Frequent travels to other countries for performances have made vocalist Vidya Shah more experimental towards food.
Vidya Shah doesn't fuss over food. Anything sour is what she usually keeps at bay and understandably so, as Vidya is a Hindustani classical singer that too in the midst of a busy season. The scorching summers ensure choc-a-bloc schedule with extensive tours around the world for many from the fraternity. Vidya, also, is just back from Switzerland's Schaffhauser Jazz Festival where she performed with a newly formed group Orbital Garden.
“We are like a group now. And at the festival, I sang fairly complex compositions centred on Indian raga Jog. The ensemble has flute, electronics, drums and clarinet,” states the artiste. She appreciates the chana chaat, a typical Indian street food recipe with boiled chickpeas and potato, served as an appetiser at The Spice Market restaurant in Saket. The singer, in any case, loves desi grub.
If incessant travelling, an innate part of her profession, has made Vidya more willing towards experimenting with different cuisines, her stay at a tribal village in Madhya Pradesh, early on in her career gets maximum credit to appreciate and feel grateful for every morsel. She was collating folk songs an oral history of the area for an NGO in 1994. “We used to be so excited whenever we would get a vegetable like baingan or bhindi. After a long day of work, we used to be so tired and sometime it was like whether we are getting anything to eat today or not…”recalls Vidya.
The disciple of Shubha Mudgal and Shanti Hiranand regales us with anecdotes from her travels about the accompanists who while travelling to foreign lands, carry their ‘dabbas' with home-cooked karele ki subzi. She is reminded of a remarkable book by Sheila Dhar, “Raga'n Josh – Stories from a musical life”, which comprises essays on different musicians. Some of them, includes, really interesting quirks related to their eating habits.
The activist tag
The conversation once again veers off to her music as she digs into the main course mirchi ki roti - red or green chillies mixed in wheat flour and ghee, diwani handi - mixed veg with a spinach base. Over the years, Vidya has come to acquire this image of activist-singer. Formally trained in the field of social work, she has been a research Officer with National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), a consultant with Centre for Development Studies, a programme co-ordinator with Naz Foundation, director of Education in Breakthrough, a Human Rights Organization. She is now the programme director of Centre for Media and Alternative Communication (CMAC), an organization started by her designer-photographer husband Parthiv Shah with the objective of facilitating cultural exchange. Yet Vidya doesn't quite like the activist tag.
“There is social consciousness that can be seen in the trajectory of my work but there are a lot of artists who have a stand on certain issues. There is a certain branding that has happened and I don't know if I am responsible for it,” says the singer who performs regularly at Sahmat's Safdar Hashmi Memorial on January 1 every year. In these concerts, you can often hear her singing the poetry of the legendary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz.
And quite recently, the artiste has released an album on one of her favourite poets. “I have heard him in so many contexts. People in Narmada ghaati sing him, Iqbal Bano sang “Hum Dekhenge” in a film. I like Faiz sahib because of the kind of subjects he has taken up in his poetry. He is so versatile.” The album is now going to be released by Faiz Ghar, a project of the Faiz Foundation Trust in Pakistan soon.
It takes a little bit of coaxing by our photographer and Vidya gives in to sweet temptations. Gorging on the delicious phirni, she tells us of the sterling project called women on record (women singers in the gramophone era), on which CMAC had mounted an exhaustive multi-media exhibition at IGNCA. Moving on further, CMAC is now focusing on varied technologies in use in different eras “What's the history of arrangements in our music? While researching we got to know from where did the name of Anthony Gonsalves come. He was actually a musician from Goa who was one of the most sought after music arrangers in the film industry,” says the musician who has now got a Charles Wallace Fellowship to deeply engage with the subject.
Keywords: Hindustani classical music