Table for two Metroplus

In harmony with verve

Vidya Shah, singer musician and social activist at The Monsoon Restuarant at Le Meridien. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   | Photo Credit: MEETA AHLAWAT

Not often do you come across classical musicians — established names at that — who are ever ready to test their versatility by engaging with folk music. Folk songs, however wide-ranging and heart warming, have always been perched a few notches below the classical bouquet for reasons of ‘purity’ and more. But like her guru, the inimitable Shubha Mudgal, Delhi vocalist Vidya Shah is one such name who has stepped out of this stereotype. Coming out of her comfort zone of Khayal, and Thumri, Dadra and Ghazal gayaki in which she trained under Shubha Mudgal and the gifted Shanti Hiranand respectively, Vidya, also a well-known name in Sufi and Bhakti singing, has been creatively engaging with the Manganiars of Rajasthan, a glimpse of which Hyderabad residents would get on November 22 at The Hindu Friday Review Festival.

I am with Vidya — and her full throated laughs, her dancing eyes — at the chic Eau de Monsoon restaurant of Le Meridien. Lunching. A nippy early afternoon peeps at us from behind the huge glass wall overlooking a Central Delhi tree-lined boulevard but the conversation — and the food too — is engaging enough to not get distracted by it.

An all-smiles Mahipal Negi is our able waiter and before we know it he places in front of us a shot of carrot cappuccino each, named amuse bouche. The name, its rich orange hue, makes it irresistible! Draining it down, we note the warmth of a winter vegetable like carrot (well, literally so!), the enticing fennel seasoning, also the baffling icy cold last bit. Negi explains that the warm juice is poured on a small cube of ice, enabling a drinker to get both the hot and cold feel in one go. Interesting, isn’t it?

The conversation, rolling by now, is interesting too. I want to know what set Vidya towards Hindustani music when she had her initial training in Carnatic form. “Most children in Tamil families are engaged in one art form or the other. It was Carnatic music for me and my sister. I learnt it from the age of 12 from a Delhi vocalist. At home, we were surrounded by music, not just Carnatic but Hindustani too. My father was fond of Bade Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan, Begum Akhtar, M.L. Vasantha Kumari. But listening to them is one thing, learning is another. Many years went by till I chose Hindustani over Carnatic,” states Vidya. Though she liked Carnatic music, somewhere, she felt “it was thrust on me.”

“So, for three-four years, I stopped singing, I wanted to see what I want to do with life. Meanwhile, I did masters in Social Work from Delhi University and went to Jhabua in western Madhya Pradesh to work with tribal labourers.” There she got introduced to folk music. “That was when I felt music is going to be my calling,” says Vidya.

The restaurant manager, the affable Atul Mehta, rolls out the red carpet for us. Every bit of it is thought out to make our lunch a pleasant one. Atul, who has a nose for good wines, brings to the table a chilled Italian white, Vin Opera. The dish we put our finger on is sea bass. A perfection pairing, he ensures. The conversation ensues in eager wait.

Vidya was introduced to Shubha Mudgal by her then would-be husband Parthiv Shah whom he happened to know. “I had been a fan of hers. She heard me singing and I am grateful that she took me in,” recalls Vidya. Though melodically, Carnatic and Hindustani forms are the same but technically, symmetrically, from the point of musicality, they are very different. “So I began on this path more like an experiment,” she says. Shubha taught her Khayal singing. “I just fell in love with it for its abstraction. Not for nothing the word ‘khayal’ means thought. There is so much room for improvising,” she notes.

Well, the sea bass arrives. An eye-catching dish! In terms of colours, in taste too. The grilled sea bass slices are placed on a light mustard sauce with an artichoke on top. Few sticks of asparagus and steamed snow peas are placed on the mound of fish like a pyramid. The sea bass is succulent, almost melt-in-the-mouth! The carbs are garlic breads.

Vidya has just played at Samanvay — Indian Languages Festival at the India Habitat Centre here and the conversation obviously swerves a bit towards the beauty of our languages before we talk about her experience of singing with folk artistes. “Our folk songs are so rich, they are entertaining music but not Bollywood. I have been singing Classical and Bhakti music, also Bulleh Shah, Meera. My engagement with the Manganiars has been most enriching. They are natural performers. They can start anytime, anywhere. They also sing a lot of Meera. I feel, melodically and lyrically, there are a lot of possibilities of cross-over between the classical and folk domains,” states Vidya. She has also been engaging with Jazz musicians. “That way, I have been trying to push a few boundaries,” she highlights.

Time for dessert and Negi gives us a pineapple consommé with a tiny piece of guava in it “to clear our palette” for the chocolate pave and kulfi with pistachio snow. Another delightful presentation on a plate and taste is something to write home about.

Good food makes you talk about food, also cooking. Vidya has a strong sweet tooth. “Mithai is one thing I just can’t resist,” she says with a laugh. Cooking is yet another thing she can never resist. “Both my husband and I cook. Cooking for me is as creative as music, there is so much room for possibilities and new ideas,” she says. So no hired cook at her house? “We constantly improvise with food. Even if it is dal-chawal, we ask each other, what should be the seasoning today. I realised that my children just love this,” she adds.

Vegetable pushcarts in Delhi appeal her a lot. And winter means a range of fresh vegetables on them. “All the colours, all the greens…methi, gajar, what a lovely sight it is,” she says with relish.

To cap our conversation in a delightful manner, Atul sends to us paan mojito. An innovative way of serving a pan…in liquid form. What can you say here if not avant garde!

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 8:02:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/table-for-two-column-interview-with-vidya-shah/article6590173.ece

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