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Lata Mangeshkar has been my guru: singer Neeharika Naidu

The Delhi-based singer, who performed in Richmond, VA, recently, speaks to The American Bazaar.

By Esha Mittal

Neeharika Naidu
Neeharika Naidu

RICHMOND, VA: Neeharika Naidu, who has sung for a number of Punjabi and Bhojpuri films, as well as for T-Series and other leading Indian music companies, started formal singing lessons at the age of five. The Delhi-based singer has performed in several countries, including the United States, Canada, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Mauritius, Italy, Scotland and Trinidad and Tobago. She was invited by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the arrival of Indians in that country. She lived there for 6 months, travelling the length and breadth of that country and spreading Indian music and arts.

Daughter of Colonel B. Avasthy, a Commanding Officer of the Fourth Battalion of the Rajput Regiment who died in the 1962 war with China, Naidu is married to Lieutenant General (retired) Milan Naidu, a former Vice Chief of Army Staff and member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. Their son Wing Commander Nikhil Naidu is a helicopter pilot with the Indian Air Force and daughter Devyani is a professional musician, who lives in Germany.

A college lecturer by profession, Naidu now devotes her time exclusively for music. During a recent visit to Richmond, VA, where she performed, the singer spoke to The American Bazaar. Here are edited excerpts:

You have been singing for a number of decades now. How did you first get started in pursuing a career in music?

Let me start right from the beginning. I started singing at the age of five because my father was in the army when I was young. I was five and Bela, my sister, was about 2½. Perhaps, my father thought I was too naughty and needed to be channelized and doing something in life rather than wasting my time beating up people. I was quite the tomboy at the time. He brought me a guru, and then at the age of five I started to learn how to play the harmonium and true classical music. As I started school, many teachers noticed that I could sing and I got many opportunities to learn and perform. Then, I did my graduation in vocal classical music and won many Indian national competitions. Afterwards, I gave my audition for the All India Radio and Doordarshan, and I began to sing for them. When I got married and had children, I thought I could not do very much with my life as I had a family and responsibilities. However, my husband was very, very supportive. He used to question why I kept giving the excuse of marriage for my discontinuation of singing. He told me that he had never stopped me from singing and this was a wake-up call for me. So, I started to learn and practice my music again and there was this competition launched by T-Series, a super cassette music company. They wanted new voices. My friends applied for me because I was in a different city. I took part, was selected by them, and the rest is history. I began to sing professionally, travel the world, and I’m still singing as much as I can. I am now 65, but I am still singing. It’s been a wonderful journey. Music is my life. I am known majorly because of my music. A person will refer to me as the one who sings. It has become my personality and I am known for two things: my bhindi and my music. If I am stripped of this [my music], there would not be any redeeming future.

Neeharika Naidu (right), with the writer.
Neeharika Naidu (right), with the writer.

Which Indian singer has had the greatest influence on your life and motivated you to pursue a passion for singing?

In the T-Series competition that I mentioned, they were looking for the voice of Lata Mangeshkar. I cannot say I am even a speck of dust as compared to Lata Mangeshkar, but the quality of my voice and the way I could emulate what she had done in her songs has probably gotten me to where I am today. I would very easily say that it was Lata Mangeshkar because of just following in her footsteps and following her shadow. She is very easily the reason I am recognized for whatever I am today. I could say things which are high flown, but they wouldn’t really make any sense. I could say Kumar Gandharva, Pandit Jasraj, or Parveen Sultana. They are all extremely wonderful artists. When I was learning music, I used to follow them. I used to listen to them and what they are doing with their voice. I would try to follow it and then my voice would get molded because your voice, your throat, is a muscle. It’s like a gym; the more you workout, the better the muscle becomes. When you’re listening to experts and trying to follow them, then that is what you do. When I am looking at it professionally, I would say Lata Mangeshkar has been my guru. My guru had left the country and come away to the U.S. I told my director that my guru had left the country. He told me to put on Lata Mangeshkar’s songs and sing with her for two hours as your practice. He said, “You can do your work, but sing with her. Sing whatever she is singing and try to follow so that you do not hear her voice separate from yours. If you hear it separate from yours, that means you are doing something wrong. If you are able to sync with her, then you are doing something right.”

There’s been an explosion in reality music shows these days. How has that impacted the music industry in your opinion?

In India, it is not only the reality shows. It is the people. The youngsters, I find these days, are phenomenally talented. You turn a stone and you find a singer. In my opinion, the role that the reality shows have played is that people have started believing in themselves, that they can also sing. If that person can sing, then why cannot I sing. Everybody has got that confidence that they can also sing. But, the music industry when it comes to commercial music, or singing for films or playback is all extremely  competitive like any other industry. But, the possibilities and opportunities to perform are only so many. Nobody who is established or doing well will be generous enough to let somebody else do it. So, reality shows identify but not necessarily allow them to grow.