NEW DELHI: They enjoy performing live, in a group or solo, at music concerts and in star hotels across Delhi and the National Capital Region. For many, it is a profession that has ensured them a decent living in the city. But even though music comes naturally to the youth from the north east – they do not need any formal training as there’s usually a vocalist, guitarist or drummer in the family whom they have grown up watching – there are various challenges that they have to contend with as they move from gig to gig.

Singing is in Valentina Gangte’s blood. A native of Lamka in Manipur, she spent her childhood in Mizoram where her Sundays were dedicated to singing in the church choir along with her elder sister. In their day, her aunts were popular as professional crooners and today her sister, cousins and she have followed in their footsteps. In her mid-thirties, Valentina has been in Delhi since the late 1990s ever since she moved here to pursue higher education. She started her singing career at 20 as part of a local band, Illusion and West Wind, and then went solo from 2008. Apart from being a superb vocalist she is proficient at the keyboard as well. “I have been singing for 16 years now. In fact, I am pretty sure that I am possibly among the first professional female solo performers from the north east in the Capital,” she says, her voice ringing with immense pride.

Being one of the leading female singers from the north east Valentina has no paucity of work these days. However, that does not mean that it’s been easygoing for her. Unlike most of her friends, who are employed in more formal jobs, her schedule as well as her earnings are erratic, she has to keep a close watch on the contracts drawn with hotels and resto-bars that book her shows, she needs to keep abreast with the tastes of the audiences and, in a city like Delhi, she cannot hope to get home before the wee hours of the morning, which increases her vulnerability to violence and abuse.

Though there are quite a few singers, musicians and bands from the north east in the city, according to Valentina “many have been forced to put an end to their musical dreams, as just one’s love for music is not enough to keep things going”. She goes on, “There are still fewer women who have been able to get around the challenges of poor pay scales, long hours and other threats that come with a career in entertainment. Most just end up settling for a more convenient job in a private firm or call centre, which brings in a risk-free, steady monthly pay packet. I would imagine that, at present, there would not be more than nine or 10 women who are pursuing music professionally.”

Rini Fanai, who hails from Churachandpur district in Manipur, agrees with Valentina’s observations. In her late 20s now, she had moved to Delhi in 2007 as a student but very soon found herself well entrenched in the local musical scene. She has been in demand as a vocalist since the last six years even though she has had no formal training. “My father is a musician so I guess my talent is a gift from him. In Delhi though, one cannot survive on talent alone. There is a lot of competition and one needs to be updated on the latest songs. Moreover, safeguarding ourselves from unfair contracts is also important. We cannot afford to be lenient there,” she shares.

For Rini and Valentina, their daily schedule is fairly straightforward: for six days a week, every evening they make their way to the resto-bar or hotel that has hired them to perform. Rarely do they get to call it a day before late at night. Obviously then there are serious safety issues that they contend with on an everyday basis, which is why drawing up a formal deal is crucial. “I always make sure that transportation is included in the agreement. There may not be pick-up if the venue is close by or if I am performing in a group, but I ensure that there is a drop provided after the show,” reveals Rini.

Money and the number of shows are pre-decided as well. Says Valentina, “I work out an arrangement for a minimum of six months to a year and manage to make a decent monthly income of anywhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000. Initially, when I had started out, there were times when I used to get paid even a month or two after the show but experience has made me wiser. I insist on a time limit nowadays.”

Of course, no amount of caution can mitigate all the problems. Rini can recall numerous instances when she started working before the official signing of a contract only to later find herself out of work and without payment for the performances rendered. “Many a time we take up a gig purely on the basis of a mutual understanding but we know that it can backfire. More often than not such things happen when smaller hotels book our shows,” she explains.

Adds Valentina, “During the lean season, too, we don’t get work easily. When the market is down we have to consent to contracts that are no more than a month or so and without any assurance of an extension. In desperate times, most of us are ready to even do that one off party.”

Both Valentina and Rini agree that the managements in three- and five-hotels are very professional in their dealings. “Whether it is about the payment, the ambience or crowd control, the hotels manage things well. On the rare occasions that someone misbehaves with us or passes an indecent remark, they immediately take care of the situation,” elaborates Rini.

Apart from these external pressures, personally they have to pay attention to various aspects on which the course of their entire career is dependent. For starters, they have to diligently maintain their voice quality. Only with the utmost care and regular practice sessions can this work out well. Then there is the need to be constantly in sync with current music scene. “We have to be abreast with the flavour of the season and include newer songs in our repertoire. This requires a lot of practice and careful market watching. Performance-wise I do make a conscious effort to get the tune and pronunciation as close to the original as is possible,” says Valentina.

While mostly their work is well-received Rini admits that sometimes there are complaints from the managements. “It does happen but we always take feedback in a positive way and try and do better. What I do keep in mind is that I am presentable at all times and in-sync with the hottest trends. Personally, I prefer performing at a resto-bar where the crowd is more chilled out and encouraging. It makes the experience that much more rewarding and fun,” she adds.

They are like mini rock stars – they have an image to uphold, songs to prepare, shows to conceptualise and fans to fend off. But it comes at a price. “Being a singer and musician can be quite creatively fulfilling. Nevertheless, this career comes with a lot of peripheral baggage that can really overwhelm the artist in me. Will I give it up for a more stable opportunity? Never!” signs off Valentina, with a gentle smile.

(Women's Feature Service)