Vishal Mathur on rebuilding interest in classical music

Palak Sharma

“Music without feelings is an aimless boat without a harbor”, believes Vishal Mathur, a 21 year old Hindustani classical musician. The Ajmer-based trained vocalist and practitioner is a ardent supporter of his art form, looking to revive interest in focusing on the behind-the-scenes work and the performances that follow.

Here's an excerpt of our conversation with Mathur over the weekend:

Where does music fit in to your life right now - are you a full-time musician or are you also studying?

I am a full time trainee in Hindustani classical music. Officially I am also enrolled in a distance course to receive a bachelor's degree in social work, but that is only because I am expected to. I really dedicate all my energy toward music. I wish I could go without needing an educational qualification, since not everyone is built for the same way. It's like the Einstein quote: if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

It's a tough time to be a classical musician in India. What has your journey been like so far?

As for music, I started humming melodies even before being exposed to formal training. At 17, which is quite late in terms of Hindustani classical music, I realized that my calling lies in sur and taal.

Three years ago, I crashed my bike and had a near death experience. It took me a long time to recover from Bell's Palsy, but I took that as a sign. It was a blessing with a purpose. I was expected to get an engineering degree or do a professional course, that will help me settle down or earn a living. I had to fight society's expectations and my own family's as well. I have come a long way just by defying the typical definition of what success is supposed to look like for someone today.

So what has it been like since then?

Since then, I have dedicated myself to my guru, Pandit Anand Vaidya ji. As his disciple, I have earned recognition at several institutes and academies accross the country, such as the Darshak Sansthan in Agra or the Uttar Pradesh Sangeet Natak Academy in Lucknow. I also hold the titles of Sur Noor and Swara Mani, which were awarded by none other than Grammy award winner, Pt. Vishwamohan Bhatt.

Throughout my training, I have idolized my guru more than anyone else. But another eminent personality from my gharana (house) is Bharat Ratna awardee Pt. Bhimsen Joshi.

Tell us more about your guru. How did you come to study under him?

A neighbor connected me with another disciple of guruji. I learned a little bit about him and immediately joined his class. My relationship with him is very paternal. He has never differentiated between any of his students, all of us are equal before his eyes. There was this particular time, which I can remember clearly, where I was listening to guruji perform a raagdari and I felt goosebumps that were beyond anything physical. He has been a friend, father and inspiration and I knew then that I could never get this combination ever again.

When he thinks back to his first impression of me, we both burst into laughter because he thought I was another teenager searching for respite from studies in the name of passion.

What's your opinion on Hindustani classical music today?

When art sells, the artist loses. I am a staunch opposer of the commercialization of art. In the internet age, fame is sudden and quick but I've observed that it is seldom a truly deserving artist gains popularity. People are always making headlines for the wrong reasons. One of the reasons I feel Hindustani classical music is losing its audience is because it isn't romanticized in the same way. People have always assigned more value to a chic alternative from abroad over anything that seems Indian, so traditionally Indian music has lost its appeal.

You've only been training for five years, but you've managed to achieve a fair bit during that short time. How?

I practice for 8 hours or more on a regular basis and I maintain a balance between listening and singing. Of course, a full practice for 8 hours is very strenuous, so I break that practice into 2-hours slots. The thing with Hindustani classical music is that, sometimes, creating it is a just a series of permutations and combinations. But you need to know basic arithmetic for it to make sense. So I am focusing on developing this basic arithmetic, rest all falls into place with riyaz (practice).

What have you got planned as an artist who wants to give back?

I have a lot of plans to bring back the appeal. I am keen on conducting a one or two day workshops for primary school children. I think that despite my knack for music, I couldn’t get formal music training early because it is difficult for children from middle class families to consider offbeat careers. So, with these workshops, I plan on ensuring that even if there is one artist in there who feels a spark, my job is done. This is how I plan to give back to my art.

What are you expecting from your art in the near future?

A future in the arts is always uncertain. I'm not expecting to earn crores, but I want to keep performing on stages across India and across the world. The larger the stage, the louder my share of voice will be. There are still not enough avenues for artists and musicians, but if there aren't any for me, I am determined to create one. This will help not just me, but every Hindustani classical vocalist who follows the same path I did.

Words by Palak Sharma.
Image by Teena Sharma.

Edited for clarity and better comprehension.

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