Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

We Face Their Music

Navtej Sarna

A SPOT highlights the singer. The audience settles back into the shadows of the dimly-lit supper club of the five-star hotel. Dressed in a slinky, clinging gown, the performer sings, dances and jokes for an hour. The spot is switched off. The band comes into prominence once again and the audience returns to its conversation and gastronomical delights.

These spot singers and bands are regular features and often the main attractions at the five-star hotels. But who are these people? What is their musical background? And what is the future of such music in the country? The answers are best provided by the performers themselves.

The latest singer to ‘make it’ in the night-club world is the charming Sharon Prabhakar from Bombay. She left Delhi five years ago and has since worked as copywriter, accounting Secretary. Air-India hostess and as Editor of a women’s magazine. Sharon is familiar with the fundamentals of classical Western music. She imbibed this training at an early age from her half-Jewish mother who holds a degree in music from London. Ever since school, Sharon has been singing on radio and TV, and at best shows and concerts. But as far as the hotel-world is concerned, she is only two-months old.

The musical background of Vijay Benedict is a paradox in itself. He has been singing Western music for the past seven years, including a current two-year stint at the Akbar Hotel. Yet he has had no formal training in Western music. On the other hand, he is a graduate in Indian classical vocal music – Sangeet Prabhakar – from Allahabad. A graduate in Economics and an MBA from Allahabad, this young ex-marketing executive insists that his classical background has proved extremely helpful.

Leave aside graduation from a School of Classical Music, Mike Fay did not undergo any musical training at all. The leader of one of the most popular bands in the country and a singer himself, Mike has been in the profession for the past ten years. His lack of formal training has in no way hindered his progress or performance he feels. Mike Fay insists that there is tremendous talent in India.

And yet there is a lack of famous and talented people. At the top, there is money, fame, glamour and no competition. It’s the orthodoxy of the Indian family and the social stigma attached to singing in hotels that has crushed many a promising career. The job requires a full time devotion and very hard work. And as Vijay Benedict puts it, people do not regard singing as work.

These are not the only difficulties. Mike Fay complains of under payment by hotels and undercutting of rates by others, at least at the lower levels of the profession.

But what is the profession? It’s not merely singing. What these artists offer is a package deal. It consists of looks, gimmicks, showmanship, talent and hard work. On the Continent and in the United States, nearly all the big names are writing their own lyrics and composing their own music. But in India, originality has to give way to popularity. The spot singers cater to the popular taste, singing ‘oldies’ on request. Sharon has, however, written her own songs and music and her ambitions point this way. She has composed the theme song for a film – ‘Bridge of Love’, to be released in Canada and she plans a similar assignment for some American promoters. She and Mike Fay have written and sung a disc for Campa Cola, which is to be released soon. Vijay Benedict is in the process of recording a pre-taped cassette for the Indian and European markets through Singapore.

This brings one to the problem of cutting discs in India. The artists complain that they have to guarantee sales before a disc is printed. Are we on the path to a music-drain?

But, fortunately, most of thee singers plan to stay in India. The show-biz world abroad is too insecure, too competitive and too tough to break into. They seek different avenues in India itself. Sharon Prabhakar manages a company dealing in TV commercials and radio spots. She plans to move into documentary-making later this year.

But is this music to be restricted to the elite, to that pathetically small minority who can afford the five-star hotels? The artists insist that they would prefer to cater to a wider audience, to college crowds, to the common man. But nothing seems to be done to bridge that gulf between precept and practice. It does seem that these names and their music shall remain for the rich businessman, the foreign delegate and, sometimes, a lucky journalists.

The big names in the five-star hotels are more than well-paid. The hotels are the major avenue for a breakthrough in this field for we lack an established music industry. And along with money and a chance to make it big, these hotels provide comfort and respect. They respect the desire of the performer to be treated as an artist and not as an employee. The increasing number of such hotels, then, bids fair for the future of night-club singing.