Rekha Surya is a disciple of the legendary Ghazal singer Begum Akhtar. She has been carrying on the legacy of her guru in concerts, both national and international. Rekha talks about her genre of music in an exclusive interview with Inam Abidi Amrohvi.
What does music mean to you ?
For me, listening to music or creating it are both very pleasurable but very different activities. As a musician, I cannot help but analyse the music I listen to whereas composing music is an out-of-body activity as it is so completely absorbing that it becomes meditative — cleansing and healing.
Do you have a favourite composition? What kind of poetry attracts you for your style of singing?
There are many compositions that I love, some because of the melody and others because of the poetry or both. Invariably I fall in love with whatever I am currently working on so a ‘favourite’ constantly changes from time to time.
Three types of poetry attract me–the folk dialect of Uttar Pradesh in which are written the text of Dadra, Kajri, Jhoola, Hori, Chaiti; the refinement of Urdu poetry; the subtle profundity of mystical poetry.
Please share some fond memories of your time spent with Begum Akhtar.
Many quotes and some anecdotes about Begum Akhtar can be read in my book ‘Sung In A Sensual Style’ on Hindustani light classical music.
She was an extremely warm, generous and gracious person. I used to learn Kathak from her, and was forever on a diet during those days. She often kept fruits especially for me. She weaned me away from Kathak as she said one can only pursue one art-form wholeheartedly.
During one of her trips to Delhi where I accompanied her, she was visited in the hotel where we were staying in by Kaifi Azmi. She told him, “Ye ladki meri aakhri shaagird hai — is ke baad mein kisi ko nahin sikhaoongi”. [This girl is my last pupil – I’ll not train anymore] Her words were proven true as she died within two years of my learning from her. But in those two years she gave me so much.
She was very positive-minded. When I told her I did not plan to take up music seriously, she told me I had to as I was learning from her. I countered this by saying that one can only take it up professionally if one starts learning music at five or six years of age, as did other musicians. She replied, “Tum zaheen ho, padhi-likhi ho, to jaldi pakad leti ho. Aagey dekhna kya hoga!”. [You are intelligent and learned and that’s why grasp faster. Just wait and watch!] This encouragement and belief in my talent kept me on the musical path that she paved for me, much after her death, especially as General Habibullah in Lucknow told me that when he had asked her who she was leaving behind as her torch-bearer, she took my name.
How difficult or easy was the adjustment to the new guru Girija Devi? How different was she in temperament from Begum Akhtar?
Just as Lucknow and Varanasi are completely different in architecture and culture, so were the temperaments of the two musicians. Girija Devi is far more pragmatic and disciplined. Begum Akhtar was the quintessential emotional artist. For me it was a difficult period of adjustment both musically and otherwise.
Do you feel the nuances of classical singing keeps mainstream audiences away from such concerts? What more could be done to keep the tradition alive in the times of 140 characters messaging?
After Begum Akhtar’s death, Jagjit Singh took Ghazal to the masses because he diluted Ghazal and sang Geet-numa Ghazal rather than traditional, Thumri-ang Ghazal-gayaki. I believe in Thumri-ang traditional Ghazal-gayaki, both because of my taaleem and because of my aesthetic convictions.
In New York, a non-classical music listener came backstage after my concert to tell me that she had been cajoled by her friends to attend it. They told her, “She (me) sings Ghazal also but even her Ghazal is classical”.This lady thanked me profusely because she said she enjoyed my concert immensely, proving that exposure to traditional music is necessary for audiences to like it. Many people are simply unacquainted with Hindustani light classical music, so more concert-organisers should promote this genre.
You once wrote, “All art-forms are mutable with time. The pity lies in improper musical handling, and loss of quality.” Please elaborate.
In modern times, Ghazal often swings in two opposite directions, veering towards geet or khayaal. Sometimes very pedestrian poetry is sung for commercial purposes.
As a messenger of peace through music, do you feel this medium has helped bridge the gap between the people of India and Pakistan?
At my recent concert for Faiz Foundation in London, I told the audience, “Just as Ghalib does not belong to India alone but Pakistan also, Faiz too belongs not only to Pakistan but also India. Through his poetry let us recognise our shared cultural heritage.” I hope for the sake of both our countries that peaceful ties will be formed to engender economic prosperity.
You’ve performed quite extensively both in India and abroad. Is there any place or concert that stands out?
I sang in1994 for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC where I had to sing (some academic Americans like this Smithsonian Director believe in ‘pure, natural sound’) without mikes for an auditorium full of over 300 people and got a long standing ovation. I was very impressed by the pin-drop silence maintained by a partially Western audience.
With all your Lucknow background, you never performed in Lucknow. Is that a regret?
It is ironical that Begum Akhtar was from Lucknow, and so am I but I have not been invited to sing on her centenary. When she died, I was embarrassed and pained to read the announcement in a leading English newspaper: “Qawwali Queen dead”. This is how Lucknow honours its artists!