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Updated: May 29, 2014 20:26 IST

A voice of my colours

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Vocalist Uma Garg during a performance in New Delhi. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma
The Hindu
Vocalist Uma Garg during a performance in New Delhi. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

As Delhi University continues its metamorphosis, vocalist Uma Garg, heading the Faculty of Music and Fine Arts, feels music students can benefit.

“Sometimes life brings us to what we call ‘bad times’,” says Vidushi Uma Garg, versatile Hindustani vocalist. “But when we look back we realise that everything happened for the good.” She is referring to her decision to join the University of Delhi some two decades ago as a lecturer in the music department. “Till then I had thought I would never take up a job. I had been performing since childhood and I didn’t want it to interfere with my music.” Today, she is Dean and Head of the Faculty of Music and Fine Arts, a post she assumed about a year ago. One would be tempted to say the circumstances that led her to applying for a job, if only half-heartedly, were destiny in the making. But even minus the sentimentality, it seems perfectly plausible that her versatility would have led her to fields beyond the stage sooner or later. Her varied interests would have made themselves known. Though it is still early to tell, this trait may augur well for the future of the music department too.

Uma’s first guru was her mother, late Ashalata Das. “She instilled music and the habit of riyaaz in me from the age of five.” Her second guru who gave her more formal training was Sadashiv Apte of Allahabad. Afterwards she trained under Ustad Hafeez Ahmed Khan of the Rampur Seheswan gharana. She continued advanced training under Dr. P.P. Johri (Indore gharana) and later Pandit Mani Prasad of the Kirana gharana. “I learnt from him in the guru shishya parampara for 12 years in great depth.”

During that period, Pandit Mani Prasad asked her to give up light music, a genre in which she had excelled. Yet, some years later, she completed her PhD on the topic of Hindi film music. It was not a rebellion but a quest for answers.

Though she had become a graded artist of AIR in light and classical music at a young age, she always felt the taboo of film music. “When I was young I used to wonder why, when it was such beautiful music, and everyone was attracted to it, the pandits and even my parents would warn us against it,” she says. As she grasped the tenets of music, she began analysing. “For example, everyone imitates Lataji (Lata Mangeshkar). But only she can sing some things in a certain way. What makes her different? I went into these things.”

The doctoral thesis, which included an analysis of what constituted the beauty and attraction of the great film songs of the period known as Hindi cinema’s golden age, was later published as a book, “Sangeet ka Saundarya Bodh” and received a special mention at the 48th National Film Awards (2001).

Most performers opt for either light or classical music, but this is one vocalist who has given concerts in both and earned a ‘Top’ grade from AIR in both as well. “I have been criticised from both sides,” she admits.

“Light music has its beauty, light classical has its beauty and of course classical music does,” she reflects. “If one can show the difference between each form, why not?”

On the other hand, some classical musicians sing a bhajan or a thumri, “but it still sounds like a (purely classical) chhota khayal.”

How does she fulfil the disparate requirements of both genres? The approach is totally different, she explains. “Awaaz lagaana is basic. It takes years. The techniques are different. You have to understand the requirements of the form and also your own voice.” As for maintaining the voice in a polluted city like Delhi, with a teaching career to boot, she says, “An artist has to do a lot of tyaag-tapasya (sacrifice and penance), whether in terms of food and drink or your social life.” In the end you have to understand your own needs and find a balance, she says.

The Cluster Innovation Centre of DU and the four-year BA, she feels, have given its music students wider opportunities. Some may disagree with the semester system but in any case, it’s not possible at the BA level, “to teach one raga for a year,” as in the guru-shishya tradition. There has to be a rethinking of the teaching methodology and the purpose of this course. “Those who are going to be professional performing artists do not come to the university and start with ragas at that age,” she points out. The new system allows music students to pursue other subjects and those in other departments to learn music too. She hopes to write to the authorities to introduce new diploma courses that would be of help to young adults to make careers in which musical knowledge, especially theory, is a help.

Meanwhile for young performers, she runs the organisation Pravah. “Out of 30 days in a month I would be in the AIR studio for 20, but now youngsters are lucky to get a recording once a year. This is my way of helping them get a platform.”

(Uma Garg’s National Programme of Music is due to be telecast on Doordarshan on June 7, 8 a.m.)

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