Vatsala Mehra: In Fine Form, Express India, By Geeta Toteja, March 1999
WASHINGTON, March 20 – It was quite an evening at the Kennedy Center – Vatsala Mehra in full control, doing what she knows best: singing soul-stirring ghazals.
The Washington-based artiste, who frequently travels to India for her recordings, picked a judicious selection of poignant harmonies for her concert, much to the delight of a 500-strong audience.
It takes talent to galvanize listeners and Vatsala possesses this lethal combination of talent and style. The ensuing standing ovation was well deserved!
From the very outset, she displayed a keen mastery over the lyrics, the musicians and even the audience. Her opening number was Mirza Ghalib’s perennially popular “Dil-e-Nadaan”. That set the tone. The listeners were engaged…and they remained so.
Vatsala later told EXPRESS INDIA that she began with Ghalib out of respect for the great ‘shayars’ who brought pure poetry into the world. “Ghalib is the number one shayar till today. It all begins and ends with him. He is the ultimate”, she so rightly noted.
After Ghalib’s ghazal, she built mood and momentum with the lyrics of Ahmed Faraz (“Jis simt bhi dekhu”), Saeed Rahi (“Jab koi phool muskuraya hai, mujhe tera khayaal aaya hai”), Shadaab and Javed Akhtar (“Aafreen Aafreen” from the album “Sangam”, a Sufi kalaam immortalized by the late Nusrat Fatel Ali Khan). For classical music lovers, there was the ‘thumri’: “Jiya nahi laage”.
It was on popular demand that Vatsala rendered a couple of vintage sings of the legendary singer, Geeta Dutt. She informed “Express India” that she had recorded an album, “Shradhanjali for Geeta Dutt”, which wasn’t released due to the producer’s untimely death. But, she still sings those numbers because “it makes people nostalgic”, and more so due to continued requests for such songs.
The concluding piece, “Dama dam mast kalandar”, had the audience clapping in their seats. Manifold artistes have sung this number making it a universal song. But, Vatsala’s rendition was unforgettable, what with her mellifluous voice and energetic stage presence.
However, one thing is clear: her forte is ghazals and thanks to a powerful, resonating voice, she carries them off remarkable well. In fact, she symbolizes an authentic cultural phenomenon here in the west, and it would be fair to say that she’s poised for even greater success.
While Vatsala has performed to admiring audiences all over the world, it goes to her credit that she’s the first Indian-American whose concerts have been held at the prestigious Kennedy Center: first in 1992, sponsored by Mr. Babu Raj Stephen, publisher of EXPRESS INDIA; and now, in 1999, sponsored by Mr. Ranvir Trehan of SETA Innovative Enterprise Solutions. In his opening remarks, Mr. Trehan commented on the “smashing success” of her earlier concert. Well, the one held last week followed suit.
Mr. T.P. Sreenivasan, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian Embassy, termed it a “fabulous performance”. He was quite struck by the energy, exuberance and enthusiasm with which Vatsala sang “and how she carried the whole audience with her”.
Mr. Sreenivasan admitted that it’s a rare occasion when he “gets to speak on the fine arts. Since the nuclear tests of May 1998, our speeches are all on India’s nuclear policy”, he said.
Mr. Sreenivasan was also candid in conceding that he couldn’t really fathom the lyrics, mostly in Urdu, nor could he follow the nuances. Still, it was obvious to him that ghazals focus on human relationships and emotions: love, affection, love towards God, love towards your beloved and, of course, death. And “having heard both Hindustani and Carnatic music for several years, when you hear good music, you can recognize it”, he said, to loud applause.
Reportedly, there were 40 ghazal-enthusiasts who chartered a bus all the way from Wilmington, DE, to attend the concert at the Kennedy Center. There were also a good number of people from Philadelphia, New Jersey and Boston. It was certainly a very polished crowd that attended the event – one that would do the Kennedy Center proud.
Mr. Lalit Batra of Fairfax told “Express India” that he was particularly impressed by Vatsala’s control over her voice. “She has tremendous control. That stood out”, he said.
Mr. Batra noted how ghazals have all been written by famous lyricists and poets. But, the style in which Vatsala sang was clearly her own. “Based on her experience, she gave those ghazals life”, he added.
It helped that she had a stellar team of musicians who had come all the way from Bombay, for the Washington event. They included: Rajendra Singh Sodha (violin), winner of two Presidential awards; Jayantilal Rayshi Gosher (guitar), who has played in scores of hit films; Indru Hashmatria Chainani (a percussionist par excellence); Akhlaf Khan (harmonium); and Manoj Bhatti (tabla).
Vatsala, herself, began singing at the tender age of eight and later received formal training, primarily in Indian classical music, from Pandit Waslekar, Chotte Iqbal and Momin Khan, back in Bombay. But it was not until she was married and settled here in the US, that her first album, “Guftgu” (conversation), was released. The year was 1980. There was no looking back. “Guftgu” was followed by “Shamakhana” in 1981, “Khazana” and “Khazana II” in 1982-83, “Nigahen” in 1984, “Hasrat” in 1985, and then Nasheeli Peshkash”. Among her recent releases are “Shokhian” (1993), “Gubar” (1996), and now “Meri Jaan” (1999).
Mr. Sreenivasan pointed out how Mr. Trehan has called Vatsala ‘our own Washingtonian’. “I beg to differ”, he said. “We, in the Embassy, would like to call her an Indian who happens to be singing in America”!