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A savoury evening, spiced with magic

Dining out with Swapnasundari at New Delhi's Yellow Brick Road restaurant. Photo: Anu Pushkarna.

SITTING ACROSS the table at Ambassador Hotel's Yellow Brick Road restaurant in New Delhi, she speaks a thousand words over an hour or so, her eyes a million more. Wide, luminous, they are eloquent without screaming for attention, enhanced as they are with liner. Silence here invariably loses out to speech! And ah! The joys of listening to the articulate lady, now garrulous, now candid, but never quite full of herself. If a listener is captive, then freedom can only confer lesser joys. Early winter across the dining table with Swapnasundari late one evening... there would be few better places to be in. Time here loses its relevance, hours their momentum.

And the lady known across the world for her skills as a dancer - she has just cut her first "infotainment" album - is in no mood to let go of the past. She talks at length about it, then adds a few words about how she would want the future to unfold. In between, this singer-dancer - in that order, she insists, adding "I was into music before I became a dancer," - with mesmerising eyes and a voice which stops you in your tracks, has a sip of Nimbu Pani with soda added - she has turned a vegetarian of late.

"Monday is a vegetarian day for me. Continental food is just fine, no fat, boiled, steamed variety," she says with the poise quite becoming of someone who by her own admission has two racks full of recipe books at her Chanakyapuri residence.

"A lot of people don't know I have been in music all through. My mother was in films; I have always been in music. I did not have a choice. When I was 16, my mother wanted me to be a musician. My music lessons started before my dance sessions. This album - `Janambhoomi Meri Pyaari' containing nine patriotic songs in nine Indian languages - is like a wish fulfilment for my parents. My mother was my best critic."

She obviously isn't faking it. As she helps herself to some papri-chaat, she reveals, "Part of my name comes from my grandmother's side, part of it was given by Geeta Dutt.'

When did she realise that she had the best possible name for a woman? "Well, quite late actually. It struck me only when I became a dancer. In school, I used to hide the Sundari part of it because the kids would poke fun at me, calling me `Swapnasundari... Chchachchundari'!"

Now, obviously she does not hide. Does not need to. Neither her name, nor her skills. Besides twinkling eyes and tinkling feet, she is also blessed with a mind that has a freshness of approach remarkable for someone a few years removed from the sunrise years of life.

"For my debut album with Sa Re Ga Ma I had suggested a normal picture of mine to be used. I did not want to reinforce my identity as a dancer in a music album but the company officials obviously felt that they needed to introduce me to common people."

Incidentally, this is her first foray into "non-specialised music". As she says, "this album cannot be slotted in a genre. It is not a film or pop or ghazal album, it defies definition. It will be accepted across the country. After all, Hindi films often get maximum profits from the South. It had 12 songs - later Konkani, Sindhi and Malayalam songs were deleted." How did she manage to sing songs in so many languages? As she helps herself to some mushrooms, she says, "My grandmother was multilingual. Every language has its own beauty. I have inherited the whole of India. Born in Tamil Nadu, raised in Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, I know every 50 km. or so the dialect changes. So, I picked up things along the way." Sure she did, as those who have listened to her will vouch for - she has almost flawless Urdu pronunciation and understands the nuances of the spoken word the way a wordsmith would.

Well, there is more to this lady than just music and dance. "You get one life, do the maximum with it. Life is a blessing, it is not about standing on the edge of a swimming pool and wondering about water," she says as she orders some more soda.

"I am a vegetarian these days for detoxification. I prefer mild spices, mushrooms and, also chilli sauce but started eating non-vegetarian food while travelling. I like Far-Eastern cuisine, am off-spices and butter but I can barely survive without roti. When I used to live in Chennai tab to roti ke liye taras gaye. I cannot live on rice, rice and rice. By the way, then Mohammed Rafi, Geeta Dutt and Talat Mahmood would drop by and my mother would make some phulke for them," she recalls, even as she admires the simple, sober woodwork of Yellow Brick Road. "I had been here earlier with my nephew who is quite fond if it. I like the crockery of the place. It is quite elegant and appealing."

As she helps herself to some steamed fare with fresh salad, she confesses: "Nobody has asked me to sing for Hindi films. I would love to do that though I cannot go and live in Mumbai forever."

Won't she like to sing us a song before we are through with some delectable food low on calories? The lady obliges. "Babuji dheere chalna... ." Then comes, "Yeh lo main haari piya".

With her simple words and elegant ways, she wins you over and as you step out of the Ambassador Hotel, you find yourself humming "Teri aankhon ke siwa duniya mein rakha kya hai...".


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