The versatile Indian classical vocalist, Mahesh Kale, is currently in the UK for his “Sur Niragas Ho” tour in London and Manchester this weekend.
His repertoire ranges from devotional music, like abhangas to natya sangeet, and semi-classical music. His playback singing for the superhit Marathi film ‘Katyar Kaljat Ghusli’ (2015) won him the National Film Award for Best Playback Singer.
iGlobal caught up with the multi-talented artist ahead of his UK tour to get a flavour of what’s in store and also retrace his incredible musical journey.
How did your musical journey start? And, any earliest memories of music?
It started at home – my mum was a singer. So, I started understanding music even before I spoke.
My earliest memory of music is going to a place called Gondavle near Satara. It’s a religious place that my father used to take us to. And I was fond of singing so when I was three I could mumble a few words and tunes. I remember I had the taals, a musical instrument. I remember it being a very cold day but when I started to sing, all the cold and the noise just faded away. I was one with the music.
After it was over, because I was a little boy, everyone gave me laddoos and pedhas (laughs)
That’s my first memory, it was a beautiful first memory.
Alongside your mother, did you have any other musical teachers?
When I started learning it was with my mother, until my voice changed. You have a thin voice initially and then when the voice gets thicker, your pitch changes, so it is desirable to start learning from a male teacher. So, when I was in 8th grade, I started learning with Purushottam Gangurde, who was a student of Pandit Yashwant Bua Joshi.
How did your engineering degree come about?
Ever since I remember, music has been my go-to place. Whether I felt happy, or sad, bored or excited, I used to express everything through music. It was going to be my forever companion.
When you have a best friend, you don’t calculate what you want from them. You don’t think ‘should I start with a business with the best friend?’ That’s not how it happens! I knew music was going to be a part of my life whether I take it up as a career or not.
And also, coming from a middle-class household, sustenance was more important than excellence at the time. I was good at studies and got good grades, which led to going into science and then to engineering. After that, I went to the US to the University of California, Santa Barbara where I completed my masters in multimedia engineering, and then I did another masters in engineering management.
All this while, though, I remember I was always connected to music. I never thought: ‘10th year is an important year so I will take a break’ or ‘now I’m doing engineering, I need to focus more and take a break.’ Thankfully, at home I was always encouraged to sing. In fact, my mother would say: ‘you must be tired from all that studying, go sing for a bit and you will feel better.’ And I always did. So, it was a complimenting thing rather than competition.
What was life in the US like?
It was a huge change for me. I had never been outside India. It was the first time I had to use my passport (laughs). I went to Santa Barbara which was largely a student town so there were a lot of students who understood what I was going through. Santa Barbara is a beautiful city; it was overwhelmingly beautiful.
Of course, the English accent was something I had to get used to. But thankfully, I was educated in English from childhood so holding a conversation was not that difficult. But I what I liked about America, is that everyone was very helpful.
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What is your advice be to keep younger members of the diaspora connected with Indian music?
See, you consume Indian food at home, you wear Indian clothes on various occasions… it is something that we are! Same with music. Why not embrace, understand and wear it as a badge with complete pride?
Of course, life outside India is significantly different but your go-to places are the most intimate and personal spaces that you have. In that sense, Indian music is a very natural thing. To me, it is kind of like holding onto the identity of who you are.
For example, being able to speak your native languages affords you a different kind of access you wouldn’t otherwise have, like communicating with your grandparents. Similarly, that is what Indian classical music, at the core, affords you. At the same time, Indian classical music is such an abstract form that it lends itself in many different collaborations. I have many students who do acapella singing. Their strong and solid training in classical music enables them to do very nice solos and many are winning nationwide competitions in acapella.
Collaborations with other types of music, like jazz, is also something Indian classical music’s ragas can give you a base for. It is not only a part of our identity but also a great tool that we have for a meaningful, unique communication in the western world, and why not? It is an advantage.
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How did the Mahesh Kale School of Music come about?
Although I have been teaching music since 2008, I didn’t have an online school for worldwide students. But in the pandemic, I started the online Mahesh Kale School of Music, with the technology option at its all-time high. Also, people had extra time on their hands, so I thought that was a good time for an online school.
I take teaching very seriously because that is the one sure way of leaving a legacy. When travelling I do lessons online and when in Bay Area I do them in person.
I have also created a non-profit entity called ICMA, which has been around for 10 years now and it also complements the school well. At ICMA, we host performers and artists. I myself perform there and do workshops to introduce music. So there is a source of inspiration from multiple points.
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Finally, please give us a glimpse into your UK tour.
You can expect to be surprised! Of course, I know people come with an expectation so obviously there will be ‘Katyar’ songs and abhangas. I have a six-member team flying in so we will have an elaborate ensemble. So, prepare a list of songs you want to hear and prepare to sing! I want London and Manchester to sing with me.
*Info: Mahesh Kale