Composite culture through ghazals, The Hindustan Times, By N.C. Menon, March 1999
India and America might still be finding it difficult to retrieve their relations from post-Pokhran stress, but Indian-Americans here are going blithely ahead, settling down comfortably in this country and building a composite culture that takes in the best of both worlds.
This is particularly true in two areas: Religion and Music. Hindu temples are proliferating in America: Not makeshift structures where devotees drop in on “auspicious” religious occasions, but grand multi-million-dollar edifices with qualified priests, and providing facilities for community activities. Similarly, there are individuals and organizations catering to the expatriate Indians’ yearning for music from back home. It is a measure of their quality and effectiveness that the audience at the functions organized by them contains a fair sprinkling of Americans adventurous enough sample what for them must be exotic fare.
A fine example of the genre was a solo ghazal performance at the prestigious Kennedy Center here by Vatsala Mehra, who is Washington-based and has, over the years, evolved into an outstanding ghazal singer and winner of the “Best International Woman Ghazal Singer” award.
Her opening rendition of the Ghalib piece – Dil-e-nadan tujhe hua kya hai? – might have been too much in the classical style to suit those attuned to the film version of “Ghalib lite,” but it was clearly to the liking of the assembled connoisseurs and Ghalib himself would probably not have been unhappy.
Vatsala Mehra left her stamina in no doubt as she regaled the audience for well over two hours with hardly a break. Her repertoire consisted not only of the traditional ghazals that delved the depths of human and divine love and the pangs of separation, but also a number of light, lively, lilting tunes that had the audience clapping along.
As India’s Chief of Mission Ambassador T.P. Srinivasan said while congratulating her at the end of her performance, Vatsala Mehra breathed life into her ghazals and sang with verve, and it was not necessary to understand all that she sang to enjoy the good music. The Americans in the audience seemed to agree. One person who clearly understood the nuances of the Urdu poetry and appreciated the singing was Pakistani Ambassador Riaz Khokhar. The Appreciative listeners, and particularly the Americans among them, were completely bowled over by Jai Prakash Gupta on the tabla. His intricate, rapid fire patterns often brought the house down.
Meanwhile, Vatsala Mehra, who infused just the right amount of sensuality into her ghazals, has developed a strong stage presence and perfected the art of carrying her audience with her. She is bound to become an ever more effective cultural ambassador between India and America.