by THE ORIGAMI STAFF
(Editor’s Note: See an update of this story below.)
When North Indian classical music vocalist Gauri Guha performs stage, she effortlessly exudes confidence and a genteel charm.
Guha – a solitary flower gently tucked in her left ear, jet black hair well-coiffed and deep, dramatic-hued sari perfectly pressed – greets the audience with a namaste and proceeds to explain the music she and her accompanist are about to play.
For today’s audiences whose only exposure to Indian music may be through Bollywood or the appropriation of the sitar by some Western performers, explaining what they are about to hear is a necessary act. Listening to North Indian classical music (known as Hindustani) – like any genre that one hears for the first time – can be at once moving and abstract. And so Guha makes it a point not only to introduce every piece in her repertoire, but also the musical instruments: the accompanist’s tabla, a small (dayan) and big drum (bayan), which evolved about 300 years ago and the Indian harmonium (a small keyboard that sounds like an accordion and is European in origin) that she plays.
Toronto-based Guha has become, in many ways, an ambassadress of a music that is ancient to many, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
In person, Guha remains as poised as ever, but it is the razor-sharp discipline with which she approaches her craft as a musician that is most palpable. What is also surprising is that she pursued her career as a musician alongside being a business professional (she retired from Scotiabank this year after working for 27 years).
A recipient of grants from the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council and the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, for the last 35 years Guha has performed for audiences across Canada, the United States, India, the Caribbean and parts of Europe. She has also released eight albums to date.
Now that she devotes most of her time to her music, Guha has been keeping a busy schedule of performances that will see her out of the country for the most part of the year. She is also a regular teacher at the Sangit Academy in Brussels, and the Integral Yoga Centre in Sitgas, Spain.
A frequent performer at the Asian Heritage Month in Toronto, Guha’s contributions to music and multiculturalism has been recognized by the Virtual Museum of Asian Canadian Cultural Heritage, which made her a member of its advisory board. Guha has also signed on to become a motivational speaker for Passages Canada, an initiative of Historica Canada, which describes itself as “the largest independent organization dedicated to history and citizenship in Canada.” Last February, her biography was published at the International Book Fair in India.
A disciple of the late North Indian classical maestro Pandit A. Kanan and renowned Indian classical vocalist Malabika Kanan, Guha continues to improve her craft by studying music under Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, one of the most popular stars of North Indian classical vocal music. She graduated first class in Sangit Visharad (Bachelor in Music) from Bhatkhande Sangit Vidyapith (Bhatkhande Music Institute University in Lucknow City, India).
The Origami spoke to Guha about her passion for music and the journey that took her from Calcutta to Delhi to Guyana and Toronto.
Path to success
I don’t think I’ve done anything that was super special but I worked tirelessly. From my childhood I knew what I wanted and I stay focused and worked towards it. My parents were very supportive, very encouraging. … Right from my childhood, I was very dedicated and I enjoyed working hard. My mother never told me to go practice or do your homework. I was always prepared for anything I did. … When I finished my undergrad program in music I started to join competitions and sang in radio programs. I worked under gurus of high caliber.
I always wanted to do something different, even though I didn’t know what that was … and I was prepared to work for it. Growing up my parents told us not to be part of the crowd but to stand out. … But at the same time they were very mindful that we would not become arrogant or disrespectful.…
On being a musician and more
I wanted to develop my total personality. I didn’t want to be a musician who only does music. I worked two jobs throughout my life – an administrator and a musician. Up until last year I worked with Scotiabank for 27 years. I was senior management staff. … The technique, centering my mind, the concentration that I learned from music I applied in my work. … I was never stressed out. I managed my stress well, better than most people. … There was not a single day in my life that I didn’t practice my music. …It’s not that every day I’m developing, but at least I’m not going backwards.
I consciously didn’t want [to just pursue music because] If I made music my means of earning, I would have had to compromise in terms of my concerts, my teaching and where I’m performing… [Since I was] working a solid job, I knew that money wasn’t the question. I could give my full concentration to developing my art form…I would take off 7 weeks from my work so I could go do my concerts. I used to work even on statutory holidays [to have this time].
Coming to Canada
My first child was born in 1973 in Delhi and then I was sent to Guyana by the Indian high commissioner as the cultural attaché to teach music and propagate Indian culture. My younger daughter was born there. I came [to Toronto] to perform in 1980. When I came here I felt a voice within me say, “You know, this is your place. You should be here.” I said, “Wish I could.” What is it that I saw? I saw how the system works, how beautiful the spaces are; people are friendly and there are so many opportunities in front of you. … I met a jazz musician who attended my concert [and] he gave me his card. I realized later that school was two houses down where I was staying. I went to the [Parkdale Music School, which he owned] – it was destined to happen. He said I could give you a job offer… I’ll give you a letter, there’s nobody here with your background. I couldn’t believe it. I was here for a few days – then I went to Washington, Baltimore, Montreal, New York and when I came back here, he gave me the letter [to send to Citizenship and Immigration]. It was April, and when I came back in August after two days of workshops, he handed me a letter that immigration had validated not only me but my entire family.
I was all too enthusiastic because I was prepared to do anything to establish ourselves here. My husband wasn’t prepared to do that. …We weren’t fighting but we went back and forth. I came alone with my younger daughter who was four years old; he went back to India with the eldest because he thought if I decided in the end that it wouldn’t work, it would ruin our daughter’s education. She was studying in a private school and we had already paid six months’ fees just in case…
I have gone through lot of tough times. … Looking back I am grateful for everything that happened in my life – I became a compassionate human being. I can understand a lot of people’s pain. … I was studying business management here with my daughter sitting beside me in night school… I had 60 students I was teaching individually; imagine how hard I worked.
Then I got a job at Scotiabank – I had six jobs before that – and my family came here, I had a stable ground – then my husband got a job at the U of T. Once I got my citizenship and job and that was it. I never looked back.
How did I do it? I had focus. I knew where I wanted to go… I enjoyed a good health. I’m very disciplined, extremely disciplined [that] it’s hard to explain. Every day if you ask me, “Gauri, what did you?” I can tell you, minute by minute. It’s so structured.
The journey so far
I’m a very happy soul not because everything happened the way I wanted. If you ask me what the definition of success is, it’s doing your best. I did my best and I have been rewarded. I’m a content [and] very spirited individual because I don’t leave any stone unturned. … There is no regret in my life, none whatsoever. How many people can tell you that? I have raised two beautiful children; both did their MBA and by the grace of God, they’re very successful. … My children, my husband – all of them are very supportive of me….
The heart of Indian classical music
Indian classical music is like an ocean – it is so vast. You can’t acquire it in one lifetime; you have to go through many lives… All people from other cultures are drawn to it because of [its] peacefulness… You don’t know where you’re going but you enjoy it. I was six when I was introduced to it, but it was in me technically. It had to have been given to me [and] with proper guidance, tenacity and encouragement it flourished…I can’t imagine myself without music.
Passing the baton
There’s hardly anybody in Toronto who didn’t learn [Indian classical music] from me. I stopped teaching large-scale in 1993 because I was busy traveling and performing. I still teach but it’s very limited because I hardly stay. … But young students don’t really stay long because the moment they’re forced by their parents they stop. It’s also a completely different environment than when we grew up.
On preparing for a concert
As soon as I know the date, I practice vigorously, then I plan. I never go anywhere without preparing – whether it’s an interview, a television appearance – I always over prepare. … You have confidence only when things are under control and you achieve that by planning, preparing, practicing and presenting. There’s no other way.
* (Update: In early 2018, Gauri Guha added motivational speaking to her list of credentials. “My extensive travels around the globe and constant interactions with people from different lands inspired me to become a motivational speaker and share my experiences which I gathered throughout my life,” she told Scotiabank’s Canadian Retiree News in an interview. On why she decided to embark on this new path, Guha said: “I aim to build confidence in people, inspire and teach them how to live their lives to their full potential.”)