Singer Gayatri Asokan on her journey in music

Gayatri Asokan   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Gayatri Asokan is on song. ‘Tasavvur’, a ghazal sung by Gayatri and Jazim Sharma and featuring sitar maestro Purbayan Chatterjee, is a treat for fans of ghazals as the singers weave aural magic with their soulful music and superb rendering. Poet Zeeshan Niazi’s verses have been scored by Hyderabad-based ghazal singer Ramavtar Dayama. The single, released recently, has been garnering superlatives from leading musicians like Shaan, Taufiq Qureshi, Suresh Wadkar and Richa Sharma and, naturally, Gayatri is on a high.

“To make it as a ghazal singer on the national scene has always been my dream and now it is coming true,” she says over phone from Mumbai.

For the last three years, Gayatri, who made a mark as an award-winning playback singer in Malayalam, has been making herself heard on the ghazal circuit as a singer to look out for. Two years ago, Pankaj Udhas had released ‘Ghazal Gaze’, her album of ghazals. ‘Suna hai log’, one of the compositions in that album, became a hit and gave her a firm footing on the ghazal circuit.

“Poet Ahmed Faraz’s ‘Suna hai log’ has been doing extremely well. It has got more than three lakh views on YouTube without any kind of promotion from my side. It became my calling card in North India. Whenever I perform in Delhi, I get requests to perform that ghazal. And in Pakistan, leading singers have done covers of the same composition. That one ghazal has got its due in terms of recognition,” she says happily.

In addition, last year and the year before that, she was invited to perform for the Jashn-e-Rekhta, a three-day annual Urdu festival in Delhi, one of the prestigious cultural events in the national capital. The only South Indian to be invited for the programme, she recalls how she was able to strike a chord with the packed audience at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in Delhi.

“Vishal Bhardwaj, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Nooran Sisters, Warsi brothers... it was a big honour for me to be featured with these greats. I was given a one-hour slot and I got good reviews after my concerts. I could not believe it myself because it is not easy for a South Indian to make the grade at such events. I sang my original ghazal ‘Suna hai log...’. Now, every other month, I have a ghazal concert in Delhi,” she says.

Gayatri was also featured in the Urdu Heritage Festival in Delhi last year. Organised by the government of Delhi, the ghazal concerts held in connection with the festival has a galaxy of ghazal singers. “And on December 31, 2019, I had a concert at the India International Habitat Centre. It was a poetry-based festival where I sang one ghazal each from the repertoire of great poets such as Ghalib, Iqbal, Parveen Shahir and so on.”

Although the singer has been missing from the film music industry in Kerala for some time, clearly she has been extremely busy on the ghazal circuit and winning plaudits for her music. As she points out, she moved to Mumbai three years ago after her marriage to Purbayan and since then Gayatri has been focussed on ghazals.

“For 20 years of my career, I have almost always participated in film-based concerts only. I am thankful to God for giving me these new opportunities,” she says.

Gayatri Asokan

Gayatri Asokan   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

In the meantime, Gayatri’s home videos of her jamming with her husband went viral and was noticed by greats like Hariharan. She recalls with a giggle how she became tongue-tied when Hariharan complimented her on her singing. “Zakirji (Zakir Hussain) also had seen some of the videos of my songs that my husband had shared on his Twitter account. Thanks to his generosity, it got noticed. Purbayan is also my biggest critic and that is why I am improving every day. I sit with his students and learn from him. Initially, I used to be inhibited because it is not easy learning from him. It is really tough because the sitar is much more complex than vocal music, I feel. Rhythmically, it is much more evolved than vocal music. Once, I started sitting with his students and learning from Purbayan, I realised I was a big zero. Moreover, he has given me some valuable tips. One important tip is that ‘what makes a maestro a maestro is not just his skill. It is the conviction he has’. Conviction is such an important thing in music,” she explains.

She points out that in Mumbai, all the reputed ghazal singers take a song and own it. “For that, you need courage. In Mumbai, the training and encouragement is there for singers to make a song their own. That is why there is such a huge pool of talent. This large pool of talent is there in Kerala too. Unfortunately, the problem is that when you have done playback all the time, you are taught to believe that you should only faithfully reproduce what has been taught to you. The scope for improvisations is quite limited. So, in Kerala, new talents that come up end up being fantastic singers but they are encouraged to be clones of the original, so you can’t own a song. Young singers are not encouraged to improvise and even if they do it, it is ignored,” she adds.

Creating own music

According to Gayatri, that kind of unfettered improvisation is found among bands such as Masala Coffee, Thaikkudam Bridge and others. Calling them torchbearers, she avers that they are the singers of the future.

“Young singers like (KS) Harisankar are super talented, capable of improvising and completely thinking out of the box and doing their own stuff. That ability should be applauded instead of making the singers dependent on playback alone. You should come out and create your own music for posterity. Otherwise, there is such a clutter of singers and nobody knows who has sung what. At present, once a song releases, its lifespan is extremely short. In such a scenario, I feel that to make a long-term impact, you have to create your own songs.”

As she has been busy with her ghazal recitals, Gayatri says she has not been worrying or thinking about playback singing. Her focus is to carve a niche of her own in the ghazal world and compose her own body of work. “This is not something I have ever hoped for. Since I have been given a chance, I want to concentrate, create a space for myself and also create a body of work that will stand the test of time,” she says.

At present, she is working on three more independent ghazals. British pianist Rekesh Chauhan and Gayatri tune in for a composition by Parveen Shakir. Then there is one with Gujarati singer-composer Alap Desai and a duet with Prithvi Gandharv.

“People once thought ghazals were a dying art. But actually it is the young people who are lapping up the new ghazals and coming with cover versions and sharing it on social media. Now, I make it a point to include my originals in my concerts,” she says. Gayatri hopes that in two or three years, she will have a repertoire of original compositions.

“For instance, even today, when I do Malayalam programmes, I have a handful of songs that people enjoy and want to listen to though I am not a happening singer in Malayalam film music. I feel good that they still remember those gems such as ‘Deenadayalo Rama’, ‘Pularumo’, ‘Chanchadi’ ... My wish is to have a similar collection of timeless ghazals too,” she signs off.

Gayatri will be performing at India International Center, New Delhi, at 7 pm, February 21. She will be accompanied by Amit Choubey on the tabla and Arshad Khan on the esraj.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 12:35:18 AM |

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