Bringing back Fado: meet Sonia Shirsat, India’s only celebrated fadista

Sonia Shirsat is on the verge of completing 20 years of her “accidental” entry into Fado, the Portuguese semi-classical music form, which has been around in Goa for over 100 years

September 30, 2022 05:10 pm | Updated October 01, 2022 05:36 pm IST

Sonia Shirsat

Sonia Shirsat | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In a small intimate room at Madragoa, the Casa do Fado (Home of Fado) in Panjim, with the audience seated and lights dimmed, Sonia Shirsat’s powerful voice pierces through the stillness. The melancholic flavour of the Fado, conveying the essence of love and longing, is unmistakable, heightened by Orlando Noronha’s guitarra portuguesa (Portuguese guitar) and Carlos Meneses’ viola de fado (classical guitar). Her voice leaves the listener ‘saudade’ (in a state of longing and nostalgia).

Eyes closed, she looks at peace. The stage is Sonia’s peaceful place. “On stage, it is just me and my voice. This is the place I was born to be,” says the 42-year-old fadista, of the music genre which can be traced to Portugal of the 1820s and is characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics infused with resignation, fatefulness and melancholia. Madragoa, is among the few places in Goa, which, in a bid to revive the fado, post-pandemic, has restarted Sonia’s performances twice a month, along with her newly trained fado singers. 

A brief history
There are two types of fado: one from the city of Lisbon and the other from the Coimbra, the University of Portugal. The Coimbra style is usually sung by men, whereas the Lisbon style is sung by both men and women. Cancao do Mar,  Que Deus me perdoe, are some popular fado songs.  

Woman on a mission

Having performed across the country and globe, Sonia is on a mission to revive and popularise fado. She launched the Fado in the City programme in 2016, taking fado to places in Goa where it had never been performed. The art form was born in Lisbon around the 1830s or 40s, and arrived in Goa in the 1890s, or maybe even earlier, while it was still a Portuguese colony. “Students in Goa were already exposed to fado, because the booklets that I have, which were printed and published in Goa by Tipografia Rangel, in Bastora, have lyrics and notations of the fado, as well as the Mandó. So, it had to be for people that spoke Konkani,” she says. “Fado could have also come into Goa through visitors, or even Goans who went to Portugal to study Medicine and Law,” says Sonia who explains that although popular in the State, there were no professional Fado singers in Goa earlier.

Sonia performing at Madragoa

Sonia performing at Madragoa | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Fado de Goa, aimed at teaching fado across Goa, came next in 2017. As part of this, almost 300 students have been trained and “about 25 have tremendous potential”. The programme runs for 10, two-hour sessions on Sundays, with one hour for theory and one hour singing practice. “The aim was not only to train new fado singers, but also, to acquaint people with fado, its history, so that the fado legacy in Goa continues,” she says.

The reluctant star

For someone who grew up in the temple town of Ponda (a city located approximately 28 kilometres South-East of Panaji), where hardly anyone spoke Portuguese, and having no formal training in music, Sonia’s rise to being the only fadista in India, is nothing short of a miracle. “My voice is a gift from above,” says the artiste whose tryst with fado began in 2003 by chance, at a Portuguese guitar workshop in Panjim where she reluctantly sang a fado and at the end of which, she was told “her voice was best suited for it”.

“I was never drawn to fado. My only exposure to it was through my mother, who sang the fado at home, merely as a hobby. I was into Western music, Hindi and of course, Konkani songs, but fado was an unfamiliar form of music.”

Earlier, while studying Law at VM Salgaocar College of Law, Miramar, winning the French Nightingale competition by Alliance Francaise took her to France for a month and subsequently, winning the Portuguese singing competition, Vem Cantar, put her in the spotlight in Goa. According to Sonia, her story being featured in the first episode of the Portuguese series Contacto Goa, “did the trick”. She finally got the Fundação Oriente Scholarship to Portugal she had been yearning for. And it was here that maestro Antonio Chainho helped her learn about the fado. .

Lessons from Lisbon

The language was her only limitation. Listening to CDs, getting her mother to correct her pronunciation and later, hungrily devouring whatever knowledge she could, during her visits to the Fado Houses every evening in Lisbon, Sonia worked tirelessly to learn the language and perfect her accent. Her concert, Mundo fado in Lisbon in 2008, was the turning point. “Seeing a full-house, the audience’s euphoric reaction, media coverage and messages, post the concert, I realised, finally, I was doing something right.”

Fado, to her, is sacred. She has faithfully adhered to the form, painstakingly learning it. However, having a good hold over it, after so many years, she gives it a cross-cultural touch, often by performing it, accompanying Indian musical instruments — sitar, flute, tabla and santoor. Sonia’s version of Lágrima (Amália Rodrigues’ fado album), which won her the stamp of approval from her mentors in Portugal, makes her happy. “Mine has an intense verse and I have modified it and added a crescendo.”

At Hotel Cidade de Goa’s Portuguese restaurant, Alfama – Noite de Fado, the only regular commercial fado event has been running since 2007, once a month, but is currently closed for renovation. “Just as the singer of the fado, Rua do Capelao, says to her lover, I too would say, I will hold onto fado while living and I would love to die, holding on to the fado,” says Sonia.


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