Community’s ghazal queen wows aficionados ~ Aziz Haniffa

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Community’s ghazal queen wows aficionados ~ Aziz Haniffa, India Abroad, March 25, 2011

Ghazal diva Vatsala Mehra, a veteran performer at the Kennedy Center, said singing this time around – her fourth solo performance at the Kennedy Center – was different. Because, she was “doing India and IndianAmericans proud”, as part of the Maximum India Festival.

The Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center was packed to capacity with the Indian-American cognoscenti in the Washington, DC metropolitan area and South Asian American Ghazal aficionados as Mehra held the audience captive with a scintillating three-hour concert.

Like her first solo show at the Kennedy Center nearly 12 years ago, busloads of ghazal aficionados came from New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Cleveland. Several other fans flew in from across the country for the performance, where she was accompanied by Pandit Mishra on sarangi, Sunny Jain on drums and dhol, Bashir Khan on the bulbul tarang and Debu Nayak on the table.

Mumbai-born Mehra, a pioneer in disseminating this rich classical music tradition in the Washington, DC area and the founder and director of the Balaji Music Academy in Mclean, Virginia, told India Abroad after the performance: “The audience was amazingly responsive, even though some of them may not have understood the lyrics of the songs”.

She sang 12 songs. “Some were from my albums and some were popular ones with my own style infused in them, which was sort of soulful Sufi and Thumri infused with jazz. I am so glad the audience enjoyed the selection – going by the applause I received – because it was a mixed genre of music,” she explained. “I had a few people come up to me with misty eyes at the end of the show and this made me cry as well”.

She continued: “The thumri that I sang was composed in (Awadh) Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s durbar by Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan Saab, who was my guru’s great great grandfather, who was the creator of the thumri. I am so proud to belong to the Lucknow gharana (school of music).”

After her performance March 8, Mehra’s Facebook page was filled with kudos from Indian Americans in the Washington, DC area and from across the country.

Rohini Dhingra Khera said, ‘What a dazzling performance! It was scintillating and an almost out of body experience’. Sneh Kataria described it as ‘a mesmerizing performance’. Anju Malhotra said,’ It was a rich combination of classical music, grace, and beauty’. Shalini Bhatia called it ‘a breathtakingly melodious performance’ while Pam Sharma said ‘ It was a most memorable concert and your rendition of our Indian Classical music is the ultimate compliment to this art that is embedded in the fabric of our culture’. Monica Gupta declared, ‘It seemed that you were on fire….You had such a beautiful presence on stage and your voice was ethereal!’.

Mehra, who immigrated to the United States in 1974, to join her husband, Jawaharlal ‘Joe’ Mehra, a transportation engineer, reiterated: “I was so proud as an Indian American to bring this classical Indian tradition to not only our own who were a huge part of the audience, but also to many in the mainstream who had also come for the concert, which was a sellout”.

Mehra, who started singing at age 8, released her first album Guftgu in 1980. In 1992, Atlantic Video released Nigahen, making her the first Indian woman ghazal singer to have released a video. After her first solo performance in 1992, The Washington Post music critic Don MacLean compared her voice to that of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez.