Updated: January 5, 2022 4:08:37 pm
It was exactly 50 years ago. All of 19 years old, Sharda Sinha was at the mike at an HMV talent audition in Lucknow. Just when she was about to sing, Begum Akhtar took her chair as a guest judge. A little overawed by the legendary ghazal singer’s presence as she was, Sinha sang her heart out. It was a Maithili wedding number on the theme of sisters stopping their just married brother to demand neg (gift). Akhtar was highly impressed with Sinha’s tonal quality. “If you keep doing riyaz (practice), you will go a very long way,” said Begum Akhtar while announcing Sinha’s selection.
Akhtar’s words proved prophetic. Sinha has come a long way ever since, having sung over 1,500 Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magahi, Hindi, Vajjika and Angika songs. While she has earned a wide following among connoisseurs of classical folk music with Vidyapati songs such as “Kanak Bhudhar Shikhar Vasini”, she has become a household name in the entire Purvaiah belt from Varanasi to Kolkata, thanks to her wedding numbers, Chhath songs and folk songs. At present, she is working on a set of wedding songs.
Though immensely popular for her Bollywood film songs such as “Kahe Tose Sajna” (Maine Pyar Kiya), “Babul Jo Tumse Sikhaya” (Hum Aapke Hain Kaun) and “Tar Bijli Se Patle Hamare Piya” (Gangs of Wasseypur), she is still very selective about Hindi film songs. “Only if people approach me with good songs” is her refrain.
Sitting at her Rajendra Nagar, Patna, house and dressed in a light green silk sari, the popular folk singer looks back at her journey from her childhood to becoming Sharda Sinha. “I started learning classical music from Pandit Ram Chandra Jha and later from Raghu Jha of Pachgachhiya Gharana,” she says. Later, she learnt music from Sitaram Hari Dandekar of Gwalior gharana and rhumri dadra from Panna Devi of Kirana gharana.
Her signature big, red bindi on her forehead, Sinha recalls how her father made her sing an extremely moving bidai song, “Nimiya Tar Doli Rakh De Kaharon (o carriers of palanquin, let me rest for a while under the neem tree), at her own wedding. “It was just four-five hours before my departure for my in-laws’ place. I was choked with emotion. All were crying, yet I sang because my father Sukdev Thakur wanted me to.”
It was a time when Vindhyavasini Devi dominated the Bihar folk music scene with her stage shows and renditions on Akashvani. “But I had hardly listened to her as I was more given to classical music,” Sinha says, adding that it was still pre-LP (long play record) days. “I got my first chance with HMV and all my three devotional songs—including ‘Jagdamba Ghar Me Diyra Baar Ayli He’—made me famous. I traversed from SP (short play) to SEP (short elongated play), from LP records to cassettes, and from MP3 to YouTube. I also post reels on Instagram now.”
Sinha’s stock rose with albums such as Piritiya, Kekra and Dulhin and songs on Chhath and wedding rituals. “Ujar Bagula Bin Pipron Na Sobhe”, “Apna Balma Ke Jagabe Sawar Goriya Chudiyo Se Maar Maar Ke”, “Paniya Ke Jahaz Se Paltaniya Bani Ayhah Ho” and “Dulhin Dhire Dhire Chahiho Sasur Galiya” are some of her all-time hits. There is hardly a stage that does not ask her to sing “Kahe Tose Sajna”, an Asad Bhopali song based on a Bihar folk song.
Asked about the criticism that she hasn’t sung works of Bhojouri legend Bhikhari Thakur enough, Sinha says: “It is not true. I have tried to sing all of them—right from Vidyapati to Bhikhari Thakur to Mahender Misir to Snehlata. My bidesia song of Bhikhari Thakur has been very popular… I have focused on entire Bihar, not on personalities… I feel very elated to get internationally applauded now.”
She said her biggest achievement was to get respectability for folk music. “There was a time when folk singers were used as fillers before the beginning of important cultural events… I once had to perform in Kolkata at a programme in which Baleshwar—a popular folk singer of the time—was also performing. Many people left the function midway during his performance and some people came to me complaining that I shouldn’t have accepted the invitation,” says Sinha.
Sinha used to be invited to sing at big-ticket events where greats like violinist V G Jog and dancer Gopi Krishna also performed. “I would be under huge pressure when the announcer used sobriquets like Bihar Ki Koyal for me. When I started singing I could sense with great pride that some 500 people had been waiting also for me,” says Sinha.
Sinha is delighted to see new folk singers earning well. She thinks some of the successful new-generation singers have good voice but lack focus. “Some want to become internet sensations and some take the music route to politics,” says Sinha, adding that she disapproves of the trend of “singers becoming actors” with a premium being put on visualizations. “Music is a complete form in itself” is her credo.
Asked if she had ever ben offered a legislative council or Rajya Sabha berth or if she desired to get one, the singer, who has never campaigned for any political party, was forthright: “Why should I ask for it? I cannot lobby for it. If I deserve it, let them offer it. I do not remember anyone after Siyaram Tiwari (dhrupad singer) being nominated to the Bihar legislative council in the arts quota.”
Awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2018, Sinha is upset with the Bihar government for “not doing enough for art and music”. “Music fests are held here with Bollywood singers but our own folk singers are not being invited,” she says. “Music fests are anyway an act of symbolism.”
The legendary singer is also dismissive of parents’ enthusiasm for music competitions: “No one is wiling to learn, either. Maybe they (the children) are learning from YouTube.”
Sinha, who has taught music in a Samastipur college, says she regrets that she couldn’t give more time to either music or teaching. “I used to travel daily from Patna to Samastipur, which would take a lot of time. Had I chosen full-time singing, I could’ve composed more songs”. Her latest song is in Maithili and based on Lord Krishna’s son and daughter.
Her husband B K Sinha, a retired government official, has encouraged her greatly in the pursuit of her passion. Their son Anshuman Sinha, who bas been assisting his mother since 2011, is also a singer and is planning to publish a biography of Sharda Sinha. They have also set up Swar Sharda, a music platform, which will release Sinha’s new album.
Their daughter Vandana Sinha, a trained classical singer, thinks she has a responsibility to take her mother’s legacy forward while making a mark on the music scene. Vandana, who also sings dadra, thumri and ghazals, says nobody can match the legendary singer whose Chhath songs fill the atmosphere from Diwali till the conclusion of the four-day festival.
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