saheb was so surreal in his rendering that Naushad would get up at every sam (even note) and clap. That was one performance I won’t ever forget.

The idea is to draw the audience into the myriad emotions of a composition by experiencing and expressing them with one’s singing

Would you like to share some tips Bismillah Khan gave you about music?
The late Ustad, my mentor, used to teach that music is about sur, ras, bhav (tune, nectar and emotion). He taught me that I must first enjoy and celebrate my own music before taking it to the audience. He invariably said that expression or abhivyakti in music is of utmost importance, perhaps a notch higher than even technique and grammar The idea is draw the audience into the myriad emotions of a composition by experiencing and expressing them through one’s singing.

Going back to your earlier days, how did your singing career unfold?
Today, I sense a trend of give and take. In my early days, those were rare artistes who did not have any qualms in furthering a budding artiste’s career. When I began my career, I realised that people don’t give others a chance to perform easily. Opportunities are mostly given to those who have already become popular or by taking money from the artistes themselves.
In an attempt to reform such mindsets, we established Madhu Murchhana, an NGO, in 1999. Its mission is to try and give the lesser known but extremely talented artists a chance to perform on a bigger platform. Apart from that, we are trying to stop talent drain in the field of music by giving them fellowships whenever we see some constraints in their budding career.

Tell me about the progress of your much publicised concept about establishing ‘Sangeet Gram’ in the name of your mentor Bismillah Khan. When will it become a reality?
We have been making a collective effort towards bringing together the many endangered musical instruments, dance and traditions of various Gharanas in India under one roof in ‘Sangeet Gram’ and to preserve, promote and propagate them. We are in a process of taking more than five acres of land in the oldest city of the world’s civilisation — Banaras — popularly known as Kashi from ancient times, considered as the oldest centre of Indian arts, music and culture. The land of Kashi, known for immortal legends such as Acharya Tulsidas, Sant Ravi Das, Sant Kabir Das, Pandit Ram Sahay, Pt Ravi Shankar, Pt Samta Prasad, Pt Kishan Maharaj and Ustad Bismillah Khan, has deep cultural roots and traditions. So we plan to set up an institute or university which will not only house the forms of Indian music and dance but would also help revive the endangered classical instruments and heritage styles of playing, thus giving them a new infusion of life. We have been in touch with the Union and state government machinery to pursue our objective as I feel my mentor Bismillah Khan Saheb entrusted me this cause. I will devote my life to it.

‘Sangeet Gram’ will have resources to impart training of endangered musical instruments taking various dance forms of India beyond the boundaries

With Congress president Sonia Gandhi during the release of one of her CDs
With Congress president Sonia Gandhi during the release of one of her CDs

What will be your thrust areas?
In ‘Sangeet Gram’ we propose to teach and promote the traditional Indian music forms (Dhrupad, dhamar, khayal, thumri, dadra, hori, kajari, chaiti, tappa and ghazal gayaki). There will be special resources to impart training of endangered musical instruments like vichitra veena, Saraswati veena, sarangi, esraj, taar shehnai, table tarang, jal tarang and many such musical instruments. We will create occasions for presentation of art forms like ‘Gulab Bari’, ‘Budhwa Mangal’, ‘Jatha’, ‘Darbari Mehfil’. Our endeavour is to promote and propagate the various dance forms of India by taking them to international forums across the boundaries of our country, to showcase the heritage of Indian music, dance and culture. Our efforts would include research into various forms of dance and music and creation of a knowledge base for the sake of the future generation, and their propagation in times to come.

You have already been bestowed the Padma Shree. What more do you want to achieve?
No award is greater to me than my father and mentor’s intense belief in my ability. The Padma Shree, it comes with a duty and responsibility on my shoulders to live up to the nation’s expectations. Guru Ma used to say that true musicians do not run after awards and degrees. It is the music they pursue, it is the inspirational art they are after, and in it they achieve liberation. Awards are nothing but a pat on the back with the guru’s blessings.