Falguni Shah takes the thumri further in a new album.
She’s sung for the Obamas, the Dalai Lama, Oprah Winfrey and even for hardened criminals. She’s performed with noted names like Yo-Yo Ma, A.R. Rahman, Wyclef Jean, Philip Glass, Ricky Martin, and Blues Traveler. Her songs have also been featured in Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, A Place in Time.
Meet Falguni Shah, popularly known as Falu, a singer from Mumbai who has generated a devoted fan following in New York. At the launch of her new album Foras Road — produced by Grammy-Award-winning producer Danny Blume — Falu wowed the audience with a powerful rendition of the traditional thumri.
Here are excerpts from an interview.
Could you share an early memory of music from your childhood?
The earliest memory I have is from when I was four and I got a chance to sing in an Amitabh Bachchan movie, Do Aur Do Panch in the child chorus for ‘Humko jeene do, jeene do’. I couldn’t reach the mike and they gave me a stool to stand on.
How rigorous was your training?
I started taking lessons from Kaumudi Munshi, who was also my mother’s teacher, at the age of three and after I finished school, she put me in a seven-year masters’ program. When I was very young, I remember my mother not feeding me if I didn’t practise my scales. She’d give me a bite after each effort! It was all very playful. When I turned six, I became very serious about singing. At 14 I would practise for 16 hours a day — I would practise like a maniac.
Your husband Gaurav Shah is an oncologist and a member of your band. Would you say you had a marriage ‘arranged by music’?
That’s so true — I like that term! Gaurav is the soul of my band. He was studying neuroscience at Harvard but was also learning the flute and vocal. After graduating, he came to India to learn music and he was in my classes with Kaumudi Munshi and Ustad Sultan Khan. Obviously the concept of dating didn’t exist, so he signed up in all my classes one by one. That’s how we started hanging out together and all we did was sing together! My parents liked him a lot.
How was your experience as a visiting lecturer at Tufts University?
It was fantastic — my first introduction to how music works here, how America works. It was a mixed class of all nationalities. Some of my students were older than I was — I don’t think I was teaching — I was just sharing what I knew.
Over the years you and your musicians have evolved an ‘Indie Hindi’ band.
In our last album, Gaurav wrote ‘In the Rain’ which is an English thumri. That made me think — why don’t we explore the roots of thumri and really create an entire album? Foras Road is what that is.
Did you write all the songs or are they old classics?
I inherited this semi-classical music from my teacher — there are seven languages in the album. I have learned 5000 thumris — I always had them, I grew up with them. There are some songs we wrote in that style and some were handed down, for which we re-arranged the music.
Growing up, did you ever expect to perform in the clubs and concert halls of New York?
I never imagined I would do what I’m doing right now. I started experimenting — sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t and you learn from your mistakes. I found my niche from all the experimentation — small basement sessions for birthdays to festivals to Carnegie Hall — I did it to find out where I belong. It just fell in place.
Why have you chosen to present classical music in such a non-traditional way?
The younger generation considers classical music their ‘parents’ music’. I want to break this. Classical music is passed orally from generation to generation and if we don’t pass it on, we will lose it.
If you have an image, if you look cool, if you can be one of them, the young generation will relate to you and the music. We have made an effort to take this old sound but present it in a very cool and hip and modern way. When I sing a thumri it's exactly as a baiji would sing it but the arrangement with instruments is something that we may not hear in India.
I was recently in Jacoby Hospital in the Bronx — some of the people were in wheelchairs, some with breathing machines. You touch their hearts with music. We did a show at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison. I think it’s been one of my best shows. That audience, many who were in handcuffs, loved it. For two hours they felt free.