Rekha Surya interviewed by Professor Mushirul Hasan, VC, Jamia Milia Islamia (2006)

The youngest disciple of Begum Akhtar, Rekha Surya, has also trained under Girija Devi and has carved a niche for herself in the world of Hindustani light classical music.

Professor Mushirul Hasan Vice-Chancellor Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi Interviews Rekha Surya 

Q (M.H.) How do you feel as a woman singer? Is life easy or difficult ??

(R.S.) Life is of course difficult for a woman singer. Earlier, I had to let go of certain opportunities simply because of being a female singer. For instance, India Today's owner's father sent me repeated invitations when I lived in Lucknow, to sing in Delhi and in New York. My older sister, married in Delhi, felt her social respectability was threatened by a sister who sang professionally, so persuaded me to turn down these invitations. A famous industrialist in Mumbai asked me to sing for the celebration of a family occasion. At the time I lived with my parents in Lucknow and my sister told my liberal-minded parents to make me turn it down. This house-concert which I turned down was given to Jagjit Singh who must not have undergone any such turmoil. A glamorous hotel in Bangalore asked me to sing for its opening which I turned down because I became uncertain about how I was perceived as a woman singer. When I moved to Delhi and looked for a place on rent, it was a nightmare as I was looked upon askance when I said I sang for a living. I myself was able to shed considerations of middle-class respectability after many years. The genre of light classical music is associated with the term "mujra", a form of entertainment for male clientele. It is a relief to me that I am drawn towards Sufi poetry which I now include in my repertoire, not because it has gained popularity in recent years but because the poetry is profound and appeals to my sensibilities. Also, this abstract and complex poetry is most suited to my light classical genre. Within the genre itself there is mystical poetry veiled by sensuality, as God is referred to as the beloved. Earlier, I resisted singing Bhajan despite its vast popularity and instant respectability, as I felt it suited neither my voice, my style nor my personal convictions.

Q (M.H.) Who were Begum Akhtar and Girija Devi ??

(R.S.) Begum Akhtar and Girija Devi inhabited different worlds. While they both came from professional backgrounds and both sang Thumri, they belonged to two diverse cultures (Muslim and Hindu), two diverse cities and two different gharanas. Also, they were diametrically opposite personalities--one was reckless, the other extremely cautious and disciplined. Their approach to both life and music differed.

Q (M.H.) How do you feel while singing a Ghazal? Do you get into the mood that is sought to be conveyed by the poet ??

(R.S.) A ghazal consists of couplets that may, but need not, bear resemblance to each other thematically. So unlike a nazm, which has a singular theme running through the entire poem, a ghazal may reflect many moods. One certainly pays attention to the poetry while singing, to enable musical expression.

Q (M.H.) How does a singer like you innovate while singing a Thumri ??

(R.S.) It is a myth that pure improvisation is done during a performance. Improvisation on stage is based on many hours of practice at home, during which one explores all the possibilities of a melody. Actual improvisation is done during riyaaz. Most musical phrases are reinvented on stage.

Q (M.H.) What is the future of classical music without state patronage ??

(R.S.) Bleak, because corporate sponsorship is hard to get. The state has not particularly given patronage to light classical music, which is why there are such few exponents of Thumri. It is a known fact that after India's independence, the British left their Victorian sense of morality behind. Perpetuated by Indian bureaucracy, the new power-wielders forbade the entrance of baiji singers into the portals of All India Radio unless they showed marriage certificates to prove their respectability. Pure classical music is given patronage but it is denied to light classical music, a genre that hangs delicately and precariously between two worlds-the world of pure classical music, which is given state patronage, and popular light music, which runs on its own commercial steam. So Hindustani light classical music has survived because of its inherent strength and beauty but many vibrant traditions disappear if not nurtured. Now it receives some state patronage but artists are often handled by bureaucrats in an overbearing, arrogant, officious, high-handed, pompous and patronizing manner.

Q (M.H.) Are we, as a nation, sensitive to defending our classical traditions ??

(R.S.) No. Whenever I am in New York and other highly developed cities I bemoan the fact that when we had a highly sophisticated monument like the Taj Mahal, America was a wilderness and today we are a century behind technically advanced civilizations. We do have Bangalore's IT to be proud of but what we can truly boast of is our cultural heritage, which we do not bother to protect. When I sing for mixed audiences in America, it is the Americans who seem to know what a Jhoola or Dadra is, not the Indians and Pakistanis.

Rekha Surya 
Resi. - J-38, Jor Bagh Lane, New Delhi - 110 003, INDIA
Cell. +919871891580

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