Whistling to win
- The Indian Whistlers’ Association, the only such group in the country dedicated to this performing art, has been breaking national and international records
- Today, the 15-year-old association has members from Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, and overseas as well
A fascinating YouTube video from 2016 shows Chennai-based Swetha Suresh executing neat Bharatanatyam adavus (steps) while whistling to the tune of A.R. Rahman’s Minsara Poove. Performed during the World Whistling Convention 2016 in Kawasaki, Japan, this 2-minute act won her the first prize in the “Allied Arts" category of the competition, in which 49 artists from six countries participated. She won again in 2018.
Swetha, 28, is a multifaceted artist: Besides being a trained Bharatanatyam dancer and an audio engineer, she is one of the few female whistlers in the country, and ranks No.1 in Asia. Today, around 65 serious whistlers like her—aged 10-70—are part of the Indian Whistlers’ Association (IWA), the only such group in the country dedicated to this performing art.
The roots of the association lie in the quest of its founder, Rigveda Deshpandey, to find like-minded whistlers across the country. “While growing up, I had a sense of music, but couldn’t sing. Whistling is what I could do best. I am a sound engineer, so I can understand music by the ear," says Mumbai-based Deshpandey, who is also the vice-president of a dubbing services company.
He was in the first year of college at Lucknow Christian College in 2003 when he first performed on stage, accompanied by a classmate strumming the guitar during the freshers’ party. The overwhelming response prompted him to find out more about the art of musical whistling. “At that time, there was only one Yahoo group, called Orawshitle, with a lot of foreigners as members. I too started sharing my audio, made with cheap software and by adding a lot of echo in the background," he says. As he interacted with group members and began recording more, he began understanding microphone placements to ensure the audio didn’t pick up bursts of air while whistling. That also fuelled his interest in sound engineering. “I didn’t want to whistle alone, but with like-minded people," says Deshpandey.
In 2004, he started the association as a Yahoo group, and as more people joined, the IWA acquired an organized form, with its own vision statement and goals.
Today, the 15-year-old association has members from Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, and overseas as well. In 2008, IWA entered the Limca Book Of Records when 48 whistlers performed a tune in unison in Chennai. Last year, the association created the Asian record in Kochi for the largest group of people (150) whistling together. While preparing for the record, Deshpandey even quit his job for six months. The attempt to create a Guinness record—of 1,000 people whistling together—hasn’t come to fruition yet, but the group is not giving up. “There are members such as Jyothi Kamath, who is our Kerala zone head, Chetan Bapat, a sailor by profession from Thane, Mohan Kumar, head of Karnataka zone, whose contribution to IWA’s growth has been invaluable," says Deshpandey.
Internationally, whistling continues to be an individual hobby pursued by artists such as Steve Herbst and Kimiko Wakiyama, thus making the IWA relatively unique in its structure and functioning
One of the foremost aims of IWA is to bust myths about whistling. “For long, people have associated whistling with teasing and it is considered taboo in many homes. Also, there are many superstitions associated with it. For instance, many believe snakes will come out if you whistle at night," says Chennai-based Khush Bafna, 32, who helms a family-owned real estate and financial services firm.
Deshpandey and the team hold workshops and sessions at institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai, to change such notions and create awareness about musical whistling as an art form. “Anyone can whistle, but not everyone can whistle well," he says.
Throat and breathing exercises are required to increase stamina. “It helps that you whistle on a full stomach, as it helps you to reach the lower notes," is one of the simple tips offered. In one such presentation, Deshpandey also talks about the seven kinds of musical whistling styles practised around the world—pucker, which is the most common, roof or palatal whistling, finger, bottom lip, hand whistling, teeth, and fingerless whistling.
Each member of the group has had his or her own unique journey. There is Alok Bahuguna, 60, from Dehradun, who owns a pharmaceutical distribution business and has been whistling as a hobby from his schooldays. He posts regularly on IWA’s WhatsApp group, exchanging notes with fellow members. Then there is Jagdish Shah, 68, from Indore, a stage-show veteran who uses the mouth organ and whistling to belt out Bollywood tunes. He has been associated with the IWA since 2017 and regularly posts videos on YouTube.
While the two are recent additions to the group, Bafna has been associated with it from the beginning. “I had a gift of learning instruments such as the guitar and the keyboard on my own. However, since there was no accompanying vocalist, I started whistling," he says. Soon, the art seeped into his subconscious, and he started whistling without realizing it. “My folks at home were fed up. When I went for my master’s degree to the UK, the rooms at the dorm were next to each other. And a lot of my classmates would complain that I was whistling away at night," he says.
In 2009, however, a tour to Europe with his parents changed things. During an ice-breaker session with fellow travellers, his rendition of an old Bollywood tune won thunderous applause, convincing his parents he had talent. Since then, he has been an active member of the association, often giving detailed feedback and ratings to renditions by fellow members.
While the majority of the members are not formally trained in music, some do have a background in Hindustani or Carnatic classical music. Lakshmy Iyer and Nikhil Prabhu, for instance, believe their training in Carnatic music helps their whistling to a great extent. Iyer, a Mumbai-based homemaker, joined the IWA in 2017 during a member recruitment drive to break the existing Guinness record for “most number of people whistling in unison". “While the attempt didn’t materialise due to insufficient registrations, I stayed on as a member. I always knew that I had a talent for whistling, but since it was frowned upon, I could never express it fully," says Iyer, who is now the treasurer and spokesperson of the association.
Even though she is a trained musician, she picked up on the nuances of musical whistling only after joining the group. “I got invaluable guidance from Rigveda about important techniques such as breath regulation, and about which aspects of a song needed focus, and more," says Iyer.
Bengaluru-based fitness instructor Seema Sharat, 44, concurs. She used to feel she was a very good whistler until she joined the association and began understanding the mistakes she was making. “Of course, it’s a given that you have to focus on sur and taal. But you really have to focus on the lyrics as well. Which word to enunciate, which to break up, etc," she says.
Although awareness about musical whistling as a performing art is still at a nascent stage, the entry in the Limca Book Of Records has helped boost its popularity. Prabhu, a Mysuru-based chartered accountant, has been receiving several queries about the association since then. “Also, I hail from the Konkani Brahmin community, which is orthodox in its views. But, after the record, I was invited by the community members to render bhajans through whistling last year in a temple. It was quite a breakthrough," he shares.
Whatever the journey of individual whistlers, they are united in their love for old Hindi film songs, soft rock and semi-classical pieces. “Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Hemant Kumar are some of the favourites. Old songs are more rhythmic, with a lot of thehraav and great lyrics. Makes for great whistling," says Bafna.
FIRST PUBLISHED09.08.2019 | 02:14 PM IST