“Every Artist Must Carve Their Own Identity”: Dhanashree Pandit-Rai

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By Noor Anand Chawla

When speaking of the semi-classical genre of Indian music known as Thumri, a few names stand out. With a career spanning 40 years, Mumbai-based singer Dhanashree Pandit-Rai’s name leads the pack. Having recently collaborated with numerous artists for ‘Synthesis – The Indian Muse’ helmed by ShowCase Events, this singer is on top of her game. She joins BW Loudest for a chat. Excerpts from an edited interview:

Q1: Hello! We would love to know about your journey in the music industry so far.

A.That is a long story! In a nutshell, my mother liked to test her kids for all talents – dance, music, art and would enrol us in various classes when we were younger. Quite early on, she gauged my musical talent. She had also always had a desire to sing herself but hadn’t worked on it or given it enough time, so she encouraged me to do it. She started music lessons for us quite early, around age 8/9, and our Masterji would come home once a week. But it was my elder sister who pushed me to take it more seriously. I was in 8 th or 9 th standard in school, and got myself enrolled in the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan in Chowpatty in Mumbai for their music program. After that initial grounding, I felt it was time to move on to more intensive training with a Guru.

Someone advised me that Bombay University had a good degree program, so I enrolled for the course there. It was a unique experience because they had teachers from all Gharanas of Hindustani Classical music, and they would teach on a one-on-one basis. This became a turning point for me. They asked us to choose which Gharana we wanted, and I chose my guru – Pt. Firoz Dastur of the Kirana Gharana. They had a two-year music Diploma, followed by a three-year degree course. Later, I also pursued an MFA program in music.

As for choosing Thumri, that is a different story. I used to listen to Begum Akhtar and Shobha Gurtu on the radio when I was younger and was really attracted to this form of music. Shobha ji was also my Guru for several years. When I realised that I was more evocative during my Thumri singing, I decided I should pay more attention to this form, and make it my main repertoire. You see, one needs to carve their identity and it is better to be identified for something specific. You need to have a USP and I chose Thumri as mine. That was how I got into it.

Q2.Has it been difficult for you to forge a path for Thumri music in today’s day and age?

A.I feel Thumri is being appreciated more now, as it is emerging from the shadows of Khayal Gayaki. Khayal is a very serious form of music and in a concert, Thumri was always performed afterwards as a kind of comic relief! Earlier, when I would suggest a pure Thumri concert, music institutions would laugh at the idea. They were worried the audience wouldn’t stay engaged. I wanted to break this barrier – my guru was already doing Thumri concerts, and her work inspired me to create unique concepts around Thumri as well. I decided to combine Kathak with Thumri – as it was intended by its original creator Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. We trace the journey of these two art forms as they travelled hand in hand from the courts and salons of the courtesans, to the concert stage.

I also introduced the idea of ‘Narrated Concerts’ in which I perform ‘The Thumri Story’ which has a commentary running through to educate the audience on the finer aspects of Thumri as an art form.It is quite a challeng to have Thumri stand up to a Classical form like Khayal – the raags are lighter, the poetry is simplistic, so how do we get the bhav to show in this form? Where is the appeal coming from? It comes from the feeling you are infusing in the work. In these narrated concerts, I tell attendees about the charm of Thumri, I tell them about its birth and trace its history – how it was meant to be music that entertained, because the Nawabs were tired of only listening to Khayal. They were romantics after all, and wanted music that emphasised the fun and frolic. All these innovations are what keep the audience engaged, and I believe they have helped Thumri gain some allure. Of course, other Thumri singers have also
popularised the form and for a lay audience, it has been a good discovery.

Q3.Please tell us about your association with ShowCase Events.

A.I was introduced to ShowCase Events by Sunita Bhuyan, who is a very dear friend and colleague. During lockdown, Sunita told me about the ‘In Conversation’ series that was being organised by Nanni Singh as part of her ShowCase Studio offering. Once you speak to Nanni, you feel some kind of love radiating from her, she is a music lover, and does a wonderful job of promoting artists across genres. I was delighted to do a program with her. After that first one, we did many more programs together.

Q4.What was your experience of working on Synthesis – The Indian Muse?

A.It was wonderful! I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a project like this with so many artists collaborating, and I wondered how it would pan out. The catchy tune had a western ring to it, and I knew I would have to work hard to give it a Thumri twist, which was quite a challenge.Indian artists are generally solo artists, so we never have to adjust to performing with others –working in a collaborative set-up is not easy! But everyone was so cooperative. Ravi Iyer is a brilliant composer and a wonderful and generous human being. He left me the freedom to work on the inflections to his tune. Nanni had asked me to start with an alaap, I thought instead of the usual ‘aa’ I could do a bol alaap and echo a few words of the lyrics in the beginning of the song, and I think that improvisation turned out well.

Q5.Any exciting projects in the works?

A.Right now, there are two projects coming up in January – fingers crossed that the Omicron variant doesn’t stop them! The first of these is a concert for the Indian Heritage Society, in collaboration with Northern Lights. This organisation puts together concerts in heritage sites across Mumbai, and the upcoming one will be a recording in the University Convocation Hall, the video of which will be broadcast later. The second one is a live Facebook show on The Thumri Story for a show called Gaana aur Guftagu organised by singer Archita Bhattacharya.

Q6.What advice do you have for people entering the music industry now?

A.The first thing I would tell young people is that music requires at least an hour and a half of practice daily. Secondly, I feel that everyone should have a backup profession as a fallback option, where you can earn your bread and butter. Unless you’re from a bracket of society where you don’t need to earn money from music, you should have some sort of part-time job, which will give you enough time to practice your music too. When I learnt music, my thoughts were not on whether I’m gong to be famous or make a career out of it. My contemporaries and I were so involved in perfecting the art, that we never thought of whether this will pay us back later. We followed a kind of Bhagvad Gita philosophy towards our music, which is, “Not thinking about the fruit but just being consistent in our efforts towards perfection”. But I wonder whether the younger generation would vibe with this, given the constraints and challenges of the current times!

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