Rekha Bhardwaj gets candid about her musical journey

It is difficult to track down Rekha Bhardwaj for an interview. She is so busy with her riyaaz that she hardly has time for the world. “Riyaaz is more important than breathing.” She devotes two-and-a-half hours daily to her practice. For one hour she meditates with ‘Om’. And this is not enough for her. “I need more time to hone my paltas, alaps and bandishes.” The singer who has achieved success on her own terms performed this past Friday at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in Jodhpur. “If success comes by singing mediocre stuff, I can do without such success,” Rekha is refreshingly straightforward.

We have learnt that her husband, director-composer Vishal Bhardwaj, took to music composition because of her. “It is true to some extent, but Vishal romanticises it a lot. Vishal comes from a musical family. His father (Ram Bhardwaj) was a lyricist. People like Laxmikantji and Usha Khanna used to visit his home in Meerut but his music was more of Bollywood kind while I was deeply into classical. When we met in Delhi’s Hindu College, I was a year senior to him and a star on the cultural scene of the college. I had already learnt from Gandharva Mahavidyalya and was training under Pandit Amarnathji of the Indore gharana. During the college fests, Vishal would come up with difficult compositions and I would criticise, nagging him to make his music simpler.” Well, over the years, Vishal’s music did begin to rest easy on the lips, but his films turned complex. “True,” Rekha bursts into infectious laughter.

Tortoise on song!

However, even after the tremendous success of her album “Ishqa Ishqa”, particularly the Sufi number “Tere Ishq Mein”, we hardly heard of her and the perception is she is too devoted to her family. “I am devoted to the family but I never said no to work. I am more of a tortoise, who believes in lasting success without stepping out of the grihasta ashram. Also, surprisingly, I didn’t get any work after ‘Ishqa Ishqa’. But looking back I feel it happened for the good, otherwise I would have been singing only Sufi songs.”

Yes, we wouldn’t have tasted “Namak Ishq Ka”. “You know, I was not expected to sing the song. Vishal has this habit of singing his every composition to me. When ‘Namak’ was being composed he sang the first couple of lines to me. As always I insisted on some corrections and gave it a more folksy touch. As I sang to him, he said you are the right choice for the song. I agreed, but during the recording I realised what I had got into, because the antaras were too naughty for my comfort. Then Gulzar sahib came to my rescue, and I somehow sailed through.”

Modest as she may sound, the song made Rekha realise her range. “After singing ‘Namak’, I realised what Piyush Mishra expected of me when he offered me ‘Gulaal’ songs.” The real pleasure came from the fact that after Omkara, she finally broke free from the family brand, as other composers evinced interest in her talent. Be it for Shantanu Moitra in Laga Chunari Mein Daag or for A.R. Rahman in the song “Genda Phool”, Rekha delivered with distinction.

“It depends on composers how they use a singer. Composers like Piyush, Shantanu and Rahman have brought folk back into focus in films. Rahman so beautifully built Hip Hop beats around a simple folk song like ‘Genda Phool’ that you get into the groove the moment it starts. Recently, I have sung a classical number for Ishqiya in raga Lalit.”

Bollywood recognition, Rekha says, has given her an opportunity to do her own things. “You begin to get more platforms to realise another layer of your being. I want to sing more thumris, want to try Jazz…We are working on an album, but before that I want to explore the depth of the songs of ‘Ishqa Ishqa’. I feel I remained stuck to the structure. Now through live nights I want to set the mood, the sama, and experience every orchestration that comes out of the structure…the melody that comes through by improvising on scales.” We are waiting for the aamad!

Rustic night

At RIFF, Rekha performed with two of Rajasthan’s finest vocalists – Rehana Mirza, the queen of maand from Jaipur, and Bhanwari Devi, bhopi and folk singer extraordinaire, for an evening of rustic renditions and a recital of rare songs from the varied folk and traditional styles of Rajasthan and other states.

Among the highlights were Rekha’s renditions of “Kesaria balam” and “Teri ishq mein”.