#18 Taking Notes : Three Lives, One Melodious Journey…

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“If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die….”

To get the things that really matter in life – music, food and love, all together in a tangible embrace, only a skilled wordsmith like Shakespeare could’ve done that!

Casting food and love aside for another day, I can safely say that music has been my loyal friend since childhood. It became an intrinsic part of my profession at age 21, it lead me to the man who later became my husband and it has never left my side since.

I’m lucky to have known so many gifted musicians over the years – those who adopted music by choice, and some by chance. Yet they share a trait – a deep, personal connection with their craft, true devotion often mistaken for obsession!

From cities as diverse as Mumbai, Chicago and London, here are three journeys – made by those I love and admire as people first, musicians later. Of these three, I’ve known one since the day I was born, one since my first day at University and last but not least, one who was destined to be my friend, though all we’ve ever shared, face to face, is a cup of coffee in the pouring rain.

And so it begins…

SONALI SINHA SRIVASTAVA  ( Chicago ) 

Attorney-at-Law ( Legal strategist for Humira: world’s best selling pharmaceutical ), plays the classical Indian drums – the Tabla  

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Beginnings…

I come from a family of scientists and lawyers. Music was certainly not my first nature. Both my parents were professors of Plant Genetics, however, my mother was convinced that a scientific mind had to be supplemented and nourished by music.

My first introduction to music was via Kathak ( classical Indian dance ), perhaps at the age of 4-5 through my very first guru, Pt. Sharda Maharaj. He was always accompanied by live percussion, and that is what drew me to the Tabla. My first Tabla guru was Sri Chandraketu Singhji, who taught me very diligently till I left for boarding school.

Almost 20 years later in 2007, I found my new guru, Sri Raju Deshmukh, with whom I continue my musical journey today. He teaches me with the techniques he has learned from his gurus Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri and Pt. Ashok Maitra.

Learning Tabla came with a lot of determination to break the traditional stereotypes. Growing up, I was not aware of any other female Tabla player. Allegedly, Tabla needed strong hands and a little girl’s hands were not good enough. I was told to learn singing or dancing since that was more “suitable” for girls more than Tabla.

For about 5 years I learnt singing with Sri Muralidhar Banerjee, however, the more I heard that Tabla / Math /Science / Engineering were more suited for young boys than young girls, the more determined I was to learn it all! My passion also found firm footing with my parents who were convinced I could do anything that I wanted…Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Tabla! And so I did, with firm belief in excelling in all.

The journey that started as a little girl was in-part disrupted as I moved from one city to another with no real guru: Ranchi to Varanasi to England to Delhi then eventually to the suburbs of Chicago, USA. It was in 2007 when I quickly realized that all I had learned was gradually fading away.

As life grew (  spouse, two young children and a very demanding job ) I started missing the Divine. I needed to re-infuse myself in this musical journey. This was chapter II.

I restarted formally learning Tabla: learning from Sri Raju Deshmukh and taking exams and going all nine yards. In 2014, after completing the arduous task of writing six hours of answers and nearly an hour-long practicum, I completed the Sangit Prabhakar Diploma from Prayag Sangit Samiti in India.

Now, as I try and practice for about 10 hours a week, I am looking forward to my big milestone- my first solo performance in August this year.

So much to learn and so little time! I try and balance all of life’s calls sometimes easily and sometimes with great struggle.

Cherished memories…

Both at Miranda House ( Delhi University ) and Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, I fielded two almost opposing passions – music and sports. Playing sports for the college was equally important as playing music for a college competition. That just meant that I had to ensure that I did not fracture or injure myself too much.

I remember going back to my IIT dispensary / hospital to plead with my doctor to cut off the plaster from my fractured wrist at 4 weeks instead of 6 weeks since I had to perform on the Tabla. When the doctor refused, the Swiss-Army-Knife came in handy and I sat an entire evening trying to cut my plaster off. And of course I performed! This happened more than once. I am just thankful that I still have a hand that can play Tabla, so many fractures and injuries later.

Some favourites …

HMV Album: East Meets West: Sitar-Violin-duet of Pt. Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menhuin accompanied by Ustad Allah Rakha on Tabla. I think this was one of the first albums that inspired me to play tabla. I wanted to be able to accompany like the Ustad himself!

Playing Tanpura for Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri (Tabla) and Ustad Ashish Khan (Sarod). I was on seventh heaven listening and seeing Swapanda play his famous “dhere-dhere kitataka” on Tabla

My tabla solo performance in a music competition with Smt. Shubha Mudgal as the judge – An inspiring and humbling experience.

If not an Attorney…I am confident, I would be a full-time musician! If I was not a musician, I would be a poet.

DEEPA NAIR RASIYA ( London )

Classical Indian and Contemporary Singer / Songwriter / Composer / Teacher

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Beginnings…

I come from a typical South Indian Nair family, artistically sound and musically aware; there was always classical and semi-classical music (Carnatic) playing in my childhood home in London. The subconscious mind is a most intriguing phenomenon – I look back and marvel at what I must have absorbed passively and unconsciously.

I remember singing away, in my two/three year old voice, reproducing often complex melodic phrases typical of South Indian classical music fairly effortlessly. My father had some early recordings of my singing, from this toddler phase – and I remember hearing it back years later and being astonished at how deep and mature my voice sounded! I remember feeling utterly embarrassed by it, when I was seven, eight years old – foolishly subscribing to the belief that females needed to sound super high pitched and “feminine” like all the playback singers of the day!

When I was very young I was tutored in Carnatic music by Shri Ratnakaran Bhagavatar and later, by Shri Neyyatinkara Vasudevan and Perumbavoor Ravindranath. My introduction to Hindustani classical was through Ustad Dilshad Khan and Begum Parween Sultana. In 2010 I met my Guru Smt Veena Sahasrabuddhe; The beauty of exposition, expression and delivery in her Khayaal singing totally captured me and even today when I sing some of her compositions, I feel she is present in my performance. I also receive guidance from Shri Mukul Kulkarni, disciple of Pandit Arun Kashalkar.

Although I grew up hearing Yesudas ji in Malayalam film music and T N Seshagopalan and stalwarts in the Carnatic music tradition, the biggest influence, at the outset, on me as a vocalist and composer has been the incredible A Hariharan. It was the heady mix of his exquisite Hindustani nuances coming from a deep, rich, well-moulded and seasoned Carnatic voice that I found intoxicating and ultimately his style served as a kind of blueprint for my own work.

I have grown and matured over the years, not only as a human being, but definitely also as a musician/artiste…. life’s revelations of beauty and sorrow; of disappointment and of hope, of shadow and light…. it has all helped me grow. My forthcoming album DESTINATION is a collection of Spiritual verses…. I feel it will make people smile, cry, dance, contemplate, meditate… I am very lucky to be supported and helped in the production and release of this album by none other than the hugely respected National Award winning Sound engineer and producer KJ Singh, Head of ASLI Music.

My mission statement is, as a musician – to open up the heart, to touch the human spirit, to heal, to awaken, to inspire. I am also committed to making authentic music – as gimmick free as possible, sticking to traditional raagas as a base but wrapping it in layers of contemporary world music instrumentation.

Some favourites…

Beethoven Symphony No 7 – for the memories – the sheer nostalgia factor – it takes me right back to my 14/15 year old days when I studied Beethoven’s work for GCE. It still has a profound effect on me.

Ludovico Einaudi’s works: especially tracks like Primavera and Divenire. Very emotional – Reason: I turn to, when I feel overwhelmed and need a good cry!

Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar’s mesmerising Malkauns in his album Nilaya – pure bliss! And Veena Tai’s Jog-Kauns…..for the fact that there is so much for a Khayaal singer to learn!

And favourites from my own repertoire

’Mere Ram’ (Track 5 from my album Into the Light), ‘Ab Toh Jaag’ from Destination and ‘Tera Naam Dhyaida’ and ‘Eh Tan Mera’ also from Destination….

Special moments…

Singing in the presence of the Spiritual Master Bhagawan Shri Sathya Sai Baba. I went with a group of around 200 delegates from the UK to His ashram in Puttaparthi. I composed a Theme Song for the occasion which all 200 people learned and sang; and I sang my bit too…truly moving!

Other most memorable moment has to be my recording session with the late Beatle, George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar. I recorded the song Prabhujee with Panditji in the summer of 1996…and I remember taking the train from west London to Henley where a car was waiting for me, to whisk me off to George’s residence/studio. And I had to learn the song in the car during the short drive – it was both unnerving and surreal – that “oh my God, am I dreaming…?” moment.

If I weren’t a musician...I would be a writer on matters spiritual….. and /or ….a public speaker/teacher/counsellor/coach on life skills based on spirituality. I am still searching for truth…but I am happy to share what little I have discovered over time. This is the reason why I am so passionate about the message in the song ‘Ab Toh Jaag’ – the “awakening” being not the opening of the external eyes but the inner vision.

SAWAN DUTTA ( Mumbai )

Music Director/Producer, Singer/Songwriter, plays the Piano/Keyboard and works on a combination of Logic and Ableton Live

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Beginnings…

Can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawn to music, it was in my blood when I was born. My granddad bought me a baby harmonium with colourful keys when I was three. I could pick up any tune I’d hear and play them back accurately on the harmonium, I’m told. I never had any formal training in music till much later.

During my initial years I drew inspiration from whatever the universe brought my way, trying to learn from it all – from the bangla folk that my mom played at home to Hindi film songs on radio to Rock and Metal which I played with my band in college, to Alternative Folk Jazz which I experimented with during my early years with Indian Ocean. Indian Classical music seeped into me during my musical association with the legendary Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons –  which lead me to produce six albums and 2 double CD Soundscapes for them and proved to be a huge learning curve.

I learned the basics of western notation from my mom who taught me to play the Hawaiian guitar, which I started playing on All India Radio as a school kid. It was my husband who introduced me to the world of Western Classical music and taught me everything I know today about the technical aspects of music production.

I subsequently learnt piano from Mr.John Raphael, and trained in operatic vocals with Korean Tenor, Hur Chull Young and India’s best known Soprano, Situ Singh Buehler. When I started off I used to think I know a great deal! And the more I learn along the way, the less I realise I know.

As an established professional in the Entertainment / Music Industry, I’ve come to realise the importance of judgement, and the choices that one makes. I’m at a place now where my judgement has improved vastly from what it used to be. I can look back on past work, marvel at some of it, cringe at some of it and feel thankful that I can today differentiate between the two.

Cherished moments…

More than the ones with my rock or fusion bands, I think I cherish my stints as soloist with my choirs and my western classical groups. Because the gigs were acoustic, often without even mics, and the audiences dead sober and often fairly savvy. And my most cherished compliment would invariably come from a fellow singer in the Alto section, and this was non verbal – every time I sang a solo, I would find her weeping, tears streaming down her face, later cursing me for ruining her make up…it somehow meant more to me than all the regular compliments!

Some favourite pieces….

“Caruso” – the version sung by Pavarotti and Lucio Dalla on the Pavarotti and friends album

Una Furtiva Lagrima from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, the version sung and recorded in my studio by my teacher Hur Chull Young

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A

And I’m a huge fan of Phoebe Buffay’s Smelly Cat!

From my own repertoire…

It’s been a privilege to create different adaptations of the iconic “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” theme tune for its India chapter, using a variety of Indian classical and folk instruments and ragas. I’ve created two different adaptations for the last 3 seasons of Kaun Banega Crorepati on national television, and one for its Kerala version, Ningalkkum Agaam Kodeeshwaran, on air currently.

Another favourite is the title song from my first solo album with Saregama India Ltd – Lady Chatterjee. It was a fun, quirky, tongue-in-cheek song, and its 3D animated character and video created quite a stir.

Of late, I’ve also been revelling in the appreciation received by my song Thham Sa Gaya from my recent Bollywood film, Mumbai Delhi Mumbai – it was an absolute pleasure having veteran saxophonist Shyam Raj play on the song.

And I have to include the soundtrack I made for Dadi Pudumjee’s multiple award winning show “Transpositions” – it’s not often that I get to combine a Kali temple head priest, a cellist, a classical bamboo flutist, Indonesian gongs, electronica and operatic vocals together in one soundtrack!

If I weren’t a musician..I’d have been an architect I guess, which is what I studied to be. I derive great pleasure and satisfaction from design – whether it’s designing soundscapes or designing spaces. 

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