During the final credit announcements of Feroz Abbas Khan’s musical spectacle, Mughal-e-Azam, the loudest cheer in the house is for Priyanka Barve, a soft-spoken classical singer from Pune who does an adaab and smiles gleefully at the audience, who give her a standing ovation. Barve plays the famed role of Anarkali, straddling singing, dancing and acting, in this enormous NCPA and Shapoorji Pallonji production. Its 10 sold-out shows testify to its popularity in the Capital. The emcee eggs her on to sing, to prove that she was belting out the iconic Naushad compositions live onstage. Many had questioned if she was lip synching. Barve closes her eyes to set the note in her head and breaks into Pyaar kiya toh darna kya, in a silken voice that harks back to the days of traditional playback singing, the kind that would win the approval of commoners and connoisseurs alike. The audience sings along for the next two minutes.
Barve can really knock out a number, moving with ease from mandra saptak (lowest register) to taar saptak (high register). “It’s my training in classical music which has helped. With dance and acting along, I have to make sure that it doesn’t sound strained,” says 27-year-old Barve. She is unrecognisable when we meet her backstage after a dress rehearsal at Delhi’s JLN stadium. She is in jeans and black T-shirt, the makeup is off and Manish Malhotra’s elaborate costumes have been packed up. She tells the other cast members to hold the bus for her. “How will I go if it leaves?” Minutes ago she was in a battle of wits with Emperor Akbar onstage wanting to be the queen of Hindustan. “Kaneez dekhna chahti thi ki afsane haqeeqat mein kis tarah badalte hain (The courtesan wants to see how legends turn into reality),” she says.
Barve landed the role of Anarkali almost a year ago, a little after Khan had already cast a leading TV actor. This actor was fired almost 15 days into the rehearsal schedule, owing to issues of punctuality and demands of a spot boy that Khan was taken aback by. “Theatre needs discipline,” says Khan. His casting director suggested Barve then, a Pune-based Hindustani classical singer who was trained in Natya Sangeet and Kathak. “The combination was too perfect. Also, when you think of Anarkali’s role, Madhubala is so vivid in our imagination. I wanted someone stunning but for theatre. And theatre beauty is different. I needed this person to light my stage with her presence. Priyanka did exactly that,” says Khan.
For the role, Barve trained in Urdu, Kathak and continued with vocal riyaaz. This was followed by rehearsals and rigorous yoga. “I have a Marathi accent. I had to completely wipe that and learn concepts of nuqta among others. As for dance, even though I had trained in Kathak as a teenager, striking a balance between dance and music was quite hard,” says Barve, who had never seen Mughal-e-Azam until recently. “I must admit that I haven’t seen it fully even now,” she says, with a reticent laugh. “Feroz sir wanted his own Anarkali. I was never to be Madhubala. There can’t be another,” says Barve, who is the grandaughter of veteran vocalists Pt Padmakar Barve and Malati Pande-Barve, and has trained under them.
Growing up in a traditional Maharashtrian household, the seven notes in various permutations and combinations were all that she heard. After her Hindustani classical training as a child, it was Natya Sangeet, the rich 19th century form that fascinated her. Natya Sangeet, literally dramatic music, emerged so that everyone, not just the connoisseurs, could enjoy classical music. Classical singer Rahul Deshpande, Vasantrao Deshpande’s son, a student of legendary Mukul Shivputra (Kumar Gandharva’s elusive son), and whose classical renditions in award-winning Marathi film Katyar Kaljat Ghusali (2015) found much attention, trained Barve in the artform. After a masters in Economics, she began singing for Marathi films. Her Marathi musicals include Double Seat and Mumbai Pune Mumbai 2.
Currently, Barve is busy essaying the role of Anarkali and will continue in the next season. She is keen on doing musicals and playback in the future. “Let’s see what I find. For now, I am Anarkali,” says Barve.