Kalpana Zokarkar, a Hindustani classical vocalist, occupies a special position in the Hindustani classical music world. As she puts it, “I come from the old school of Hindustani Music and culture. But today to remain relevant as a musician I have to embrace the new.”

In other words, she has to strike a fine musical balance. It is like keeping a foot each on two parallel boats. Hailing from Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, Zokarkar was in Delhi recently to perform at the prestigious Thumri Festival, organized by the Sahitya Kala Parishad, Delhi Government.

She has come up from the traditional Guru-Shiya Parampara, at a time when life was slow and classical music flowered in the feudal world. In her sixties now, she is at the height of her classical musical prowess, but the society around her has changed much. Says she, “I cannot just bank on my traditional knowledge of music. I need to innovate, evolve and rediscover my music in order to find my place in this fast changing multimedia times.”

When asked about the legacy she comes from she mentions names of some Hindustani classical legends such as Pandit Kumar Gandharv and Ustad Amir Khan. Says she, “Amir Khan Saheb was a regular to our home in Indore, being a good friend of my father. As a kid I remember he was very tall but I did not know that he was a great vocalist. I remember he used to put salt in his tea. I used to find it odd whenever he would ask me to bring salt for his tea. Once I met him in a programme. I asked him as to when will he come home, adding that I too sing. Even today I feel embarrassed for trying to show off my singing in front of such a legend. But then I was just a kid.”

Zokarkar talks about her father’s closeness with Pandit Kumar Gandharv too. Says she, “When Kumar Gandharv ji was recuperating from the illness affecting his lungs he stayed in our home for around four months. He was very close to my father and used to frequent our home till the very end of his life. During my growing up years our home had an atmosphere of rich music and culture.”

Her musical upbringing was due to her father and guru, Pandit Krishna Rao Majumdar, a renowned artist in his own right. She carries the legacy of Ustad Rajab Ali Khan, through her father. Besides intensive training in Khayal Gayaki from her father, she learned other semi classical forms such as Thumri, Tappa, Dadra and Nirgun Bhajan from Sushila Pohankar and V.U Rajurkar.

But today it is a challenge to keep that legacy alive. “A few years ago, with the advent of television, the Hindustani Classical music was in a very poor place. Add to that the fast life style of the people and western cultural influences, and the slow tempo Hindustani classical music felt like a relic of the past. No one has the time or patience to listen to Khayal and badhat of a single raga for two hours. So we had to change. Now we present our performance as a well packaged product. It has 15 minutes of khayal in vilambit, then Madhyalaya pieces, chhota khayal followed by semi classical elements such as Thumri, Kajri, Bhajan, Tappa and Hori, among others. This is the only way to keep the audience interested.”

She points that one cannot be a puritan any more, “even the puritans such as musicians from Jaipur Gharana, have understood this fact.” Zokarkar is training her daughter Anuja (26), with the same aim. “I want her to master Khayal and then other semi classical genres as well. Otherwise it will be very difficult for her to survive as an artist today,” says she.

That brings us to the kind of audience she encounters today. When it comes to audience there seem to be a clear divide across the Vindhyas Range. “The audience of Maharashtra and South India is definitely more knowledgeable about the technical aspects of classical music. Here you can still sing two hours of Khayal. Some organizers tell you in advance that they want to hear just vilambit Khayal. So you cannot be found wanting there. The fact is a classical vocalist cannot falter in the rendition of Khayal.”

But then she is quick to add. “But today if you cannot do anything other than Khayal, then your reach will be very limited. That is why programmes such as the Thumri festivals are important.” According to Zokarkar, “there is rich audience for classical music in North India and north Indian audience is not very critical like their beyond the Vindhyas counterparts. The audience here is much more appreciative. They are more enamored by the bhav paksh of your singing, that is, the emotional content, and not just the technical content. It is much more pleasurable to sing for the North Indian audience.”

Zokarkar’s own ‘coming of age’ performance was way back in 1999 at the prestigious Sawai Gandharv Samaroh. It was a festival organized by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, in the name of his guru. “It was a huge occasion for me. I remember I sang raga Bageshwari followed by a tappa in raga Khamaj. Would you believe it, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Kumar Gandharv were among the audience. My performance was followed by Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb and Shobha Gurtu ji. I was definitely a bit nervous but then I had confidence too. Pandit Ji later appreciated my performance,” she says.

Zokarkar’s music comes from the rich Hindi-Muslim heritage. Today the very foundation of this syncretic culture is being questioned. How does an artist like her react to this present scenario? She answers, “Artists are basically sensitive and emotional people. I definitely do not approve of this Hindu-Muslim cultural divide. Thankfully it is still not visible in the Hindustani classical music fraternity, even though there may be a few bad apples in our midst. But I have never faced any such problem.”