Asian Music and Dance

Angira Kotal in Conversation

Young khayal singer Angira Kotal responds to unexpected attention and unreasonable requests. She talked to Sanjeevini Dutta before her performance in Liverpool in January 

This time last year Angira Kotal was an unknown overseas student enrolled on a diploma course at the University of Essex. Then an event catapulted her into the limelight: encouraged by the reception to a thumri she sang on Wolverhampton City Radio’s Surtarang, Angira resolved to apply for the Milapfest Young Musician award, the Sangeet Ratna. In July at a glittering event at the Capstone Theatre in Liverpool, she was declared the winner of the title (with a £2,500 cash prize) for the most promising young musician.

I speak to Angira six months after the event as she prepares to give a concert, a double bill with dancer Apoorva Jayarama (Nritya Ratna winner), in the same theatre. I make an unreasonable request but Angira sportingly agrees: to sing a small bandish for me at the end of our Skype interview. 

Angira’s earliest musical memories are of learning sargams (musical scales) at her mother’s knee. Ratna Kotal was a senior student of a well-established musician couple, Mandira and Shyamlal Lahiri. There was always music playing in the home and almost always classical. Her father, an extremely busy Calcutta doctor, would come home to relax and unwind with music. Their family favourites were the late Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and the upcoming Parween Sultana. “There may have been some Rabindra Sangeet and Nazrul Geeti but my abiding memory is of Hindustani classical music.” 

At the age of 5, Angira was learning with her mother’s teachers; later with Pandit Biresh Roy and Smt. Haimanti Sukla. Atri, her younger sister by three years, also began vocal training. The house resounded with the notes of the singing trio. 

However, as Angira became a teenager, the academic pressures of school and later of an undergraduate degree took their toll on her music training. She said of that time: “You know how obsessed Indian parents are with academic achievement … I became distanced from my music practice.” Angira understood that her parents wanted her to achieve formal qualifications so that she could have economic independence. However, after a bachelor degree in Engineering and Computer Science followed by a stint working at a technology company, Angira grew dissatisfied and disillusioned.

This coincided with Angira finding a teacher under whom sister Atri had already started learning; one whose personality and methodology clicked with her. She gave up the day job and started an apprenticeship under Ustad Jainul Abedin. She speaks with high regard for her teacher, whose modern and well-structured teaching methods fast-tracked her musical development. This was in 2011, and now in the UK doing a postgraduate degree at University College London, Angira is training with Ustadji on Skype. The Sangeet Ratna award has given her a boost of confidence and on Saturday 25 January, audiences were able to experience Angira’s talent for themselves.

When I ask her what she thinks she brings to her singing, Angira replies that it is her “compassion, dedication and her ability to drown herself in the moment”. She has no doubt that classical music gives full scope to the practitioner to express the depth of their personality and the limitlessness of the imagination. “Khayal,” she says of the genre of Hindustani vocal music, “literally means ‘imagination’.”

I ask her whether young people can relate to classical music. She replies thoughtfully that the problem is not with the young generation but the expectations that are put upon them to connect to music in particular ways. Angira is confident that classical music has a central place in the life of society and the nation. “In Kolkata, at least, my teacher’s classes are full of young people,” she says.

Then I remind her of her promise and with no fuss, she launches into a bandish in Bihag. Her voice soars and dips. In the short space of three to four minutes, Angira Kotal has given me a taste of the astonishing skill and technique she commands. Her thoughtful and intelligent insights, her quiet and modest expression and her natural ability leave me with no doubt that Angira has a bright future in her chosen art.

Pulse wishes this young singer the very best at the start of her musical career.



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