Natya Sangeet has a Malayalam fan
Badlapur's 15-year-old YouTube presence, a Kerala-born Malayalam Catholic, takes to Marathi Natya Sangeet and devotional music in praise of Hindu deities
Suvarna Tula is a musical play, written in 1960, made popular by the voice of singer-actress Padmashree awardee Jaymala Shiledar whose rendition of Angani Parijaat Phulala (The jasmine blooms in my courtyard) is still remembered and recreated in contemporary concerts. The song, constructed in raag bihaag, sung by many vocalists of repute, attains a colourful dimension in the version presented by Soji Mathew, 15, a Badlapur-based singing sensation who is a recipient of several state-level awards as well as the prestigious Centre for Cultural Resources and Training scholarship, instituted by the Union Ministry of Culture.
While her accolades are impressive, as is her fan following on YouTube and other social media platforms, what struck this columnist at a recent concert in the Dadar Matunga Cultural Center was Mathew's inclusivity—the zest of a Malayalam Christian college girl to embrace diverse musical idioms–Natya Sangeet to church choirs to temple mehfils to online music reality shows to Akashwani recordings—in varied regional languages, including Marathi, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil.
Mathew, who has just passed her matriculate exam with 87 per cent marks, exudes rare electrifying energy and poise in her renditions—be it a pada of a yesteryear musical or an aarti sung in praise of Lord Ganesha, which she recently did at Prabhadevi's Siddhivinayak temple. “For me the bhaav comes first. The language of the song is a mere medium. I am willing to take on as many languages as possible,” says the singer, who has only a working knowledge of Marathi because it was a school subject. But that is no deterrent to decreeing Sangeet Swayamvar's Nath Ha Maaza Mohi Khala. In the Marathi Natya Sangeet competitions held at Thane's Sahayog Mandir and also at Kalangan Gunanidhi, Dadar, Mathew's emotional dialogue delivery has won her critical acclaim, particularly the Ekach Pyala prose. “I knew the play revolves around a devoted wife anxious about her husband's alcoholism. That was enough to put emotion into Satya Vade Vachanala Natha,” says Mathew.
Mathew's induction into Natya Sangeet was not a conscious choice. In fact, her music career evolved as a matter of surprise. Born to Malayali migrants, who initially lived in Ulhasnagar, little Mathew had no other musically inclined soul in her family, not even in the extended Chirayath household in Pathnamthitta district of Kerala. In fact, her Kerala folks never thought highly of music as a vocation, let alone performing at a Hindu temple.
Mathew's first introduction to melody was at the age of three in the choir of Ulhasnagar's St Joseph's Malankara Catholic Church where she caroled to Aradhikumbol Soukhyam in praise of the Lord. Later, as the family shifted to Badlapur, the five-year old stood out in the Fatima High School's music events, which prompted her parents to seek a tuition and which eventually led to her emergence as the 'singing kid' in Badlapur's music circles. Currently being trained in Hindustani classical music under Dr Varada Godbole, she has had stints with several gurus (Anand Karmarkar, Vidya Jail, Pradeep Gurav) which speaks for her initiation into raagdari music for a decade. In November, Mathew will appear for the Sangeet Visharad exam; she passed the Madhayama Poorna with distinction a while ago, similarly she did exceptional in five light music exams too.
Even as the Badlapur girl started getting noticed, her parents have been with her every step of the way. The school-going minor had to be escorted to different venues in the city of distances. “We would take turns accompanying Soji. I was particularly handicapped in those days, first because I could not speak in Hindi or Marathi and also because we had to walk a lot of distances, in the bid to save money,” says mom Susan Mathew, 52. Father George Mathew, 59, earlier a storekeeper in Swadeshi Mills and now into odd jobs at construction sites, says Hindustani classical music was a foreign language before his daughter plunged into it. “I see this as God's grace. Otherwise how can you explain her deep interest and aptitude in a field that we did not ever think of?” He has accompanied Mathew to most outstation concerts (Lucknow, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Daman-Diu), except for the Keyframez online music reality show felicitation in Dubai where her YouTube videos won her kudos. Mathew has won several awards such as the Pandit V D Paluskar award and Pandit Ram Marathe Smruti Award. She also emerged a finalist in Sanskar Bharati's Chhota Khayal contest, not to miss the runner-up position in the national Sangeet Milan Classical Voice of India competition, where she was pitted against winners from 11 states of India. As the joke in the Mathew household goes: since their 600-square-feet flat is too small to accommodate her 100-odd trophies, the young girl has to become a star and shift to a more spacious house. And, if possible, in a neighborhood with fewer power disruptions, water cuts and and train breakdowns, as is the case in Badlapur.
For Mathew, as well as her parents, induction into Hindustani classical music or Marathi natya sangeet has been a cultural crossover. She is not just learning music, but she is also working on her language skills (Hindi, Marathi predominantly) to communicate with gurus, organisers and her ever-growing audience which is located in diverse venues—ranging from Marathi Mitra Mandal at Vile Parle to the Vithal temple at Pandharpur. Recently, one of her Thane-based Facebook fans organised a two-hour mehfil where she presented an eclectic range.
At 15, Mathew is doing fine—travelling widely and happy to dabble into different streams. She is acutely aware that her stature as a classical singer will rest on quality time devoted to riyaaz. Though fully invested in the long-term, the adolescent is singing blithely at varied venues and occasions.
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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