Music has been called the moderator between the sensual and spiritual world by Beethoven and the music of Pankaj Udhas with its profound simplicity and beautiful lyrics about love and spirituality are a perfect example of that statement.
He has had an interesting life. Born in Jetpur near Rajkot in Gujrat in a family of music lovers, he decided to pursue a career in science at St. Xavier’s in Mumbai. He also briefly considered medicine but his passion and love for music soon led him towards a musical journey eventually choosing that as a career. Inspired by Begum Akhtar at an early stage, he has continued to compose his own music and has touched millions of hearts since he released his first album in 1980. He achieved international fame with perhaps his most famous ghazal to this day “Chitthi aeye hei.” He has also received numerous awards including a Padmashree, which he says is closest to his heart.
It was such a pleasure to meet him on a beautiful Monday morning after listening to his ghazals at a wonderful concert in Boston the previous night. His refreshing simplicity truly touches your heart. Not surprisingly, he has been called the man with the golden voice and king of hearts.
Q-1: Your lyrics are so beautiful, simple and touching. How do you pick your lyrics?
Udhas: This goes back a long way. I started my career and did my first album in 1980. Prior to this around 1977, I met a poet Sheikh Adam Abuwala. He was an urdu poet. He was spontaneous and had that Mirza Galib touch. He never wrote poetry for sake of writing. His spontaneity brought him simplicity. When we were doing my first project Aahat, we were trying to pick eight ghazals from many that I had composed and tuned. We were wondering what would people like in that era in 1980. We analyzed that people had moved on and the language moved on. The beautiful language of Mirza Ghalib was not easily accessible to a large section of the society. He gave me example of Noor Norvi who had composed hundreds of years ago and in fact I recorded one of his ghazals later on “Aap jinke kareeb hote hein wo bade khush naseeb hote hein.” Very simple but has great meaning and is very spiritual because poet is talking about God. That gave me an idea that I needed to do work that was easily accessible for people. So, my process of picking lyrics is very meaningful yet simple.
Q-2: You were a science student at St. Xavier’s. What made you choose music as a career?
Udhas: My father used to work for government, and I had learned how to play dilruba instrument. Both my elder brothers Manhar and Nirmal are well-known singers. Their music was a great influence. I grew up in an environment so full of music. I started singing from school days, led school prayers, performed at assembly so my passion for music began at that age. I wanted to be a doctor as well like you Dr. Sheth and that is the reason I had picked science. But after one year of science, I realized that I was not cut out to be a doctor. My view point changed and I decided to pursue music.
Q-3: In the modern world of music reality shows, what advice would you give youngsters?
Udhas: Actually if you ask me, music is now going through a very delicate phase. If you look at classical music, ghazals and devotional music we had very solid genre in those days. If you look back at cinema music, you are talking about greats like Naushad, Salil Chaudhary, C. Ramchandar just to name a few. There were so many greats. They were all so qualified and they all came from a classical music background. So even at that stage cinema music made sense since compositions were based on ragas. Film makers were also well versed in Hindi and Urdu so lyrics were meaningful and then of course, you had singers like Lata ji and Rafi saab so it made Bollywood music so strong in those days.
Unfortunately now in music, the electronic media has gotten carried away with Bollywood in a very big way. You also see a lot of sport events in Bollywood. In India nothing sells better then cricket and Bollywood. Overall that reflects our overall status of music. The kind of music made today has no strong genre. This miss-mashed music being largely promoted by television media is hurting the younger generations. They are deprived of good clean sensible music. I do not blame the younger generation because they are growing up with this music and for them this is best music and then we have reality shows which promote very talented kids but these kids become stars for the three month season of reality show. And then they get lost somewhere and that is a major concern because such amazing talent is lost somewhere.
Q-4: How do you prepare for your shows especially when you travel so much?
Udhas: My inner peace is my strength. My music gives me peace and spirituality. Audience may notice that my eyes are closed and I generally travel away from the stage. At some point, I am on a auto pilot. In some ways, I am singing but am not there. That kind of state of mind helps us to give our best in spite of physical and mental fatigue.
Q-5: Do u have a fitness regime?
Udhas: I had one in India, but is tough when I travel. I am trying to get back into it here. I do yoga and I love to walk. These are the two things that I like to follow as much as possible.
Q-6: What is your diet?
Udhas: I have a very strict diet plan. I do not eat red meat or any fried stuff. I eat low calorie food and sometimes take protein supplements. Overall I have a very simple fat free diet. I like Gujrati food but I use less oil and no sugar.
Q-7: What is your favorite venue to do a show and why?
Udhas: There are good venues across the world. If you ask me, there are quite a few good ones where I enjoy performing. In Mumbai, we have Nehru Center which is brilliant. In Singapore, it is Esplanade. It is a new generation, state-of-the-art, 21st century venue, and lights and sounds are truly an experience. In UK, Albert Hall is obviously a great venue. In Sidney, Opera house is a great venue.
Q-8: Who has been your biggest influence in your musical journey and why?
Udhas: My father was a great influence. When I was in late teens, I was introduced to the music of Begam Akhtar. She was such an inspiration and is one of my reasons for singing ghazal. I admire her singing and style.
Q-9: Love always finds a way in your ghazals. What is your take on love?
Udhas: I am a very romantic person and feel that so many issues can be sorted out with love. I am talking affection and the antidote to hatred. In today’s time, everyone is so stressed out and I think love is the only healing element. It is a balm that you can apply on all your wounds and worries. That is the reason why love appeals to me the most.
Q-10: How did you meet your wife?
Udhas: She comes from a Parsi background. It might sound un-romantic but we met through a friend while playing cards. She won and I lost.
Q-11: You have two daughters Nayaab and Rewa. Are they interested in music and what is the best advice you give them?
Udhas: They grew up singing and playing piano. They are both independent in terms of thinking and approach of life. They are both grounded and do not behave like a star’s children .When they were growing up the only thing I shared with them is I want them as my friends not children. I wanted them to always share everything with me and move on in life. This really helped me and my wife. They both wanted to choose their vocation. We helped them out and discussed with them. We helped them achieve what they wanted in terms of their career so this element of being friends really helped us.
Q-12: Aap ki ghazal “Maiee: Jade ki thandhi raaton mein jab der se ghar mai aau, halki si dastak par apni tujhe jagta hua mai pau” about mom is so touching. Do you have any special memory and reason?
Udhas: You might have noticed that I almost choked yesterday while singing on stage. I was the youngest of the three. I got so much love from my mother. She was literally mad about me. She loved me so much. When I sang “chhithi ayee hei” and when the movie and song were released she was sitting with me watching and listening and crying. I asked her why she was crying when I am sitting next to you, and she said she was crying as a proud parent and I will understand it one day when I am a parent.
When I was struggling in Mumbai after college then I would go to ghazal performance and mehfils in Mumbai and would come home very late. As I would reach the apartment and before I rang the bell, she would open the door for me; and when I asked her she said that she could hear the elevator door and know it was me .This is what connected me to this poetry. In fact, the ghazal reflect those sentiments Unfortunately, I lost her in 1988. It was very traumatic for me and I did not compose for two years. I want the world to know the value of mother and what mother is about.
Q-13: What is your favorite ghazal?
Udhas: It is very difficult to say. Every album has one that I like. One that stays closest to my heart in term of musical and lyrical content:
“Deewaron sei milkar rona accha lagta hei,
Hum bhi paagal ho jayenge aisa lagta hei•”
Q-14: What is the best advice you received from your parents?
Udhas: The relationship with me and my kids is same as with my own parent and me. Even in those days, my parents never pushed me into anything. My dad was a very quiet man. When I used to sing then he would quietly listen in a corner. I came to know about that later on. My brothers said he had told them that I would go to a different level with my career. My brothers told me this since I wondered why he was not pushing my education. He knew I wanted to sing and he thought I could do it.
Pankaj Udhas’s reponse to rapid fire questions:
Your favorite hobbies: I fall in Mirza Ghalib category that Hazaron khwayesin aisi ki haar khwaweish paar dum nikle. My list is very long. I love to spend time with my family, chat and have fun.
Favorite sports: I am a huge tennis fan. I have always wanted to see Wimbledon. Next year, I am spending 15 days in UK so I will watch Wimbledon. I am also a cricket fan and love cricket tournaments.
Movies: I like to watch movies, but only movies with substance. My favorite movie maker was Guru Dutt. My favorite movie was kagaz ke phool.
Favorite travel destination: If I want to relax I like Cape Town in South Africa. It is the most beautiful place on earth.
New generation singer favorites: I like Shreya Ghpsal. She has a beautiful voice, and Sonu Nigam is also very talented.
Favorite food: When I am in Punjab then I like a good tender tandoori chicken straight out of tandoor. I also love aloo paratha.
Best quality of your wife: Honest and very spiritual.
Who is your best friend: My wife is definitely my best friend.
What are your future goals: Every singer has an ambition. I want to set it right with ghazals. For the next ten years I want to do 20-25 self-composed albums. I want to be happy in terms of creative part of life and music.
Favorite award: Padmashree. The president Abdul Kalam presented it to me. I told him it is a privilege getting this from you. He said it is a privilege giving it to you since you have pleased so many people and that means a lot to me.
Last word for Chai with Manju: There could not be a better cup of tea.
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