Vatsala Mehra: “Nashili Peshkash”, Express India, Neha Arora, April 1991
There is a rich mellifluous voice which seems to come from thousands of miles away – definitely, India. A melodious voice that brings to life soul-stirring ghazals that haunts all those who hear it, reminding them of the kith and kin, of the home and hearth they have left behind.
This voice belongs to Vatsala Mehra, the talented, attractive Washington housewife who has made music her mission in life.
Although music was in her family (her father played the sitar and her brother could sing) there was no big name or brand name to back her budding musical career. So it goes entirely to Vatsala’s credit that she has turned her talent into something creative, something enduring and something to be proud of.
Vatsala emerged on the ghazal scene only a few years ago but rose rapidly as can be seen by the impressive number of albums that have been made on her so far by Music India, CBS and Garware.
Her first LP disc “Guftgu” was made by Music India followed by “Shamakhana”, “Khazana”, “Hasrat” and “Nashili Peshkash” which proved to be instant hits. Last year she became the first woman ghazal singer to release a ghazal video, “Nigahen.” This was made by Garware Home Video.
Glamour and ghazals rarely mix, but “Nigahen”, featuring Vatsala’s 18 best known ghazals, does just that. In this 55-minute video cassette, one is hardly likely to recognize the subtle conflicts arising from the very westernized environment from which she comes and the very traditional kind of music she sings. That is her major achievement.
Asked how she took to ghazal singing, Vatsala told EXPRESS INDIA in an interview that it was her fascination for the Urdu language that must have been responsible for it. “Urdu, with its rich poetical quality, its powerful diction and its imagery, lends itself very beautifully to the rendering of ghazals,” she said. She learnt the language to be able to sing ghazals.
Her family comes from Lahore, now in Pakistan, although she was born and brought up in Bombay. At age 18, Vatsala was married off to Mr. Mehra, who had come to the United States to pursue higher studies in Buffalo. She joined her husband in less than nine months and set up her home. This was in 1974. Soon after completing his studies, her husband took up a job and led a busy life.
She tried to enroll herself to study psychology in a U.S. school, but soon gave it up as she was haunted by music and the memories of India. She then set about getting a harmonium and started practising music. She had learnt Hindustani classical music since she was eight. All through those years, Vatsala says, her husband encouraged her and gave her all the support he could to bolster her aspirations of becoming a singer.
So much so, he even let her make yearly trips to India where she spent four or five months, learning music before embarking on her musical career. Her guru was Pandit Waslekar. “It has been tough going all the way – firstly, having to live away from India with limited opportunities in this kind of music, along with the roles of a housewife and mother.
“Learning music never ends. Delving into music is like trying to cross the ocean. The more I take to singing, the more I forget myself and my surroundings, even my very existence. Whatever success I have so far achieved is mainly due to expert training, hard work, devotion and of course lots of luck,” Vatsala says.
Her success so far, though not stupendous, has not gone to her head. She makes it a point to devote time to her husband and her only child, her daughter Anisha, in her elegant home in McLean, Virginia.
Vatsala is a painter too and her work is displayed all over here home, which also features several images of all kinds of horses. She says she is fascinated by the horse, “which symbolizes power and endurance. The image of a horse itself is an inspiration for me” she confided.
“You don’t have to be in the race, just to win. It is more important to participate in it” she says, summing up quite aptly, what she has been trying to achieve in the music field. A beautiful painting of horses done in copper by a friend in India, adorns an entire wall in her huge living room. Vatsala says she has just to look at it to drive away all her blues.
Vatsala has given more than 200 live performances in New York, Canada, the Middle East, and India. She has sung with such well-known ghazalists, as Anup Jalota and Pankaj Udhas. She is currently planning a country-wide tour of the U.S. sometime later this year.
Vatsala is now aware of the waning interest in ghazals, which she attributes to the mushrooming of amateurists. She has hence tried her hand at pop singing which has been received very well in India. Recently CBS released Vatsala’s album of pop music entitled “Ole, Ole”, the lyrics for which were written by Vatsala herself. It was set to music by Ray Disney in the U.S. It has eight racy, pulsating numbers. It is emerging as a chartbuster and a craze at popular discotheques in Bombay and other cities.
After her steady ‘affair with ghazal, her ‘fling’ with pop music has paid off, it seems.