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Praise the LORD

Praise the LORD

Author: Anushree Majumdar
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: November 29, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/praise-the-lord/547010/

Introduction: The devotional music industry has bucked the trend of dipping sales. And now it has new voices to sing for the gods

Prayers have worked for 23-year-old Vidhi Sharma. The psychology student from Delhi University, who has been singing since she was two, is on her way to a singing career after winning a devotional music contest held in Delhi this month. Her soulful renditions earned her a prize of Rs 1 lakh and a recording contract.

She's not the only one: across India, aspiring classical singers are slowly drifting into devotional music. Sales across all genres of music might have plunged to the bottom but the devotional music industry has god on its side. "While our Bollywood music sales have taken a beating, devotional music albums still sell and are going strong in smaller-city sectors," says Vinod Bhanushali, senior manager of T-series, one of the biggest players in this market.

"As long as we have god and festivals, we will have devotional music," says singer Anup Jalota, who in his mid-50s is the undisputed king of devotional music. In the late '70s, his album Bhajan Sandhya outsold Sholay. Today, Jalota nurtures young talent. He is also a patron of the Sona Devotional Music Awards, a talent hunt held exclusively for devotional music singers. Since the awards started last year, Jalota has noted more entries from small towns in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. "There is little representation from the south, possibly because of the language barrier. But we might include all languages soon," says Surinder Kapur, CEO of the Sona Group.

The devotional music industry has been growing through the years, launching new careers for budding singers and introducing music videos before the age of MTV. One man who understood the reach of the genre was Gulshan Kumar, whose T-series first brought out albums for "homely" occasions such as Mata ki Chowki and got star singers like Kumar Sanu to cut devotional music albums. In the early '90s, he even began making devotional music videos. "He understood the popularity and significance of the religious yatras to Kedarnath, Amarnath and other dhams. He sent the company crew to shoot footage of people making the pilgrimage and merged that with visuals of the singers," says Bhanushali.

Tulsi Kumar, the 23-year-old daughter of Gulshan Kumar, joined the industry in 2006 and has kept her father's legacy alive. She has already cut eight solo albums and sung for innumerable compilation albums. "My father sent me to Suresh Wadekar's music academy and I've been singing bhajans ever since. I've recently moved to playback singing but I always sing more bhajans than film songs," says Kumar.
"In the '90s, there was a greater demand for bhajan albums. In comparison, today, the sales are slow in the cities but not in smaller towns," says Kumar. Certain categories of bhajans do better than others. "Vaishnodevi bhajans are immensely popular, so are Sai Baba ones. Most albums are released just before Navratri," she says.

Among the newest voices flooding homes across the country during a jagran or a festival is that of Sumeet Tappoo from the Fiji Islands. The 31-year-old bhajan singer, who has been training under Jalota since he was three, is busy promoting four new albums that were all released on November 23 in Puttaparthi, Sathya Sai Baba's ashram. How does one artist release four albums together? "They're all different kinds of bhajan albums. While in one I have sung the Sathya Sai Chalisa, the other one contains bhajans that have been set to a romantic, ballad-ish arrangement," says Tappoo, who is now based in Mumbai. He has been in the industry since 2003 but has received recognition for his talent only recently for albums such as Sai Geeta, Ram Darshan, Sai Charanam. He might be mixing genres and trying to reach out to a younger audience but there is no other way to survive, he says.

Abhishruti Bezbaruah agrees. The 22-year-old from Guwahati has been a disciple of Pandits Rajan-Sajan Mishra and performs classical music live in India and even abroad. Bezbaruah knows that it is not easy to break into the classical music scene, one has to be around for several years to build an audience. "As a young person, one of the ways to reaching out to an audience is through bhajans. They're semi-classical and light, there is a constant demand for them. Once you have established yourself as a bhajan singer, you can record a classical album and your popularity as a bhajan artist will determine the sales of the classical album," she says. Bezbaruah was placed second at the Sona awards and is a student at Subhash Ghai's Whistling Woods institute, where she is pursuing a course in sound design. She too won a contract and hopes to start recording her album soon.

The entry of young blood into the industry is good news for 53-year-old Narayan Agarwal. Every day for the past 20 years, Agarwal has woken up early in his Mumbai home to write verses in praise of the gods. As a bhajan-rachnakar (composer of bhajans), Agarwal can't say that he has his task cut out for him, it has to come from deep within. "I write for God. But I am approached for songs, I offer them to singers whose voice I feel will be suitable for the verse and the mood of the bhajan," says Agarwal. 'Suitable' singers in the past have included Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Jagjit Singh and Jalota. When he heard Vidhi Sharma and Bezbaruah sing, he knew his music would live on.

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