‘When you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it’. Author Paulo Coelho’s this quote sums up the ardour and zest with which, folk singer and Padma Shri awardee, Malini Awasthi has pursued her passion for music
Malini Awasthi is better known for her unflinching faith and untiring efforts that have given a new lease of life to the once dying folk and traditional music from the eastern parts of the country and moved it out from the so-called ghar-angaan (households) to national and international stage.
Highly acclaimed for singing diverse folk forms – thumri, dadra, sohar, banna, jhoola, jajri, holi, chaiti, vivaah, dhobiya and nirgun – Awasthi mainly sings in local dialects such as Awadhi, Bundelkhandi, Braj and Bhojpuri. Her songs have touched a chord, among the masses and the connoisseurs alike, regaling audience spread across the urban and rural pockets, and belonging to different age groups, spread across the country and also the globe. They help the older generation relive the days of yore when these songs were sung at home by the womenfolk, and provide a link to the younger generation for staying connected with the rich and varied musical heritage.
A native of Uttar Pradesh, Awasthi spent her early years learning the nuances of classical music from a guru at home. “My parents were not singers but had a taste for music. We (elder brother, sister and I) grew up listening to LP records at home, mostly classical renditions of musical stalwarts, thanks to our father. My sister used to take lessons from a guru who used to come over at 5.30 am. I joined his early morning class when I was barely five,” she says, fondly reminiscing her initiation into the world of music. Her father, a doctor by profession, who was then serving at the government hospital at Mirzapur, made it a point never to miss a classical music concert if it was happening at Banaras or Allahabad. “He took all of us along. The performances inculcated a deep love and understanding for music,” she says, recalling the days when her father used to pack them in a car and drive them to attend concerts. Even her mother played a great role in developing her musical taste. “She couldn’t sing but had once heard a song (Bindiya ka rang uda jaaye) by Siddeshwari Devi. She liked it a lot and asked my music teacher to help me with it,” she recalls.
As her father had a transferable job, he was posted next in Jhansi and from there he moved to Gorakhpur and then Lucknow. These places only added to her musical training and gave her the much-needed exposure. “In Gorakhpur, I had the privilege to receive musical training from two renowned gurus – Shujaat Husain Khan and Rahat Ali Khan. I received lessons in folk, classical, Sufiyana and ghazals from Rahat Ali. I was barely 14 then and to get an opportunity like this only helped me hone my voice and perfect the nuances,” she informs. Awasthi is revered for her fluency in ghazal and Sufi singing that comes from the sound knowledge of Urdu received from these two legendary teachers. For the uninitiated, Rahat Ali Khan had trained only two students in his life, one was Awasthi and the other one being Punjabi pop singer Daler Mehndi.
By then, she had started giving programmes on radio and performing on stage. “My first appearance on radio was for Bal Jagat where I recited a poem and then sang a bhajan,” she says. She took to stage soon after and recited a song based on Raag Desh at a doctors’ conference in Gorakhpur. “I had no inhibitions and I was fearless because that is what my gurus had taught me. A performer on the stage attracts attention of audience so one must always respect that; appreciation and criticism that come a performer’s way mould him as an artiste and help him improve his art.” When her father moved to Lucknow, she got an opportunity to pursue a degree in Hindustani classical music from Bhatkhande University. A high-grade artiste of radio, she had already performed at festivals across the country and had also started doing television shows for Doordarshan.
It was during one such performance at Bhatkhande, that legendary Hindustani classical singer Vidhushi Girija Devi, whom she fondly calls Appajee, heard her sing. Impressed with her voice, Appajee asked her if she would like to accompany her to Kolkata and learn music. Overwhelmed at this offer, Awasthi almost jumped with joy. But her wedding with Uttar Pradesh cadre IAS officer, Awanish Kumar Awasthi, was fixed by then and she couldn’t go with Appajee.
After marriage, she accompanied her bureaucrat husband as he served in different districts but all along, she relentlessly pursued her passion for music. “I am blessed to have a life partner who has supported and encouraged me all through,” she says about her husband. As luck would have it, he was posted in Varanasi, and during this stint, Awasthi once again got a chance to continue her music lessons from Appajee. She read and researched extensively on rural folk art forms and keenly observed how the folk music was slowly withering away for lack of attention and appreciation. The exposure strengthened her knowledge base and made her resolute in pursuit of music. “The strings of a musical instrument rust if left unused. I didn’t want my vocal chords to rust, so I kept honing it by practising and singing. I didn’t sing for money. I didn’t care if the stage was big or small. I didn’t want to lose touch with the audience. I just wanted to perform,” she says.
PERFORMER AT HEART
At times, Awasthi carried her children along, travelled in trains and buses to perform at All India Radio, and at other programmes across the country. “There used to be chain bookings in those days. I had performances at three places – Raipur, Raigarh, and Ambikapur – and I carried my daughter who was four and son who was one and a half to these places, with my mother and mother-in-law in tow because I didn’t want to miss it. Such was my level of attachment to music,” she reminisces. It was at one such cultural function at Azamgarh that Gajendra Singh heard her sing and requested her to participate in a music reality show, Antakshari. “It was a life-changing experience, and I realised that one could create a space for oneself in public memory by sticking true to one’s musical roots,” she says about her first TV show. One thing led to another, and she did two other music-based shows (Sa Re Ga Ma and Junoon) and won the hearts of judges and audience alike. The best takeaway was a word of mention by none other than Lata Mangeshkar who called her a promising singer.
The film offers started pouring, but that didn’t excite her to move bag and baggage to the city of dreams. She did lend her voice to many songs in Hindi films, most recent being Mano ya na mano in Laali Ki Shaadi Mein Laaddoo Deewana that hit the theatres in April this year. “My heart is here, and even though I go for recordings to Mumbai, I rush home because there is a sense of belonging and connect with my land,” says Awasthi.
POWER OF POPULARITY
“With great power comes great responsibility,” she says on what it means to be a celebrity, adding, “I am thankful for all the praise and popularity that has come my way. It is a matter of great honour and I am trying in my own small way to use it to benefit folk music and other artistes.” Awasthi is clear about her goals. A true daughter of the soil, she wants to popularise the songs, culture and language which she says, “if not revived may become obsolete, and extinct.” She is doing her bit, giving folk music its long-awaited due and respect. “As a singer, I am trying to make my songs relatable and relevant for my audience so that folk never becomes redundant for them.”
That’s the passion and true sound of music that has touched the chords of so many hearts, on home ground and foreign shores alike, keeping Awasthi on her toes, and her calendar chock-ablock with shows, concerts, music festivals, in India and abroad.
Text: Shillpi A Singh