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Hindustani classical singer Falguni Shah, the only Indian nominee at the Grammys, on her album inspired by her son

Growing up in Mumbai, Falguni Shah would listen to her mother humming ragas. After a few years, she found herself charmed by RD Burman’s hits and The Beatles.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
Updated: January 13, 2019 8:17:28 am
Hindustani classical singer Falguni Shah, Indian nominee at the Grammys, singer-songwriter Falu, New York-based Falguni Shah aka Falu, Priti Sagar, RD Burman’s hits, The Beatles, Gujarati folk music, indian express, indian express news Words worth: Hindustani classical singer Falguni Shah aka Falu.

A lot of singer-songwriter Falu’s music in her recent album, Falu’s Bazaar, is everything conventional children’s music is not — calm, mature, and with enough musical chops. It has also got its maker — 39-year-old New York-based Falguni Shah aka Falu — a Grammy nomination this year, making her the only Indian in the coveted list.

Come February 10, Falu, who is nominated in the Best Children’s Music category, will walk the red carpet at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The other contenders include Brooklyn-based bands The Pop Ups, Lucy Kalantari & The Jazz Cats, American actor and musician Tim Kubart, and popular children’s music duo Frank and Deane. The news of the nomination, however, is “still sinking in”.

Falu’s Bazaar was born out of her four-year-old son Nishaad’s inquisitive questions — he always wanted to know why their food was yellow and not like that of his friends; why he spoke a different language at home than in school; why did they count their numbers differently. “I felt that he needed to be assured of his roots, his identity and culture. There was no better way to answer all his question other than through music (which is a language we all speak in our house),” says Falu, who then began writing songs and singing them for him. “I wanted to make a fictional story of an Indian child and how he travels from his home to an Indian bazaar and discovers many new things and languages. In my mind, I created an Indian Dora with my child,” says Falu.

The result is a 12-song album in Hindi, English, and Gujarati that opens with a drum-and-bass piece Rainbow, explaining the concept of seven colours, oceans and continents and number and colour names in two languages. This is followed by the rollicking Shapes, and, then, Tararumpum, with an Indian classical base, reminiscent of ’90s pop.  There’s also Pots and Pans, a conversation about tawa, belan and kadhai, Hindi names for utensils. “I would cook in the kitchen and every 10 minutes my son would ask me the name of a pot or a roller. He would want to sprinkle spices in the food and I would show him our masala dabba and say this is haldi, jeera, mirchi,” she says. The latter resulted in Masala, the “spice” song. In the album, she sings alongside her son and two of her students.

What goaded Falu to think of an album such as this was her son trying to sing songs that played on TV without understanding what the lyrics meant. “He once started humming Hum tere bin ab reh nahi sakte. He was four. I wanted him to sing songs that were age appropriate,” she says. One look at the world of nursery rhymes on YouTube and Falu decided against them as “they were very funny but had no deep meaning”. For Falu, this was enough to create some original content. “I also found music to be a beautiful tool to educate my son,” says Falu.

Hindustani classical singer Falguni Shah, Indian nominee at the Grammys, singer-songwriter Falu, New York-based Falguni Shah aka Falu, Priti Sagar, RD Burman’s hits, The Beatles, Gujarati folk music, indian express, indian express news Falguni Shah at a concert in honour of the Obamas in 2009.

It’s hard to create wonder and joy in things children enjoy today, but in Falu’s Bazaar, it’s interesting how songs aren’t sung like generational touchstones. Children and Falu sing together, a quaint reminder of nursery rhymes by Priti Sagar from the ’80s and ’90s. Only in this case, the pieces are all original. When she teaches her son tables, she creates different tunes and sings them with him so that he feels like he is singing a song but he is actually reciting his tables. “I want to educate children while having fun with them because music has the power to do that,” she says.

A family affair, the album also features Falu’s husband and singer-songwriter Gaurav Shah and her mother, classical singer Kishori Dalal, who’s sung a piece called Nishaad’s Lullaby, a soothing melody in Gujarati without any percussion. It’s an age-old lullaby that Falu heard from her mother as a child. “This song has been passed on for five generations and I hope Nishaad will pass it on to his children, too,” says Falu.

Growing up in Mumbai, Falu would listen to her mother humming ragas. After a few years, she found herself charmed by RD Burman’s hits and The Beatles. She trained first under Kaumudi Munshi and Uday Mazumdar, who taught her Gujarati folk music, ghazal and other genres that were not purely classical. This was followed by Hindustani classical music training under sarangi maestro Sultan Khan and later from the temperamental Jaipur-Atrauli doyenne Kishori Amonkar. Falu calls the latter a “fabulous teacher”. “She was thorough and detailed in her teaching and would take every student extremely seriously, making sure they reached their highest potential. She could talk neuroscience and music in the same sitting seamlessly,” says Falu.

She moved to the US in 2000 and struggled like any other first-generation immigrant in a different cultural setting. “I needed to learn the American way while hanging on to everything I had learned in India,” she says. There was also the matter of working twice as hard to catch up with musicians there. “I felt I was struggling in both countries. I faced rejection and acceptance in both countries. Making it in music is hard on any continent because music is so subjective,” she says.

Her struggles as an immigrant and as a musician of colour in the US were also one of the reasons behind Falu’s Bazaar. She wanted to give her child an identity living in the US and spare him the struggles she went through. “My ideal dream for him is to have him draw the best from both cultures — maintaining his ancient Indian cultural identity but also learning and assimilating into American society. I have tried in my album to teach my son both the cultures in a fun and uplifting way so he can be proud of his Indian roots and his American life,” she says.

Falu’s musical career took a turn after her marriage to Gaurav Shah of the band Karyshma. In 2007, she debuted with Falu. She soon followed it with Foras Road (2013), named after the red-light district in Mumbai. The album, comprising indie-Hindi tunes, was shortlisted for the Grammys but couldn’t make it to the main nominations. Falu, however, was noticed. Grammy award-winning Danny Blume, who produced the album and has also worked on Falu’s Bazaar, calls her “a revelation”. Over the last few years, there have been opportunities to work with high-profile musicians such as American composer Philip Glass and AR Rahman. In legendary cellist Yo Yo Ma’s famed Silk Road Project, she was the sole classical voice.

For the album, Falu says she ensured that she did not rid it of its musical complexities. “I don’t believe in dumbing down music or lyrics for children so it’s easily understood and accepted by them. In fact, it is the other way around. As grown-ups, we are laying foundations for our children to blossom in. Why would we want to offer them anything less than the best?” says Falu.

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