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Begum Parween Sultana: The Yaman effect
The Assam-born Hindustani classical exponent Begum Parween Sultana, 61, is known for her unique renditions of khayal, bhajans and thumris in ati taar saptak (high pitched note). Her first stage performance was at the age of five under the tutelage of her father Ikramul Majid, and at 26, she became the youngest recipient of the Padma Shri in 1976. Little wonder that she was called 'Iiffy Iffy' as a child, which in Assamese meant awwal pyari si (very cute). Having mastered the art under Pandit Chinmoy Lahiri of Kolkata and later Sangeet Martand Ustad Dilshad Khan of the Patiala gharana (she later married Khan), Sultana has earned a niche of her own in the five decades of her musical sadhana. At a concert held in the capital recently, she sang Raag Maru Bihag composed by her husband. Sultana is on a whirlwind, month-long musical concert tour. Excerpts from an interview.
You have a distinct style when it comes to singing the high notes.
It's a natural gift. Certain things one can polish, but there are certain qualities that one is born with. For a vocalist it's essential to have a good quality voice and I'm lucky to have that. For a vocalist, if you don't have a good voice, I often suggest that you take up any other line - like an instrument or dance - but don't sing.
But your scale is so high that it even beats the seventh note. Do you find it straining your vocal cords?
Yes, and for that I think riyaz (practice) is most necessary. With any other line you may be able to take some short cut, but when it comes to music, daily practice and rehearsal is the only way to gain complete mastery over your talent. Ustad Dilshad Khan sahib has a saying - riyaz karo to raj karo (practise and you will rule). Even today, I practised for 90 minutes. It's now a daily habit, something like brushing my teeth. And no amount of scale hurts my vocal cords, simply because of my riyaz.
You are one of the artistes who learnt in the guru-shishya parampara. Are you continuing the tradition with your students as well?
We're trying our best, especially with Khan sahib, because he's a great master/teacher, composer and performer but we've found that only a few of our students are capable of learning in this form. Many youngsters show an initial seriousness but then as time passes, they're not able to cope up with its pressures and expectations. Also, there are many distractions today. But those who're serious live with us. We not only teach the theory part of music, we also teach them the knowledge of the shastras, tehzeeb (etiquette) and the culture of listening to good music.
Why don't you teach?
Frankly, I don't really have the perseverance or the patience. When we used to learn, our gurus were so strict that they never gave us a chance to even think twice. Once we were taught a certain bandish we dared not forget or be callous about it. Today we have to keep repeating before the youngsters, and unlike Khan sahib who loves to teach, I lose patience and often complain. How many times do I have to teach the same thing over and over again? So I prefer to sing instead of teach. But yes, I love to see a bright student who picks up quickly.
One has noticed that the slow alaap has almost disappeared from concerts. Now it's a short khayal, quickly followed by a bandish. Do you feel artistes are playing to the gallery?
It's sad but true. Why do you have to change our tradition just to please some gallery? You should not. I feel artistes should know how to give and engage the audience through the lecture-demonstration format. I always explain and I see to it that my audience never gets bored.
Is the new generation even aware of the many gharana formats?
Yes. The internet has brought the domains of knowledge much closer and made them easily accessible. Today when I sit on stage for a performance, the youngsters know everything about my music and style. Also, I like to entertain my audience as I feel they should not leave disheartened after paying a thousand rupees for a ticket. More so because I too like to listen to what I sing. I follow the principle - apne aap ko rijhao tabhi toh doosre ko rijha paoge (first entertain yourself, only then will you be able to entertain others). It's the jet age and I feel that we artistes too need to change with the times.
Do you sing differently in different cities?
Yes. Each city's audience has its own preferences. South India is very serious about the ragam, tallam, pallavis, ie. alaap, bandishes, the taan and sargam. They don't want shortcuts. You can't take that audience lightly. When you go to the Mecca of music, Kolkata and West Bengal, the audience knows each and every note. You can't do any buffoonery there. Similarly Maharashtra - Nagpur, Pune, Malwani, Amrawati, Nashik, Kolhapur - is a paradise for Hindustani classical, especially vocal music. All great stalwarts come from the region and the people there don't listen to songs, they eat them, savour them for more than an hour. At the Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Sammelan, one hundred thousand people come to listen, and if an audience member leaves his seat to take a five-minute break, he makes sure it remains reserved for him when he returns. The fact that I, from Assam, am now settled in Mumbai shows how much they love our music. They did not allow me to go. This is India. Even all across north India the audience is very learned about Hindustani classical.
Which are your favourite ragas and why?
Raga Yaman, Puriya Dhanashree and Maru Bihag are my favourites because we start our musical careers with these ragas. Woh kahavat hai na ki ek saadho toh sau saadho (There's a saying that mastering one is like mastering a hundred). Raga Yaman is such a complete raga that if you learn it properly, you'll be able to sing many ragas comfortably. Besides, it's an evening raga and I love the atmosphere it is sung in. I've heard many elders like Amir Khan sahib, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahib, Kumar Gandharvji, Vilayat Khan sahib, Pandit Ravi Shankarji, Salamat Ali Khan and Ali Akbar Khan sahib - all of them have intoxicated me towards these ragas. The weight and mood of these ragas is truly divine. I also love raga Malkauns, Bageshri and Rageshri, these are very beautiful, feminine ragas because they are in sringaar ras.
It's often said that you brought glamour to classical music.
(Laughs) Yes, people tell me that. I love to dress up and why not? It's something like singing before the gods. I love it when people abroad love my sari, jewellery and even my teeth. They want me to open my mouth so that they can admire my teeth. What to say? They ask about my complexion and I tell them it's because of lots of fish and vegetables.
Was it this charm that your guru Ustad Dilshad Khan fell in love with?
(Laughs) It's the other way round. I fell in love with him. Mashallah kya handsome personality hain woh (what a handsome man he is). Besides what a master composer - he composes such beautiful bandishes and now that we are married for so many years I demand that he make the best compositions for me. He, of course, obliges (blushes). But if you ask him, he'll always deny that he proposed to me. He'll say, I proposed and you accepted so it wasn't me! Both are equally party to it (laughs loudly). I let him have his way.
You've sung for Hindi films.
Yes. Pancham (R D Burman) was my husband's friend and wanted me to sing Hame tumse pyar kitna for the film Kudrat. But he didn't approach me thinking that since I was a classical singer I would refuse. So Khan sahib assured him that this was not the case and brought him home. Pancham gave me a skeleton format and asked Khan sahib to ornate it which he did beautifully and that's how I sang the song. Also, Naushad sahib made me sing for Pakeezah and I felt so honoured as he was such a storehouse of knowledge and great patron of classical music. He even offered me acting roles, since I was young and pretty, but I refused. Those days film music was so beautiful because knowledgeable composers like Jaidev, S D Burman, Madan Mohan, Shankar Jaikishan, etc. were composing songs. Today, one doesn't remember the songs one sings or hears in films. Even I forget the names of films that I sang for recently.
Sultana will be performing at the IPC Sangeet Sammelan in Kolkata (Nov 12); Aurangabad Music Festival in Aurangabad (Nov 13) & at the Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan in Mumbai (Dec 7)
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