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Singer Vandana Vishwas derives Monologues from dialogue

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Indo Canadian composer-singer fuses Hindustani Sangeet, and expressive poetry with Jazz in her second album; eclectic album to release in January.

Bureau Report

NEW YORK: It took a dialogue to express her monologue. Indo-Canadian singer-composer Vandana Vishwas finds the path running straight from philosophy to love songs, from Hindustani classical compositions to jazz, from the reaches of the inner world to the chilling snows or warm festivities outside, from deep rooted traditional values to uninhibited free spirit, in her new album Monologues (release: January 20, 2013).

Vandana Vishwas; photo by John Lucero
Vandana Vishwas; photo by John Lucero

In her second album, Vishwas turns to great works by India’s iconic poets and to intimately crafted lyrics written by husband, lyricist, and multi-instrumentalist Vishwas Thoke, to the Western and world music influences of her adopted land and to the Indian Classical musical roots of her motherland.

Vishwas’s songs echo the age-old subjects of Persian and Urdu poets, while embracing the myriad of complexities offered by the West to a soul from elsewhere. This series of monologues springs from dialogues between her two selves expressed as near and afar; between diverse cultures expressed as a tug-of-war between desires and conservative values; between identities expressed as a longing for homeland and quests for answers, for loves lost or desired. The continuously ensuing dialogues between our inner voices and outer duties, between our most personal desires and doubts and the social masks we wear, play out poignantly through a journey through musical genres, all guided by playful creativity and technical skill.

Leaping from her strong foundation in Hindustani classical music—from the soul stirring thumris, from the aching ghazals and intoxicating nazms—and from a cultural heritage drawing on centuries of musical and poetic riches, Vishwas has opened her heart and soul to assimilate the diverse sounds of Canada.

“Ever since we came to Canada, we have been listening to every kind of music style. Toronto is a mini world for us. I have taken a special liking for jazz, and it has become a bit of an obsession,” Vishwas reflects. “It didn’t change my vocal rendering that much, but it has influenced the way I arrange my music. I had never thought I will ever use bass and chords in my songs before; I’ve especially come to love the way bass sounds and feels with Indian melodies.”

After moving to Toronto, she returned to her life-long dream—to be a professional recording artist—after years of silence. The gifted vocalist had turned her back on music, due to mobility issues caused by a devastating medical error just a few days after her birth – an unsanitary needle used to give infant Vandana an injection that resulted in a life-long, painful chronic condition affecting her hip joint.

Though Vishwas had won singing contests regularly from girlhood and begun to make a name for herself as a singer on both All India Radio and on Doordarshan, Indian national television, and on prestigious national stages, she decided, to her deep sorrow, to set aside music and her hopes of becoming a Bollywood singer; as living and working in Mumbai would have been exceedingly difficult and painful given her physical challenges. Instead, she pursued a career— and very successfully—in architecture.

 

But music stayed with her, a quiet part of her own monologue as she and husband Vishwas shaped skyscrapers and cityscapes in Dubai.

“We were doing architecture for five years, without any music,” Thoke recounts. “Then, after 9/11, we moved from Dubai to Toronto. There are so many venues, so much music, such great variety. Then I would say, ‘Why not restart your music?’ I kept nagging her. About seven years ago, she agreed to compose and sing a few songs and Meera – The Lover… happened. Then one thing led to another.”

In the end, it led to an intimate dialogue, an extension of many long, thoughtful conversations between husband and wife. After completing her debut album dedicated to the works of Meera Bai, a 16th century poetess and devotee of Lord Krishna, Vishwas was intrigued by the flow of thoughts, of words, of emotions we all carry inside, our inner monologues. “After I restarted music, I feel so much happiness,” Vandana muses. “And it’s a good way to ventilate, to release. I’m exploring myself.”

This exploration involved bringing together the disparate but inspiring elements Vishwas heard around her, relishing the dialogue between tradition and new discoveries. As her ideas percolated, she decided to manifest them by composing and singing expressive poetry that reflected these ideas.

She asked a surprised Thoke to pen down some lyrics based on the broad topics she had shortlisted, some stemming from philosophical talks they often had, others from her own experience as an Indian living in West. Although humbled and awed by the legendary poetic greats Mirza Ghalib and Jigar Muradabadi, whose works Vishwas had already chosen; yet also fuelled by her faith in him, Thoke dove in to set down spare, pensive verses in Urdu and Hindi.

“Looking at the elite company I had like Ghalib and Jigar, I decided to stick to the basics and wrote some very rudimentary poetry instead of trying to compete with the legends,” Thoke adds.

Vishwas would start composing as soon as the lyrics were ready, and then ask for new ones. The duo would then arrange the song, going back and forth with tweaking the melody and lyrics until they got it right.

Vishwas came up with diverse compositions and created unique drone sounds for tracks. In two of her compositions, she unites Todi, a particularly compelling and unique Raag (North Indian mode) that has no equivalent scale in Western music, with jazz instrumentation and harmonic structures, employing the expressiveness of sax, congas, drums, strings and bass in dialogue with Indian melodies to further emphasize the contrast between the two styles, as she blended them.

While sax understandably gets featured in four of her compositions (“Des Se Door”, “Kaash 1 & 2,” and “Bas Baahon Mein”) the unlikely sound of Japanese koto enriches “Aaye Zubaan Pe”, a ghazal composed by her guru D.K. Gandhe; and a sound equivalent to treason in Ghazal singing, the overdrive guitar, backs her insistent, moving voice in “Mai Kya Hoon”, a ghazal penned by Thoke and composed by Vishwas.

Though pushing beyond the customary sonic palette of North Indian classical music, she uses the most traditional of approaches—utilizing Raags associated with certain times of the year—to evoke the feelings of a contemporary Indian émigré on the touching “Des Se Door,” whose narrator sighs for the six seasons of India, bored with the never-ending cold, monotonous climate of her adopted homeland.

As she reminisces, the song shifts from Raag to Raag (mode to mode) in a complex and intriguing dance, while the base melody plays in Raag Todi. Thoke, also a versatile and innovative instrumentalist, laid down guitar arpeggios and played them on koto for one of the tracks, to get just the right timbre. The duo reached out to Toronto Jazz musicians and Indian classical musicians to bring Vishwas’s ideas to reality.

Their collaboration builds on their experience as architects, as team players who must balance both aesthetic hopes and technical requirements.

“The process is the same. You prepare a working drawing, you lay it out, you put the pieces together,” explains Thoke. “It helps us to achieve the design we want to achieve. We’ve learned how to tear something apart, to break down the concepts into their basics then put them in terms anyone can appreciate.”

Vishwas and Thoke will celebrate Monologues with shows in and around Toronto in mid-January 2013, followed by a launch in Mumbai in February 2013.

 


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