Chatting with Chatterjee

Mekaal Hasan Band’s vocalist on her musical trajectory and performing in Pakistan

Ali Haider Habib December 05, 2015
The sultry-voiced diva who sings for Mekaal Hasan Band is the only Indian woman to sing for a Pakistani band. PHOTO: PUBLICITY


When Sharmistha Chatterjee came to Lahore for the first time, her first performance was at a local police station. She had a reporting visa but she was unaware that she’d be asked to do more than just report. “They asked me to sing and I was thinking, ‘My God! I can’t believe this is happening.’ I asked which song and Mekaal [Hasan] said Sanwal gao. I felt very awkward; there were cells with criminals inside. But the policemen were thrilled. And although you’d think these are tough people, policemen in Pakistan, they were very sweet. There was this female officer there who came to meet me. She talked to me about India and Banarasi saris.”

The sultry-voiced diva who sings for Mekaal Hasan Band is the only Indian woman to sing for a Pakistani band and to perform in Coke Studio. She also recently toured North America with five Pakistani men to promote the band’s third album, Andholan. When the Mekaal Hasan Band played at Lahore’s alHamra Arts Council last Sunday, Chatterjee belted out the Sufi kalaams with such conviction that few could’ve guessed the language is completely alien to her. “[Mohammad Ahsan] Pappu sahib taught me how to pronounce a Punjabi word properly. Nobody criticised me for my Punjabi,” she giggles.

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Adapting to different styles and situations is something that comes naturally to her. Born and raised in Calcutta in a Bengali upper-middle class family, Chatterjee says she grew up surrounded by music. Although no one in her immediate family was a musician, her father was a “musical man”. He used to listen to songs of Rabindranath Tagore, also known as Rabindra Sangeet, and taught the same to his daughter. Chatterjee says she started classical training at a very early age, five or six — she can’t exactly remember. She was not allowed to listen to Bollywood music, which her parents said was “not cultural”. Still, Chatterjee heard everything she could get her hands on. Many a time, neighbours would invite her over and ask her to sing for them.

After Chatterjee completed her education — a Master’s degree in English literature and a Bachelor’s in education — she moved to Mumbai in 2005 to pursue music. “I knew nobody, no relatives, nothing. I had to start from scratch,” she says of her decision to relocate to the dense metropolis. Chatterjee worked on some jingles but was still struggling when she met Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who was working on his film Saawariya at the time. She was introduced to Bhansali by music director Monty Sharma as they were looking for five girls to sing a Shakespearean chorus for the soundtrack. Chatterjee says working on the film with such great musicians at the Yash Raj studios meant the learning curve was steep. “It was a huge thing for me. I had come from a small town, Calcutta (Kolkata is one of the top 10 most populous cities of India), and now I was right there.”

Khayaal Festival begins Nov 28

With regular work in advertising and films, Chatterjee had admittedly made it in Mumbai (or Bombay as she insists). But her life changed when she was invited to perform in Switzerland in 2010. Director of the ‘Jazzar’ concerts, Fritz Renold, heard Chatterjee’s tracks on her MySpace page and asked her to come there and sing with a jazz ensemble. “I was apprehensive, I didn’t believe it was happening but then a lady called Annette Philip, who now teaches at Berklee College of Music, convinced me to go. She said it would change my life, and it did,” recalls Chatterjee. There, she was introduced to various forms of music such as jazz and Bulgarian folk, transforming her perception of music.

In late 2013, Chatterjee received a message from Mekaal Hasan on Facebook, asking if she wanted to sing for his band. “I had no idea about Pakistan before I met Mekaal. I was just interested in the music, so when he asked me if I wanted to sing, I said yes, I’d love to. I would have said the same if he was from Honolulu.”

Naysayers for good reason

Two years later, this is Chatterjee’s second trip to Lahore. She’s just returned to Mekaal’s residence after performing a searing set to a rousing standing ovation. “I’m taking a lot of good things back to Bombay. To get a standing ovation in Lahore definitely means a lot because it’s home ground for these guys. We can play anywhere abroad but these people understand the language, they know what we are talking about,” she says. “I don’t believe in anything that divides, [be it] race or religion. I don’t feel any difference really, awaam toh sab baray cool hain.”

Published in The Express Tribune, December 6th, 2015.

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