The voice of a young khayal singer as she practises can be heard in a student corridor in Birmingham. She grew up surrounded by music at home and has experienced total immersion in music in India. Shahana Sokhi talks to Seetal about the love of music that impels her to pursue her chosen art alongside her academic work.
The first strains of the tanpura ring louder and fill the dorm room with reverberating sighs. I suddenly become acutely aware of how Shahana’s flatmates next door might be disturbed by the unusual sound. These are the lives of artists, whose practice disrupts imposed structures and demands an almost shameless act of commitment and conviction.
With quiet determination, Shahana Sokhi, an undergraduate student at the University of Birmingham, has been pursuing Indian classical music since she was 6 years old. As one of the very few students of khayal vocal music in the UK, her path is not an easy one. Khayal, meaning ‘thought’ or ‘imagination’, demands hours and hours of concentrated voice conditioning, careful sharpening of the ears to recognise microtonal differences, control over vocal and rhythmical movements and, of course, artistic expression. Originating in Northern India, it is an abstract form of vocal music that captured the imagination of prominent artists in many regions, resulting in the formation of several gharanas or schools of music. As with many art forms, it is a long-term commitment that requires patience and consistent effort. As well as this, careful guidance from a teacher is needed to bring out the unique qualities of each student’s voice and confidence in their creative ideas.
Often the seeds of passion are planted by our parents; however, not all those born into music are so drawn to it. Shahana, named after a raga, was brought up by her music-loving father. Her first memories of music are mainly of how it filled her home. Kirtan being sung in the music room, or Pandit Yogesh Samsi practising tabla tirelessly in their living room while Shahana watched on, fascinated as a child.
From a young age, Shahana has also been involved in the organisation SAAZ Music, set up by her father. Over the years, it has become clear that the model of bringing artists from India to work intensively with students here in the UK once a year has proved fruitful. Shahana has built a strong bond with Pandit Yogesh Samsi, who she still considers her guru. Even though her vocal practice takes priority over tabla right now, her early training in tabla still plays a vital role in developing rhythmic patterns and understanding Indian classical music as a whole.
“I started learning with Mukul Kulkarniji just after I finished my GCSEs,” Shahana explains. “He’s been here three times now and in between his visits I have lessons on Skype once or twice a week.” Shahana’s voice is soft at first but as she begins to sing, it opens up with versatility, confidence and focus. She practises in front of the mirror every day with the tanpura close by her ear. It sits nestled in her lap, resonating with the harmonics that she uses to adhere to the fine intonations of each raga.
So, what does it take to consistently train and practise music in an environment where it is so alien? Often youngsters are under so much pressure from the academic side of their life with exams and course work that ‘extracurricular’ hobbies such as music fall by the wayside. Having achieved top grades at A-level, Shahana is keen to complete her degree in Mathematics at university with music by her side. “If you want to do it, you find the time,” she says simply. When I ask her what she loves about khayal, she says “it’s the expression and improvisation. It encompasses the melodic and the rhythmic at the same time. Personalisation starts earlier than in other forms too, I believe. Mukulji’s style is very open – as soon as we started, he asked me to improvise. It wasn’t until I met him that I said to myself, ‘Yes, I want to do this’ and now I can’t see my life without music in it.”
I wonder whether she feels lonely, practising an art form that not many others will relate to, but Shahana finds solace in her practice and is clear that she’s doing it for herself. “I guess I don’t really talk about it, it’s for me. I don’t try and hide what I do. I am the only one around where I live, but it doesn’t really bother me because I’m doing it because I want to do it.” Shifting to university in Birmingham and living away from home hasn’t swayed her focus either as she says, “it is a different environment, but I still have my tanpura with me.”
University is a period of discovery and although many aspects of becoming an adult seem murky, sometimes what you’re interested in, passionate about and really want in life becomes startlingly clear. A turning-point came for Shahana when she embarked on her first trip to India last Christmas in 2015 and stayed by herself with her teacher for two weeks in Pune. “The atmosphere there is much more musical,” Shahana recalls with a smile in her eyes. “There’s singing every day while my teacher does riyaaz (practice) and there were always students coming in and out of the house. I can just get the tanpura and start singing and Mukulji will be around and listening, ready to correct me. It’s continual learning – unlike at home – there isn’t necessarily a designated time for lessons. Students sit in each other’s lessons and everyone learns and contributes.” Shahana sang in a private baithak on Christmas Day in front of a learned audience and savoured the charged energy and atmosphere that filled the room as she elaborated and improvised on Raga Poorvi and Chhayanat.
The trip has left a memorable impression on her. “When I went there it confirmed that I want to be there, I want to learn and I want to sing,” Shahana says. But the value of higher education still remains important for Shahana and she wouldn’t “drop her degree and run to India,” as she says. Now she is focusing on finding a more even balance than studying full-time and fitting in riyaaz when she can. “In the long term I’d like to reach whatever potential I can, as best as I can. Eventually I’d like to help other people to learn and perform. Right now I’d like to keep learning and get solid taleem (training).” When I ask if she’d consider making a career out of music, Shahana certainly would love to, but highlights that her financial situation would have a practical impact. “In order to make money from music, you need to have a business mind as well, which is why some of the best musicians are often not heard of,” Shahana states. “My priority right now is to be the best musician that I can be and if I get programmes and can teach and earn that way, then that would be ideal but I’m not going to say that’s what I have to do because it is possible to have some other source of income as well.”
Perhaps music still isn’t a feasible career option for many young Indian classical musicians in the UK as several key factors including circumstance, encouragement, support and opportunity need to align in order for students to flourish. But when some elements are aligned then the heart speaks loud and clear and nothing can stand in its way. Shahana certainly has a bright future ahead as her attitude is one that aligns with success. As she steps into exam season and the revision papers begin to pile up, her tanpura sits in the corner, waiting quietly until the next time she will pick it up to practise.