Ghazal concert by Mehra set at Kennedy Center

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Ghazal concert by Mehra set at Kennedy Center, India Abroad, By Aziz Haniffa, March 1999

McLean, Virginia – Noted ghazal singer Vatsala Mehra returns to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. after seven years on March 20.

For the concert next week, two buses have been booked by ghazal aficionados in New York and New Jersey, while people are expected to fly in from across the country for the performance. Mehra’s last show in 1992 at the Kennedy Center was a sellout, and thus far she has been the only Indian ghazal singer to perform there.

The Bombay-born Mehra immigrated to the United States in 1974, to join her transportation engineer husband, Jawaharlal (Joe) Mehra, but ever since has traveled to India every year for periods of about two to three months to record and perform. She will be accompanied by some of India’s top musicians, who are being flown in for the show.

They are Rajendra Singh Sodha, violin player, who has won two Presidential awards; Jayantilal Rayshi Gosher on guitar; Indru Hashmatria Chainani on percussion; Akhlaf Khan on harmonium; and Jai Prakash Gupta on tabla.

During the show, the deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy here, T.P. Sreenivasan, will present Mehra with a Government of India award for her “contribution of projecting India’s musical tradition.”

Mehra, who is now in her mid-40s, starting singing at the age of 8 and had her formal training under Pandit Waslekar, Chotte Iqbal and Momin Khan.

She gave her first show in 1970 in Bombay’s Tejpal Hall singing ghazals composed by her mentor Momin Khan. Art critic Chinnappah wrote in The Times of India: “In her firm and yet fluty voice, the artiste revived the halcyon days of Begum Akhtar and Saigal.”

In an interview with India Abroad, Mehra said, “I can never forget him because that (his review) is what really got me going, particularly because he was one of the top critics who was very strict, very stingy with his compliments.”

She released her first album in 1980, titled “Guftgu,” followed by “Shamakhana” in 1981, “Khazana” and “Khazana II” in 1982 and 1983, “Nigahen” in 1984, and “Hasrat” in 1985, followed by “Nasheeli Peskkash” and two pop albums, “Ole Ole” and “Jhoom Jhoom.”

In 1992, Atlantic Video release “Nigahen,” making Mehra the first Indian woman ghazal singer to have released a ghazal video. Recent ghazal releases by Mehra include “Shokian” in 1993, “Gubar” in 1996 and “Meri Jaan” in 1999.

After her performance in 1992 at the Kennedy Center, The Washington Post music critic Don Maclean compared her voice to Joni Mitchell’s.

He wrote: “Ever wondered how Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez might sound if she came from India? If so, you can find out by listening to Nasheeli Peskkash, Indian musicians who combine classical Indian sounds with Western folk and pop harmonies.

The star of the show is Vatsala Mehra, a vocalist whose clear, pure voice sounds much like Mitchell’s.” Mehra, who has received several awards, including the Best International Woman Ghazal Singer Award, said, “As a youngster, when all my friends used to go see movies and talk about the actors, I would spend my time listening to Mehdi Hasan, Begum Akhtar and Tom Jones. I used to love Tom Jones. So with me it was always singing and music that were my great loves.”

Why ghazals? According to Mehra, “because of the poetry. I find the Urdu language very beautiful, very soft and it incorporates the entire philosophy of life and I am a very philosophical person. I do it for the love, for the passion of music.”