The world of music has always been divided between populists and spiritualists. So though there is a Yo Yo Honey Singh, thankfully, we also have a Mohammed Vakil.
Vakil, who won reality show Sa Re Ga Ma (Mega Final) in 1998, is now an established ghazal and sufi singer, the scion of the Jaipur gharana and the life-long disciple of legends, Mohammed Hussain and Ahmed Hussain.
“They are my gurus and my uncles too and from them, I learnt the importance of thehrav (stilless) and taiyyari (preparation). They taught me ‘Ragdari’ and ‘Roohdari’, to understand the raagas but to listen to the spirit as well. I learnt that ghazal must have ruhaniyat (soulfulness) and since it is a shabdpradhan (word-centric) discipline, one must feel the words. It is painful to hear even simple words mispronounced. If you say kagaj instead of kagaz toh samajhiye, baat hi khatm ho gayi,” Vakil articulates in pristine Urdu.
He also recalls with pride how his uncles had groomed him to sing a Saraswati Vandana in Sanskrit perfectly. “I sang it in in Sa Re Ga Ma, making sure that not a single word was mispronounced,” he says.
To Vakil, success is all about the humility he felt when he was crowned the winner of the Sa Re Ga Ma mega final by 11 of the most distinguished musicians In India, including Jagjit Singh, Parveen Sultana, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Anil Biswas, Sharan Rani, Kalyan, Anand, Naushad, O P Nayyar and more.
He says, “Before such icons, it is hard to even open your mouth to sing sa and yet with God’s grace, I was able to get their approval. I am very grateful that Ghulam Ali saab and late Jagjit Singh ji were there to support me verbally and spiritually during my journey, as also Sonu Nigam and Ismail Darbar who said that he had never seen anyone sing in a reality show the way I did. All I can say is that it was because of the taleem given to me by my uncles.”
He also had the honour of singing with them for the qawaali, ‘aaya tere dar pe deewana‘ in Yash Chopra’s Veer Zara..
He was in his early 20s during the Sa Re Ga Ma days and the euphoria that followed the win, overwhelmed him at times.
Late politician N K P Salve, also a big fan of Vakil, took him in 2001 for a long drive in Mumbai and promised a big surprise. On reaching Pali Hill, Vakil was ushered into a bungalow that just happened to belong to Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar. He remembers singing for two charmed hours for an audience that included Lata Mangeshkar. He still cannot believe the moment when Lata Mangeshkar met him after the little concert and said that she remembered the raag mala and Kersariya he had sung in Sa Re Ga Ma. “It has been 16 years but I am blessed that people still ask me to sing compositions from that show,” Vakil says.
Since then he has cut over six albums, sung all over the world in concerts with Shreya Ghoshal, Sunidhi Chauhan, Kavita Krishnamurthi, Pankaj Udhas and more. “Jagjit Singh saab gave me space to sing in his concerts many times and it was Sonu Nigam who took me for my first foreign show to Brussels,” he recalls.
It pains him though that reality shows today focus more on commercial considerations than talent. He says, “It is wrong to choose a singer by public voting because only senior musicians can give a critical perspective on a singer’s range and taleem (training). Also the focus has shifted from music to sad life stories. Why manipulate the emotions of the audience? Why not just sing and win on merit?”
Manipulation has never been his strong point and he battled it in the playback industry without success. He says, “There is a lot of politics out there and my appeal to composers is..hamein gawa ke to dekhiye..I can only sing. I cannot plot. Riyaz ki duniya hi alag hoti hai (the world of music is different).”
He recounts an anecdote about the classical great of the Indore gharana, Ustad Amir Khan to tell you what music means to him.
“Ustad ji once asked a disciple, ‘riyaz kar rahe ho?‘ (Are you doing riyaz?) and the boy answered, ‘thoda bahut” (a little) and ustad ji said, ‘Sangeet aisi cheez hai jahan bahut bhi thoda hai’.” (In the world of music, even a lot of riyaz is but a drop in the ocean), smiles Vakil and adds, “There was a time when I could not sing for over 50 days because of a surgery. I could not breathe because music is my breath. From the moment, am awake, my tanpura is on. Even if I come back from a concert where I have sung for hours, the first thing I do in the morning is my riyaz.”
Vakil is planning an album on the works of Khusrau, Meera and other Sufi and Bhakt poets. The project may be more significant than ever before today but for him it is natural to sing a bhajan and a naat. He says with profound simplicity, “Sangeet ka koi mazhab nahin hota (music has no religion). If you can be a good human-being, that is all the religion you need.”
Naushad saab had once said about him, “Woh khud hi jaan jaate hain bulandi aasmanon ki, parindon ko nahin taalem di jaati udaano ki” (No one can teach a bird how to fly…for they know how to reach the sky).
For Mohammed Vakil, music is a limitless sky and his journey of exploration has just begun.
Reema Moudgil works for The New Indian Express, Bangalore, is the author of Perfect Eight, the editor of Chicken Soup for the Soul-Indian Women, an artist, a former RJ and a mother. She dreams of a cottage of her own that opens to a garden and where she can write more books, paint, listen to music and just be.