Singer Harshdeep Kaur can’t help but reminisce about the time when she met ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh for the first time as a teenager. As she completes a little over two decades in the Indian music industry, learnings from that meeting still resonate with her. “I still remember his words: ‘Find your own voice, respect your own individuality’. He explained that every voice and vocal range was unique,” she says. Kaur is in Delhi to perform for IBTIDA-Ek Mehfil’s Jhoom on the evening of 11 December, which is being hailed as India’s biggest ‘baithak’ or a sit-down concert for 500-plus audiences. Her live concert of Sufi music in 1AQ, a cultural space for performing arts, exhibitions, and events, promises to be a balm for tired nerves.
There’s a reason why co-founders of IBTIDA-Ek Mehfil, Tanvi Bhatia, and Anubhav Jain, chose Kaur to represent the brand for its first-ever ticketed show. According to them, Kaur’s understanding and representation of ‘Sufism’ were key. “Jhoom,” the co-founders, add, “represents freedom, celebration, and liberation, and we felt that Kaur could connect with a large audience for this baithak format of ours.”
Kaur too is excited about this style of performance. As someone who performs across formats, a baithak, she feels, allows for an even more immersive experience for both, the listener and the performer. “You are sitting down to seriously listen to artistes who have invested their lives doing riyaaz. A baithak format is such a wonderful concept, then, to value and respect artistes,” she says.
Kaur cannot stress enough on the need to train in Hindustani classical music. “It is such an important part of my musical journey, the base of my singing. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have been able to sing the way I do today,” she says.
The singer has been learning music from the age of five. Born and raised in Delhi, before she shifted with her family to Mumbai in the early 2000s, Kaur credits her guru Tejpal Singh, for teaching her the tenets of music. Her teacher is part of the illustrious duo, Singh Bandhu, exponents of Hindustani classical music and shabad kirtan (Sikh music). This training, she says, allowed her to aim for “pitch perfection”, a challenging feat, particularly for live show performers.
Those who have worked closely with Kaur reckon that in an industry cluttered with so many voices, it’s her classical music training that makes her stand out. Sanjoy Das, who has been a music producer, director, and an instrumentalist for over 30 years, says, “Harsdheep understands the poetry, lyrics, and has a clear thought process while approaching songs. Her dedication to the craft stands out because of her classical music training. Moreover, she’s a genuinely warm person.” Das, founder member of Coke Studio India, met Kaur in 2011 when she sang ‘Hoo’, a Sufi song, as part of the first episode of the first season of the intellectual property.
With over 400-500 songs to her credit, she’s recorded and sung live with some of the leading names in the industry, including A. R. Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Pritam, Vishal-Shekhar, Amit Trivedi, among others. Her vocal texture evokes a nostalgia that’s comforting and healing. Think ‘Dilbaro’, the vidai song from the film Raazi, which Kaur sang with both, grace and command in her voice. The lilting melody, a favourite at Indian weddings now, tugs at your heartstrings.
Ehsaan Noorani, music director, who recorded ‘Dilbaro’ along with his colleagues Shankar Mahadevan and Loy Mendonsa, explains why Kaur makes a difference. “Her voice has character, a vibe, he says. For him, Kaur was the “first and only choice for ‘Dilbaro’.”
While she’s a formidable voice in the industry today, and a favourite in the live music circuit, Kaur admits that she had to work very hard. “I used to watch the recordings of my live performances and review them. It’s only over the years, of being a listener at other shows, that I have learned to get better,” she says. While she vouches for the energy that Shankar Mahadevan brings on the stage (“no teenager can match that,” she says) and the importance of rehearsals from A. R. Rahman (“for an hour-long performance, he does four-day rehearsals”), it’s Jagjit Singh whom she always found mesmerising. Kaur adds, “People would wait for months for his live shows in their cities… I watched him live and always thought, that’s the kind of singer I want to be.”
Carving a niche of her own, Kaur is now focusing on her independent releases, which include Sufi songs, gurbani kirtan, besides popular songs for films. From a 5-year-old girl, who used to sing songs from the musical The Sound of Music with her sister to the time when she sang ‘Ae mere watan ke logon’ on the school stage, Kaur is now singing lullabies to her one-year-old son Hunar, introducing him to melodies that her grandmother used to sing to her, and old songs that she grew up listening to. “Being with my son is the biggest joy to experience… whenever he’s around me, and I’m with him, it’s the best time in the world,” she adds.
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