Renowned vocalist Vidushi Sumitra Guha is known for her expertise in Carnatic and Hindustani schools of music. Her boundless talent and rich repertoire, which comprises everything from Carnatic classical music to devotional music to Rabindra sangeet and much more, make her a real-life nightingale.
The Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee has conceptualised and composed a musical extravaganza titled “Veer Meera”—with an aim to spread the message of women’s awakening and liberation by bringing together an amalgamation of songs celebrating Meera Bai and her bhajans.
In a conversation with indianexpress.com, Guha spoke about her classical music journey, the struggles she had gone through in a male-dominated space, her biggest inspiration and learnings in life. Excerpts:
What got you interested in Indian classical music?
I was born in a musical household, so music came naturally to me. My grandmother and mother both used to sing, so I was always surrounded by this beautiful art. We would regularly sit and pray together and sing bhajans—a form of devotional music. My mother would often say that I began singing before I talked. By God’s grace, that is how music just naturally became a part of me.
Where did you receive your training in music from?
My mother Srimati Rajalakshmi Raju was my first guru and mentor. She initiated me into Carnatic and devotional music. I then received Carnatic music training from Vidvan Sangeet Padmashri Shri Janaki Raman. It was during my time at Shantiniketan that I became interested in Hindustani classical music. After my marriage, I started studying Hindustani classical music with the most respected exponents of music—Pandit A Kanan and Vidushi Malvika Kanan—whom I became a long-time disciple of.
Who is your biggest inspiration in life?
There are many who inspired me. First of all, M S Subbulakshmi, whose life and music have touched many hearts. Lata Mangeshkar, D V Pulaskar and above all heavenly saints like Narada, Tumburu and Maharishi. There are many sages who inspired me, and of course Meera, Kabir and Surdas, because I always consider music as another form of yoga.
How has your musical journey been? Have you faced any challenges?
While traditionally I was initiated into Carnatic and devotional music, I switched over to Hindustani classical at Shantiniketan. So, switching to another stream of music was one of the first and greatest challenges for me.
At a young age, I got married into a Bengali family with a new language and different customs and eating habits. As we had a joint family, I had to perform my familial duties as a wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and mother and pursue music at the same time.
Despite coming from a traditional South Indian family, I had to be open to a variety of diverse cultures that I later encountered while attending Shanktiniketan, living in West Bengal and travelling extensively.
I still have a lot of difficulties to conquer. When I was low, my father would recite a Gita shloka to me, “Udhari rahmat manam atma basadev,” which translates to “you are your own friends, you are your own enemy.” To achieve anything, willpower, planning, hard work and dedication must be developed. If you follow these steps, I believe you will be successful now, tomorrow and forever. God will help those who help themselves.
How has it been to make a name for yourself in a male-dominated space?
Yes, it was challenging because men dominate across fields even today. However, hurdles do arise and it is only natural for you to confront these difficulties. I am a strong believer in the law of karma and know that sooner or later—one’s labour of love yields results. Therefore, I advise our youth to maintain their commitment and never feel let down. Every time you fall, get back up!
Your latest musical is Veer Meera. What is the idea behind it?
Meera is well known for her unwavering devotion to Lord Krishna. However, my concept is influenced by the lesser-known characteristics of Meera—that centuries ago, a beautiful princess of Rajasthan revolted against the Sati Sahaganaman society and animal sacrifices during auspicious pujas. What she accomplished through hard work, dedication and determination should encourage the “veer naris” in every woman.
During a time when there were so many constraints on women, Meera was the first feminist and a visionary who raised her voice against social ills. As a royal princess, Meera was able to instil self-confidence in women—showing them how devotion can help them overcome any obstacle. So, I’m accentuating her strong personality because I want this message to reach every woman in our country and around the world.
What message do you want to impart through the musical?
If you want to do good, you should never let anyone hold you back. Obstacles will arise and circumstances may be unfavourable, but if you have the will, you can achieve what Meera has achieved in music.
Our first song, “Meera ne jo raah dikhayi wahi raah pakadni hai, nari ke samman ki hume ladhayi ladni hai”, epitomises the lesson I want to send every woman.
What is your advice to the younger generation?
Whether it is younger girls or boys or my own grandchildren, my message is the same—Matru devo bhava! Pitru devo bhava—your parents are your first teachers and deserve utmost respect from you.
Learn and seek inspiration from this beautiful country that you were born in. Just like Meera, you are our country’s rich culture, powerful history and great legacy. Our heritage is rich with stories of several saints, warriors and countless women who fought for our country and sent a message to the rest of the globe.
While the younger generation today is open to many cultures and are creating subcultures of their own, they should not ignore their own culture.
Music is a powerful tool that can resolve many conflicts—internal and external. Youngsters should pursue any kind of music they like, whether it is vocal, instrumental, folk, popular or classical. They will realise that when life throws many challenges their way, music will be the one constant that gets them through it all.
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