When I walk up the steps to Vatsala Mehra’s front door, I am struck by a giant stone statue of Ganesh near the entrance - he is dancing, with his trunk swinging to one side. The fact that the Ganesh standing guard at the door step of the ‘Queen of Ghazals’ appears to be swaying serenely to a melody, strikes me as the perfect prelude to the artist’s home.
Vatsala leads me into her opulently furnished living room----rich, colorful artwork adorns the walls. She has just finished her daily ‘riyaz’ and is clad simply in a black t-shirt and pants. We sip coffee seated on elegant Kashmiri furniture, and chat about her long, successful singing career, and about what it took to be a Ghazal singer in the United States, where Ghazal singing is so remotely known to the mainstream culture that it is in the same category of cultural exotica as, for example, Tibetan folk dancing.
“I’ve never had a problem getting an audience” Vatsala declares. “There are enough Ghazal fans among the Indian population to fill the halls - fans have driven down in busloads from places like Philadelphia and New Jersey at my concerts, and I’ve even had a sizable number of western converts.“
But many other things Ghazal singers take for granted in India have been a struggle. Finding accompanying musicians is the biggest of them.
“I want the best, and it’s hard to find the kind of A-class talent that you bump into at every street corner in India, “ says Vatsala. “Most local tabla and harmonium players are moonlighters - they can’t afford to quit their day jobs. And so the level of professionalism suffers. I’ve had musicians quit on me with a days’ notice. But I’ve always been resourceful enough to make sure I have the best at all my performances.”
And the entire logistics of holding a successful concert in America, with musicians and instruments often imported from India, always involves a Plan B for last minute hitches. “In fact,” Vatsala says with a smile, “I usually provide for Plans C, D and E as well.”
She has the honor of going down in history as the first Indian-American Ghazal singer to perform at the prestigious Kennedy Center, Washington DC’s showcase venue for the performing arts.
“What a special occasion it was, and disaster struck, of course,” Vatsala recalls. “The musicians came, but their instruments didn’t!” With her characteristic “I’m equal to anything” aplomb, Vatsala scrambled to find a tabla (from a friend) and a harmonium (her own). “I was quite ready to go on stage without the other instruments, but the Indian Ambassador came to my rescue, and used his influence to have the instruments delivered just minutes before the performance. I got a standing ovation for that one.”
Her 30 year career has been full of moments like these, a saga of obstacles overcome and fans wooed by her husky, smoky voice and passionate performances. She’s been called an Indian Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell by the Washington Post, and earned the moniker ‘Queen of Ghazals’ from the Times of India.
Her talent was nurtured in a musical family. “Music and spirituality reverberated in our home,” she says. The Sufi nuances in her singing she credits to the influence of her father, who wrote books on spirituality and meditation. At 18 she got married and came to the U.S., and at 21 she released her first album, Guftgu. Since then, Vatsala has had an album released every couple of years, has sung at innumerable concerts all over the United States, as well as overseas, in India, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, Toronto and Montreal, and has been invited back to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC four times. Her most recent performance was another first - she’s the first Indian-American Ghazal singer to perform at the Wolftrap Center for the Performing Arts, a cultural venue near Washington DC where singers like Kelly Clarkson, Sheryl Crow and A.R. Rehman are on the schedule.
Vatsala’s journey as an immigrant hasn’t been easy. Her career, she feels, would have thrived more in its indigenous soil, where she would have lived and breathed the daily aura of a thriving Ghazal community, “As an artist I know I would have done better in India. As a person, America has made me stronger, and more resourceful. You have to build your life here, brick by brick, and it is, ultimately, a very satisfying experience. ”
She recalls the early years when her daughter, Aneesha, was young and she would take her along to rehearsals and concerts - there were no grandparents or nannies to leave her with. “Mom’s been a great role model,” Aneesha says. “My most tender memory of Mom at work involves me sitting on her lap while she rehearsed, and just listening, entranced, to her voice.”
“The audience for pure Ghazals, however, is dwindling everywhere,” Vatsala laments. That’s why I’ve started doing a lot of fusion numbers as well.” At the Wolftrap performance, there were several new toe-tapping numbers which had the audience clapping along, like Datta nay sab kuch ditta, with its thudding bhangra beat. She regularly experiments with cross genre infusions to her repertoire ---she has sung Thumri’s to Jazz beats, produced two pop albums in the 90’s which topped the charts in India (Ole, Ole and Jhoom), and woven bhangra and folk dance rhythms into her songs. (One of her fusion CD’s is played as popular exercise music at the local Regency Sport and Health club).
And there is a compelling visual component to the performance as well—a reflection of her view that music is the kind of soul food that is infused in every aspect of life and art. For the Wolftrap concert, a dancer in white performed on the side while she sang her Sufi inspired numbers.
“I had planned a kind of cotillion of Brazilian, Irish, American and Indian dancing to emphasize the message that Sufism and its music can be universally appreciated by all cultures, but we had to ultimately do what was pragmatic.”
“One has to be innovative, especially here in America, to stay current,” Vatsala pauses thoughtfully. That’s is one of the reasons she says, she started the Balaji Dance Academy, a classical music school for all ages of aspiring singers, especially the young ones, in her hometown of Washinton DC. It also holds the distinction of being the only one of its kind in the area, and grooms students as young as eight for public performances, often as the opening acts for some very well-known names.
“Friends actually encouraged me to start---and I also wanted to give back to the community while mentoring the next generation of singers,” says Vatsala.
The strongest testimony to Vatsala’s talent are the non-Indian converts who return for the music and the voice, without understanding a word of the lyrics. At the recent Wolftrap concert I spoke to Hope Velez, who had driven down from New York to attend. “I don’t understand the words when she sings, but I love her voice and the rhythms---I have Latin American roots, and can really get into the music,” she said.
Her many devoted fans are the best perks of her profession. “My fans are wonderful,” Vatsala declares passionately. Some of the most rewarding encounters happen unexpectedly, in this business of professional Ghazal singing. On one particular trip to India she discovered that her Indian visa had expired after her flight had taken off. Worried that she wouldn’t be allowed entry into the country, she brought the oversight to the appropriate authority’s attention as soon as she landed, and requested a new visa. It turned out that the officer hearing her case was a fan of hers, and knew all about her upcoming concert in India.
“He told me he was honored to meet me in person, and immediately granted the visa on the spot. A process which could have taken a couple of days was shortened to a couple of hours!”
As to future plans, she wants to keep singing and innovating as long as she is able. “Music is something my soul needs, like a plant needs water,” says the ‘Queen of Ghazals,’ “and it will be with me till my dying breath and beyond.”
Visit Vatsala Mehra’s website and fan page for more information on her upcoming concerts.
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