At the recently concluded annual Sufi music festival — Sama’a: The Mystic Ecstasy — at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, Rekha Bhardwaj effortlessly made her way through sufiana compositions. Her repertoire is a mix of traditional music and contemporary Hindi film songs. Speaking with Firstpost after her performance at Sama'a, Rekha addressed her love for Sufism, her creative collaborations with husband Vishal Bhardwaj (the filmmaker), and the songs she's sung for his film Rangoon.
How did your interest in Sufi come about?
Being born and brought up in Delhi, I grew up listening to the qawwalis of Shankar Shambhu and Sabri Brothers. Since I already had a classical background in music, this genre of music appealed to me. With Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen came Sufi. Nusrat’s ‘Night Song’ with Michael Brook in the '90s gave us the feel of world music. We were exposed to all this... Then Vishal (Bhardwaj) started composing Bulleh Shah for a Sufi song album for me. Gulzar sahab wrote the songs for Ishqa Ishqa, that released in 2002.
A lot of riyaz had gone into it. There was a lot of emotional attachment and it was during this time that my understanding of Sufi grew. I went to the Osho commune in Pune and enrolled for a course in ‘Sufi whirling and dervish threshold’. That was the time my inner journey began. Sufi is not a religion. It is a path to walk on; a way of life. I did Sufi retreats in Taiwan, and Pune and attended a few in Konya, Turkey, especially the shab-e-urs that is held every year on the day Rumi left his body.
Since then, whirling has become part of all my performances. I always begin a performance with 'Ishqa'; it is like seeking blessings and also sets the mood for the evening. Sufi has become a part of me, my whole being. It comes naturally to me and I enjoy being immersed in its depth.
Almost all the songs you’ve sung are beautifully worded. How important are lyrics to you as a singer? Would you like to write a song one day?
Songs that have come to me are like a blessing. I have been lucky to be approached by the music directors with the best lyrics. Maybe my unconditional devotion to music created that space for me. I really don’t know. But yes, lyrics definitely are very important. They add to the beauty of the song and only songs that have meaningful lyrics written like poetry go on to live in the hearts of the people forever. As for writing a song, I did try to write a bandish but didn’t go beyond two lines!
What makes you choose a song?
A singer does not choose a song. A music director approaches us with a song. If, at times, we do not like the lyrics, we may not do it. The right to refuse is ours. But I have not yet faced such a situation. I share a great rapport with my music directors. I was holidaying in Kashmir when Pritam wanted to record 'Kabira'. And both he and Ayan Mukherjee were so keen I sing it that we ended up recording it in Srinagar!
You’ve done a track for the Pakistani film Bin Roye. In the wake of the ban on anti-Pakistani sentiment following the Uri attack, what are your views regarding cross border cultural exchange?
Since 2002, I have done a lot of songs for Pakistani television serials and films. Artists and cultural delegations have always tried to bridge the gap between the two countries and resolve issues. However, it goes without saying that politically whatever decision has been taken keeping the present scenario in mind, is proper and we abide by it. But it has made me sad. They have also banned us. Terrorism needs to be uprooted.
As an artiste, what's your creative equation with Vishal like? How do two creative people work in tandem?
As far as the songs go, he is the music director, I the singer. I follow him. When he composes, he does this alone. Then he shares the composition with me. He takes my opinion but the final call is always his. We never have a difference of opinion. I believe that two artistes respect one another and so between us we are very amicable. The music compatibility between us is extraordinary.
Whether it is 'Dum Ghut Ta Hai' from Drishyam or 'Aaj Ke Naam' from Haider, your songs are all about a powerful voice where the use of instruments is very minimal...
The beat is important also but the words need to be heard; the voice needs to be heard. An item or a club song can also be done aesthetically. Technologically, there has been a global change in music. It is our choice what we like to hear. But anything — whether or not it has a loud beat — when it comes from the soul, is always melodious.
Is there an album in the pipeline?
There are two songs of Sarmad that I have prepared and am planning to record them. Next, I want to do an album of ghazals with Gulzar sahab. Then there is a zikr that I have done.
A lyricist whose songs you’d love to sing:
Irshad Kamil is one lyricist I haven’t sung for. I would love to sing for him.
Does Rangoon have songs by you?
Quite a few.