Q. How did your journey in music begin? What were your early influences?
A. My whole life has been that of experiencing and taking inspiration. Everything around me was an inspiration, I would say, because it has been a journey that contniues. I was born in a family where though nobody was a singer, my parents were very passionate about music. I grew up in Uttar Pradesh, in a doctor’s household. My father is a doctor and we used to have many people from rural areas coming to seek help from my father at any point of time. My father would attend to all those patients, so I was exposed to that kind of rural life from a young age. Also, my chahchi and taiji were very good singers in our family functions and gatherings, gharelu sangeet as you can say. So, I was naturally drawn to the folk traditions of music, and since my parents were very passionate about classical music, I had that environment where, though nobody used to sing, our mornings would begin with Pandit Ravi Shankarji’s sitar. At the age of six I started learning classical music and over a period of time it was in Gorakhpur that I started learning from Shujaat Husain Khan sahab of the Rampur Gharana. I learned for 4-5 years from him and then with Rahat Ali Khan sahab, who was from the Patiala Gharana, again in Gorakhpur. He was at the radio station, and was a musical genius.
Q. How did you get associated with the Benaras Gharana?
A. It is when I came to Lucknow at the age of 18. My father was posted there and I got admission in Bhatkhande University and started learning music. There, Pandit Ganesh Prasad ji was from the Benaras Gharana, and I had been a fan of Girija Devi ji since my childhood. I had been following her and I met her when I was five, and then I met her when I was 18. I used to follow all singers from the Benaras Gharana, like Rasoolan Baiji. In Bhatkhande, we got to hear thumris from Pandit Mahadev Mishra ji. So, I used to follow them a lot because I really tried to look beyond the text of the songs, and the compositions of thumri and dadra from Benaras had the ras which is seen nowhere else. Then I got married and again moved from place to place with my husband. By that time I was already a great artiste with the radio, I was an approved artist from the ICCR, I was doing shows and programmes but it was in 1998 that I started learning from Girija Devi ji, and that is when I totally got drawn to the purab ang gayaki, as you say it. But before that, I had already participated in Sa Re Ga Ma: I was a finalist, so as a folk artiste, I was already given recognition. I was an A-grade in ghazal as I had training from different gurus, all those different streams of music. I performed sufi, I speak fluent Farsi and Urdu because of my teachers, but it is the purab ang from the Banaras Gharana that I am known for. The basic streak inside me was that of a rebel. A rebel against the set parameters of musicologists, of people who write about music, people who appreciate music. There was disparity in the treatment meted out to folk artists, disparity towards folk music, the kind of perception the society had of folk artistes.
Q. Were folk artists looked down upon?
A. Yes, they would be treated as second-class citizens, with respect to everything from the Mahotsavas to payments to behaviour. Folk music came before everything else and we need to respect our roots, so I started studying about it. It was a long journey and struggle which has not been easy as people like to believe it. So many people have asked me, “Where were you all these years?” And I tell them that it has taken me three decades to convince people that folk music is beyond just jhatkas and matkas, they are songs that tell us great stories, they are songs that tell us about great Indian traditions, they are songs that bind us as a society so well. So I started looking at each song as if it was a sociology chapter. I understand that music is a field of entertainment but how about we take it to a level where it is informative, educative and you sensitise also. I’m a very passionate UP-ite, so I used to feel people only talk about a certain kind of dhinchak Bhojpuri songs when talking about folk, and the whole purpose was getting lost. My struggle has been a long one of saying no to so many shows where I refused to share the stage with singers who would sing lewd songs. So, I took it upon myself to talk about what my Awadh and Benaras is about. Every region in the world has its own folk traditions, but UP is a land that has seen maximum cultural invasion, inter-exchange of cultures, so what we have now is a very big canvas of folk repertoire. I recall one incident when I went for Sa Re Ga Ma in the year 1998 and Jagjit [Singh] ji and Farida Khanum, Ghulam Ali khan, Mehdi Hassan were the judges. In one of the episodes which was the “Judges’ Choice” round, Farida Khanum ji said that you are from Lucknow, so let us hear some kajiri. So I very innocently asked her that there are 3-4 kinds of kajri, should I sing you classical kajri, Awadh kajri, Mirzapur kajri or Benaras kajri. And you know Jagjit ji just gave me that look and told me that, well, we were not aware that there are so many varieties, and said, “Can we have all four of them?” After the programme Jagjit Singh ji told me that you know so much and you have such a great connect with the audience, you should try and tell people all about it. So I knew what I was working at was hitting people.
Q. How is the reception of folk music now in rural and urban pockets?
A. I like to believe that I have been able to change some perception in a way that folk is now “cool”, where earlier people used to think it was “uncool”. Now, when I come to Lucknow and read the newspapers, I find so many folk singers now, particularly girls. Through my organisation, I had so many workshops to encourage young women, married women to come on stage and sing. And I now like it that they are coming up and performing. So, there definitely is a keen interest and now there is a trend also to go back to the roots. What has happened today that all this as a career option as stage presentation is becoming very good, but the real state of affairs is still sad. Also, what’s worse is that even in villages people are now dancing on DJs. I’m not criticising that. What I’m saying is that the place that earlier belonged to folk songs, is getting lost. Now, those people feel they will be branded as gawar, desi. So, they are the quickest to get rid of folk, which is very scary. We are losing this form faster in the villages.
Q. What kind of a role does Bollywood play in all this? Many folk singers are now looking to work for the mainstream music industry?
A. I appreciate the initial phase of Bollywood, when it was not Bollywood but Indian cinema. Music directors like Naushadsahab, S.D. Burman sahab, Hemant Kumar ji, Lakshmikant Pyarelal ji, Shankar Jayakishan ji have done a fantastic job to retain that essence. But of late, what they show is inauthentic. And then the kind of cheapness they like to pass on in the name of folk, angers me to no end. They show that in the villages women sing such double-meaning songs... No. In the name of creative freedom, they are killing the essence of folk. This is totally absurd.
Q. Still, why do most folk singers prefer going the Bollywood way?
A. I feel that your personal thinking and vision should reflect in your work. You are what you think. May be for some the money and fame is so important that they don’t bother with the culture or the consequences.I detest that kind of irresponsibility. What about all that we owe to society and to our forefathers who created these folk songs?
Q. How do we introduce our youth to the tradition of folk singing?
A. It is very difficult for children to learn folk songs unless they have not seen the rural lifestyle. These are not mere songs, you have to be initiated into that kind of lifestyle. So they have to see that life, be a part of those joint family systems, know what compassion is, know what family is, understand the guru-shishya parampara. Only then can they catch an insight and the deeper essence of folk.