When Ut Salamat Ali Khan and Ut Nazakat Ali Khan (known together as Ali brothers), one of the most stunning duos in the world of Hindustani classical music, migrated to Pakistan post the Partition, they took along with them a treasure trove of bandishes from the Shyam Chaurasi gharana, named after a village in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur. Upon their sporadic return to the country of their birth, there would be ecstatic response in the form of housefull concerts, sometimes with former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in attendance. And they’d sing Saiyaan bina ghar soona laage – their seminal thumri in the Pahadi, elegant evening raga. Sung in Braj bhasha and once extremely popular among the audience, it’s been a while since the thumri was resurrected in the modern music-making milieu.
Mumbai-based singer Pratibha Singh Baghel, 32, in her new album titled Inheritance (Sufiscore), an ode to four significant thumris from the subcontinent – attempts to find the nuances of this complicated thumri by Ali Brothers along with Budapest Symphony Orchestra — the Hungarian Radio Orchestra that was established in 1943. Arranged by violinist Deepak Pandit, known for his solos in Jagjit Singh concerts and albums, the piece is an interesting combination of swelling strings, cellos, piano, swarmandal, synth and tabla – not the usual orchestration for thumris. Other pieces on the album include Wajid Ali Shah’s famed Bhairavi thumri Babul mora naihar chhuto hi jaaye, Begum Akhtar’s Hamri atariya, and Maine lakho ke bol sahe, composed by C Ramachandra, but made extremely popular by Patiala gharana vocalist Nirmala Devi (also actor Govinda’s mother). “A lot what you hear on Inheritance is something I’d sing often at home. But while some are popular, we haven’t heard many of these brilliantly created pieces being sung in the popular consciousness for years,” says Baghel, who adds that with the thumris, she finds a lot of scope to expand on the existing tunes. “And I really enjoy working with the classic tunes. These are my versions of some of the classics,” she says.
Baghel lives in Mumbai and in the last decade has sung for films such as Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya (2014), Bazaar (2018), Manikarnika (2019) and Bell Bottom (2021), among others. While her voice has found much appreciation from composers such as Shankar Mahadevan, Vishal Shekhar and AR Rahman, none of the film compositions have hit it out of the park. But what has found success is her foray into ghazal and thumri gayaki, which has found much attention from musicians and the masses.
Before Inheritance, Baghel was the voice for Bole Naina, another Sufiscore album with lyrics and recitations by Gulzar and percussion by Ut Zakir Hussain. “I am deeply interested in this world of ghazals and thumris and it’s not like before, where one wondered about making one’s music reach the audience, especially genres beyond film music. In the times that we are living in, we do not have to be dependent on a composer or a filmmaker to get our music heard by others. Internet has broken that barrier for us,” says Baghel, whose Instagram videos, where she often sings from home, have many tuning in.
Baghel grew up in a Rajput family in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, on a steady diet of old film music and classical music. Her father would sing bhajans and her uncle is a professional tabla player. “I enjoyed singing but the focus at home was always on academics,” says Baghel. Since she was confused about music being a successful career choice and her mother’s wish was for her to be an engineer, she decided to become one. The more she tried to dive into the world of physics and mathematics, the more she yearned for music to be a part of her life. So she dropped out and joined Bachelors in Arts with music as her core subject. “I thought I’ll probably do a PhD and teach. The idea of being a professional musician didn’t exist,” says Baghel.
In college, she participated in Mangeshkar Alankaran Award, a popular talent competition held in Indore, and won it. In Indore she also appeared for the auditions of reality show Saregama and managed to reach the finals. It’s after her television stint that Baghel decided to move to Mumbai. She was 22 and spent six months convincing her parents for the same. She, however, was noticed prominently as Bahar in Feroz Abbaz’s musical, Mughal-e-Azam, which was based on K Asif’s magnum opus. “I learned the ropes of singing and acting together, how to be on a stage, and classical dance. It’s here that I learned a lot because Feroz sir wanted things a certain way,” says Baghel, who was then chosen to play the role of Umrao Jan Ada – playwright Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s muse and Muzaffar Ali’s protagonist in the famed 1981 film Umrao Jaan – in a musical directed by Rajeev Goswami. Baghel played a complex courtesan with ease, her training during Mughal-e-Azam helping her settle in the role effortlessly.
She sang in a few films after this and some noted composers, including the popular Adhura lafz (Bazaar) with Pakistani vocalist Ut Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the popular piece Chhedkhaniyaan in the webseries Bandish Bandits. But she does not tell us about her upcoming film songs. “With films, you don’t know if what you’ve recorded will finally make the cut,” says Baghel, hinting at the industry’s obsession with making a number of singers sing the same song and keeping one in the end.
Baghel says that she is glad that she kept diving into the world of ghazals and classical music on a daily basis. “I realised that there is no replacement for great music. I didn’t need to sing only film songs to find listeners. As long as done well, one can sing anything and success will follow,” says Baghel, whose upcoming project includes a ghazal in a multi-artiste album that will be composed by filmmaker and composer Sanjay Leela Bhansali.