Singer of Verve & Harmony, Express India

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Singer of Verve & Harmony, Express India, By R.A. Singh, March 1992

…A Lata, a Geeta Dutt, or a Subbalakshmi is not born every day. Singers like them pass through this world but once in a century. Mere aspirations, tons of dedication, or good opportunities are just not enough to become one of them. Nonetheless, through proper vocal training and practice, and with a little bit of luck, even an ounce of talent can turn a singer into an accomplished artiste.

And Vatsala certainly has much more than an ounce of talent. She has a distinctive style that will help her more than hold her own in the galaxy of today’s commercially successful singers. As of today, she is much better than Hemlata, Kavita Krishnamoorthy, Sulakshna Pandit and Alka Yagnik.

However, Vatsala has to remember that copying an established singer never pays any dividend. It did not pay in the case of Lata as long as she continued to sing like Noorjehan. Only after Lata got out of the preoccupation with blindly copying Noorjehan did she make any headway. Similarly, Mukesh did not become Mukesh until he stopped trying to imitate Saigal. Vatsala would do far better being her own true self – an impressive musical entity.

As she presented the musical nite on March 29, it was obvious that for Vatsala, singing is as natural and as necessary as breathing. She can no more live without the one than without the other. As she sang, Vatsala became for her audience a symbol of their cultural heritage.

An Artiste is essentially a citizen of the world. In looking around America, if one finds one’s own heritage emerging out of the cultural convulsions and cataclysms of the time and taking a place worthy of its immemorial tradition and imperishable roots, one senses that it is more because of aspirations, dreams and persistence of our celebrated artistes like Vatsala Mehra than any other factor.

As a natural ghazal singer, Vatsala Mehra has grown impressively into a major individual singing force in the annals of contemporary music. In the process, her versatility has made all of us grow several feet taller. Every Indian owes her a debt of gratitude in the same measure owed to artistes like Lata, Asha, Talat or Parveen Sultana.

In point of fact, an immense gulf separates the crabbed field of musical novices from the lush meadows of puritan devines like Lata, Parveen Sultana and Jesudasan. With a little effort on her part, there is not the slightest doubt that Vatsala can carve a niche for herself in the latter group. That much was clear in the way she wove a musical fantasy that enthralled her Kennedy Center audience.

The ultimate aim of all musical congregations is to cultivate appreciation for one’s cultural heritage and to inculcate and promote harmony between the audiences and their roots. Knaves and fools invent catchwords and shibboleths to keep honest people from coming to a just understanding, whereas the wise indulge in music to spread goodwill and cheer among people.

One last aside: It was pleasant to find Ambassador Abid Hussain and Mrs. Hussain in the Kennedy Center audience, fully engrossed in the musical milieu created by the sweet mellifluous voice of Vatsala. It was an equally pleasant surprise that Mrs. Hussain was not present merely to fulfill a diplomatic/social role. She is quite au courant with the world of music, and capable of commenting intelligently on the subject.

Nonetheless, one must respectfully disagree with Mrs. Hussain’s comment that it was Reshma, the Pakistani singer, who immortalised the song “Duma Dum Mast Kalandar”. In fact, it is the other way round: It was the song that immortalised Reshma. For, the song has been there as part and parcel of Rajasthani folk culture for a century. Reshma, as a member of a nomadic tribe in Rajasthan, had picked up the song.

It was a song that brought her to the notice of the Director General of Pakistan Radio who, being impressed by the freshness and high range of her voice, offered Reshma a chance to sing on radio.

There are several variations of the song. One is Reshma’s and there are other versions patronised by the folk singers of Rajasthan. Vatsala’s version of Mast Kalandar was very well rendered and filled with the verve and vitality that the popular song demanded.