Melody in the Air, Bangalore

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Melody in the Air, Bangalore, By Nirmala Rao, April 1995

Signature, McDowell’s latest brand, flowed smoothly. But it was the ‘signature’ of the lady in red that got the spirits soaring. Luring the motley crowd with the ‘Abhi to aaye ho, baito tasali se.’ (you have just come, sit down patiently.) Washington-based Vatsala Mehra made the evening of ghazals at the Windsor Manor a lively one.

There was a distinct stamp to the evening. Dimly lit chandeliers, satin-covered bolsters in bright colours and plenty of gajras. The fragrance wafted through the Regency Hall in tune with Vatsala’s mellifluous rendition of ghazals and geets. The evening never seemed to age with the buffs asking for more. The 90-minute programme was stretched to 150 minutes and dinner was served well past midnight, by the pool-side in shimmering moonlight. Master chef Imtiaz Qureshi’s culinary delights just had to wait. It was a heady mix of Vatsala’s husky voice and Qureshi’s Avadhi cuisine.

Vatsala had set the mood for romance. Aasman se utar aayiye, mere ankhon mein bas jayiye. (Come down from the heavens and settle down in my eyes) from her recently released cassette Shokiyan and Zindagi ko hosala mila. (My life got a boost of courage.) from her forthcoming album Intezar were soulful renderings. And the evening sparkled when she sang Geeta Dutt’s number Babuji dheer chalna, pyar mein zara sambhalna. Incidentally, Vatsala has recently recorded 14 songs of Geeta Dutt, as a tribute to her. The album is scheduled for release next month. But what she is looking forward to is Intezar in association with Zee TV, which is trying to bring back ghazals in a big way.

Isn’t the ghazal rage over and the tribe of ghazal singers a dying one, we quiz Vatsala. First she agrees and as an afterthought adds: “It is all cyclic.” Ghazals will become as popular as it was a decade ago. At that time, Music India promoted a whole lot of ghazals singers and Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Begum Akhtar and others had created waves.

She regrets that along the way ghazals became synonymous with wine and women. “Tonight you must have noticed that there was no mention of either, and the audience loved it.” She mesmerizes with her unique style, gayaki, bass, mood – incorporating all of this in the favourite themes of love, God, life, death etc.

We pester her. Isn’t everyone going ‘commercial’ like Pankaj Udhas, Harihan.? “Yes, but I don’t find the need to do so. Pankaj Udhas has his place in the ghazal world and a Mehdi Hasan is a Mehdi Hasan. Once cannot draw parallels.”

As far as pop music is concerned she feels that it may be a craze for another couple of years. “Ghazals will be forever,” she states but with less of conviction. “I did two pop albums – Ole Ole and Jhoom Jhoom, both at the insistence of my daughter.” The choice of a new generation. But then she is hopeful.

Vatsala herself began her singing career early. Despite being a largely self-taught artiste, with early formal training from Pandit Waslekar (she belongs to the Kirana gharana), she has gone places. Vatsala is the winner of the Best International Woman Ghazal Singer award and she is the first Indian woman ghazal singer to have released a ghazal video – Nigahen.

Her first album, Guftgu was released in 1980. Since then the trek has always been upward. It was followed by Shamakhana in 1981, Khazana and Khazana part II in 1982 and 1983 respectively. 1984 saw the release of Nigahen and 1985 that of Hasrat, followed by Nashelli Peshkash. Her most memorable performance was at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC in 1992.

True to her name, Vatsala spreads love wherever she goes with her velvety voice. And she is chic for her age (she did not want to reveal her daughter’s age). It is her voice that celebrates an epoch in ghazal singing and the select audience at Windsor Manor loved every bit of it. And the curtains came down with her favourite number Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. (Don’t insist upon going today). But then,…all good things have to come to an…