Her world of raag and riyaz: Vatsala Mehra is drawn towards Sufi music

Mumbai(TH): Vatsala Mehra, on a visit to Kerala, recounts her journey in ghazal singing. Music is more than a passion for ghazal singer Vatsala Mehra. It is meditation that fills her entire being with a sense of serenity. The singer, known for her rich, deep voice, is releasing her 16th album La Layeiyan Jogee Naal.

Vatsala Mehra is drawn towards Sufi music. Photo: H. Vibhu

The album, which is a confluence of diverse musical experiences, has her exploring Sufi music. “I feel very connected to Sufi. When I listen to Sufi, I feel, every fibre in me comes alive,” she says.

Based in Washington D.C., Vatsala has brought out an album every year for the last 15 years. “I left for the U.S. following my marriage at the age of 19. It was extremely difficult to keep up the spirit. I was young, it was a new country and I was with new people. It was music that kept me going,” she says. Vatsala was on a visit to the Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre at Kalady.

Dressed in a sunny yellow ‘anarkali’, her hair framing her face in a golden brown halo, Vatsala says her love for music has seen her through the politics of the industry. Being away from the country and yet making her voice heard was a task. “But, I’m not one to give up. I knew I was born to sing, and I turned the negatives into positive,” she says. Born into a business family in Mumbai, Vatsala’s formal training in music was short-lived. She started singing at eight; her father found her a guru, who taught her raag kafi first. “After a month and a half, my guru took me for a show and I parroted exactly what I was taught,” she reminisces. Though she earned a lot of praise her father felt she was too young to be giving performances and that she needed to concentrate on studies.

But Vatsala continued her riyaz. By the time she turned 13, the family had moved to Delhi and she was listening to Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan. “I loved listening to Tom Jones, too. There was music in the house always. And it helped that my family was musically inclined.” Vatsala used to sing Begum Akhtar’s ghazals at home when she did her riyaz. “Once, when I was singing, a few visitors came home and when I stopped singing, I heard one of them ask my father why he stopped the record. That was a huge encouragement,” she says. “I knew I was born to sing.”

At 18, she got back to formal training, enrolling under the tutelage of Ustad Momin Khan of the Lucknow gharana. It was around the time she gave a performance, too, which brought her instant praise.

“That was an eye-opener. I learnt that I have music in me.” Even after she left to the U.S., Vatsala made it a point to visit India every year and pursue music seriously. While in the U.S., too, she continued her riyaz and kept her passion alive.

“I rented a harmonium and practised. I still practise an hour-and-a-half every day … well, most days,” she says. Vatsala likes to play the harmonium when she sings.

She released her first album Guftgu in 1980. It was followed by Shamakhana, Khazana I and Khazana II, Nigahen, Hasrat, Nasheeli Peshkash. Her two pop albums Ole Ole and Jhoom Jhoom released sometime in the 90s topped the charts in India.

“I am a very focussed person. I need something productive to do. The politics in the music industry did not deter me. I would like to believe that I made the best out of what I had,” she says.

Among her achievements is her performance at the Kennedy Centre at Washington D.C. She was the only woman ghazal singer to represent India. In India, she has performed with leading names such as Pankaj Udhas and Hariharan among others. Vatsala has her own music school, Balaji Music Academy at Mclean, Virginia.

“My students have performed at several events around the world and rubbed shoulders with the best in the industry. Some of my students are as young as eight. Training them is a very different experience to me as a musician.”

Even as her La Layeiyan Jogee Naal is doing well on iTunes, Vatsala has started work on a new Sufi Album titled Mere Saiyyan, a fusion mix with pianos, saxophone and violin, which would feature top Bollywood singers. The track “mere saiyyan” in it, is her favourite number already, she says.

She has a number of shows lined up in New Delhi and Vishakhapatnam in India and several others in various cities in the U.S.