Once the domain of the courtesan, Hindustani Light Classical Music is rarely heard now: Classical Singer Rekha Surya

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Mentored by two great musicians– Begum Akhtar and Girija Devi—Rekha Surya has taken Ghazal, Dadra, Thumri and Sufiana kalaam across the globe. She has received acclaim for keeping traditional Ghazal gayaki alive, and for singing Sufi poetry in a light classical style.

In conversation with Vandana Bansal for she talked about her musical journey.

Q1. What inspired you to make music your profession?

I don’t come from a family of musicians and moreover, I studied in an Irish Convent school in Lucknow. So it was a surprise for everyone around me when I asked my mother for a music teacher, after I accidentally attended a music concert by the renowned Salamat and Nazakat brothers from Pakistanat the age of 11. I went on to give music exams alongside school for Allahabad Prayag Samiti and fared well.

Q2. How was your experience of learning music from Malika-e-Ghazal Begum Akhtar and how did you meet her?

Accompanied by a common family friend I went to meet Begum Akhtar for the first time. At first She initially turned down my request to learn from her, saying that “I don’t teach anymore.” But as we rose to leave after she offered us tea, she asked me in an offhand way to sing something. I sang her famous ‘Deewana Banana Hai toh…’. Then, without any change in her expression, she asked me to return next morning at 10am.” I don’t want this voice to go to waste”, she said. I received such motherly affection from her and used to ask such childish questions. Once I asked her if she was very beautiful when young to which she replied “No, I wasn’t very beautiful but I loved beautiful things.” She was a very generous teacher. She gave me a lot in those two years, even the details of how one must sit while performing andhow one’s head should not be too high or too low while singing. She was very patient as a teacher and a wonderful person so I was completely in love with her. It was a huge loss to me when she died and my life came to a standstill.

Q3. How did you manage to continue with your music career after Begum Akhtar’s demise?

She died within 2years of my being with her and it was tragic for me. In fact, she used to ask “Why didn’t you come to me earlier?” I was actually not interested in taking up music as a career. I just enjoyed singing and I was told I sang well. But she told me that I had to take it seriously as a profession.

A year and a half after she died, Girija Devi came from Banaras to perform. Next evening she gave a house concert where I was invited. The hosts introduced me to her and told her that my tutelage under Begum Akhtar had tragically been cut short. She then asked me to visit her next morning. After listening to me she told me to return with her to Benares after a week. Si took the train her to Benares and a new chapter began. Later, she was designated as a Guru by Sangeet Academy in Calcutta run by ITC. The academy has a ‘Guru Shishya parampara’ system and is one of the most prestigious music academies in India. I was given a scholarship for a year and then I moved to Delhi.

Q4. Do male singers have an edge over female singers in the music industry?

I think more than being gender oriented, preferences are based on nepotism. Renowned singer Anoop Jalota pointed this out to me. He said that I would have been far more famous if I came from a musical background. As far as the male and female ratio goes I don’t think it’s easier for women. A lot of organizers mislead women. That obviously doesn’t happen with men!

Q5. Do you think due to the increasing western influence Classical music is fading away?

I don’t think classical music will ever fade away because it’s been around for so many centuries. There are music companies who unfortunately only promote popular music. The real problem is that there is a divide between pure classical and light classical .Begum Akhtar propagated it all her life, saying that Hindustani Light classical music is a part of classical music.

Ghazal singing is usually sung in 3ways- Geetnuma style, Khayalnuma style and Thumriang style of Begum Akhtar. Few people today are singing Ghazal in Thumri style today and I am making a very conscious effort of making that style alive.

Q6. Internet has offered a huge space and scope for talent and artists via social media and gave a wider platform and made unknown faces known. According to you, how has the internet influenced the music business?

Youtube is a wonderful platform. One doesn’t have to wait for music companies to acknowledge one’s work. You can publish your own musicInternet can take you to a wider audience. For instance I will be doing a concert for Toronto organisation in October and it’ll be on internet. Lockdown situation has not left no option other than online concerts. Definitely the charm of the live concerts is being missed.

Q7. You have won prestigious awards like Karamveer Puruskar and performed internationally.
What has been your mantra of success and what advice would you give to budding musicians?

I don’t lay too much stress on success. What one should strive for is being true to your music. I don’t try to replicate Begum Akhtar’s compositions. I sing my own compositions and believe in individuality.You can perpetuate a legacy or a certain tradition or gharana but eventually what matters is your own individuality. You should just be in love with what you are doing, everything else follows. Don’t ever chase fame, it’ll come to you.


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