Parveen Sultana

I have been to more than a handful of concerts since I’ve come to Delhi. Each time I hear music here, I’m overwhelmed both by all the beautiful and different sounds I’m hearing, and also the differences in the way classical music is presented and received in this culture. I’m pouring my energy in discussing the latter in an article I’m writing for a online new music magazine in the US (stay tuned!) and the former is still just beyond my grasp in any codified manner.

However, this evening, I went to a concert that was so incredible that I can’t help but describe it to you.

The singer was a woman named Parveen Sultana, a Hindustani vocalist from Assam (northeast India) who is in her early 60s. Looking her up afterwards, I realized how famous and well-loved she is, but I hadn’t heard of her before the concert. She occupied the second half of the opening concert of the Delhi Classical Music Festival, which runs from October 8-14.

From the moment she appeared on the stage, I was drawn into her world – she had the confidence and calm of a seasoned musician, but her aura was one of warmth and kindness. Usually a musician will say something before they begin the performance, and she took the time to say how grateful she was that we had come to hear her sing, and that she would try her best to sing well for us tonight.

People were packed into Kamani Auditorium, a huge hall in the center of Delhi, and unlike concerts in the west that are subject to fire codes (which, after experiencing Dussehra, I am positive that no such thing exists in this country), people were sitting three across in the aisles, and standing shoulder to shoulder in the back and on the sides of the hall. Parveenji noticed this and immediately said, “There is plenty of space on the stage. Please come and sit here. Don’t be shy! Come, come!” Slowly, the people in the aisles filed onto the stage, greeting her in namaste as they sat down on either side of the stage.

The moment she began to sing, I understood exactly what people loved about her. Like her stage presence, the quality of her voice was both strong and confident, and yet intimately sensual. Each slow phrase of her aalap was so beautifully crafted, and came out of her with a natural ease – the music seemed both ingenious and inevitable. I say this as a novice in Hindustani music, so I can’t imagine how people who have followed her for years appreciate the nuance and brilliance of what she does.

At one point during the aalap, she performed a series of phrases in a high register where she would sing the phrase once, twisting and turning through a complex raag called Maru Bihag, which has both a natural and sharp Ma (4th), surprising and tantalizing the audience as she pulled and molded each melody like taffy. And then, at the end of the same breath, when anyone else might have stopped to refill their lungs, she would repeat the end of her previous phrase in the style of a quiet, distant echo, and move into a register that was far above the top range of most other Indian singers I’ve heard. It was magical and otherworldly – perhaps the way the fabled sirens’ songs had sounded.

The technique in her taans were also unreal. In addition to doing very fast taans in aakar, she also did them in sargam, sometimes singing six notes to a beat while saying syllables more quickly than most people could even speak them. And in all this, her pitch was absolutely perfect – there wasn’t a note that slipped out of tune, and each was clearly discernible, even at that speed that was clear off the metronome. That is something I cannot say about any other Hindustani singer I have heard up to this point – it’s easy to cheat a few notes when moving that fast and in a style where ornaments can often cover up notes. But she didn’t make one false step.

Her fast work was as ingenious as the slow aalap. She kept each phrase so buoyant, sometimes over many rhythmic cycles, that I could never tell when it was going to end. Even her tihais at the end of phrases were so ingeniously placed that, even though I knew what she was about to do, I didn’t have time to anticipate how she would land on the Sam before she swooped down and grabbed it. This is the same feeling of exhilaration a westerner experiences when hearing Heifetz throw off a Paganini Caprice without flinching, or Glenn Gould blow through the preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier with each voice led seamlessly through. At the end of the particularly virtuosic passages she would throw up her hand and half-nod her head in a graceful gesture to her explosively applauding audience, as if to say, “That’s what I have – I hope it pleased you.”

Occasionally, when she needed a moment to rest, she would give a few phrases to her tanpura player (this is standard in vocal recitals – often a talented student of the singer will play the tanpura, and she will throw a few phrases to them so she can rest and take a sip of water), and after each phrase she would say, encouragingly and audibly, “Shabash!”, meaning, “Good Job!”

At the end, people began calling out suggestions of bhajans and other short pieces they wanted to hear her sing, and she listened intently and tried to please as many people as she could. One of the three pieces she sang (which could be equated to encores) was a Meera Bai bhajan, which of course was so special for me to hear – it is the first one I’ve heard live, and to hear it sung by her was such an inspiration – her voice is everything I imagine Meera’s was, if not even greater, more agile, and more versatile.

At one point, though she had exceeded the time allotted to her, people were still shouting out suggestions. Someone asked her to sing a particular piece (I couldn’t make out what it was) and she said, in Hindi, “Of course, I would be happy to sing it. Even if the curtain closes on me, I will still continue singing for you.”

I can’t describe how much of an impression it made on me to be in the audience and witness Parveen Sultana’s genius firsthand. She is truly a legend, both as an artist and as a human being.


Here is a clip of Parveenji singing:

You can hear a little of the magic of her slow phrases, and this raag is similar, if not the same as the one I heard her sing.

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