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Neha Bhasin: ‘The Biggest Thing that Concerns Me is How Numbers are Becoming the Benchmark of Art’

The Punjabi folk/pop artist and former member of erstwhile band Viva! speaks about the politics of modern creativity, her hybrid musical trajectory, artistic rebellion in the digital age and more

“I wish we weren’t victims of algorithms, of labels,” says Neha Bhasin. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist.

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Punjabi folk/pop artist Neha Bhasin has had quite the storied run since Viva! disbanded in 2003. For those who experienced their teenage years in the early Noughties, India’s first all-woman pop collective bears strong memories — who could ever forget the days when “Hum Naye Geet Sunaye” played non-stop on Channel V? Now a powerful vocalist and performer par excellence, Bhasin has charted a creative path encompassing India’s varied film and independent music industries. While Bollywood and Tollywood hits like “Kuch Khaas (2008),” “Dhunki (2011),” “Swing Zara (2017),” “Chashni (2019)” and more established Bhasin as an award-winning playback singer, her parallel, independent releases quickly made one thing clear to the masses — she wasn’t going to submit to any of the industry’s stereotypical brackets. 

Bhasin is one of the few talents, amongst India’s rare playback and independent musician hybrids, who has managed to carve a distinct artistic identity over the years. A mezzo-soprano leaning into her cultural roots, Bhasin is instantly recognizable by her colored hair, prismatic punk outfits, killer dance choreography and steady activism — all of which find their way into her own brand of Punjabi folk/pop. Her recent releases see her experimenting with and growing into her artistry as a lyricist and composer as well. From drawing on the delicate strains of traditional folk on “Taara” to leaning into folk/pop on the ballad “Tu Ki Jaane” and belting bold on the electro-pop anthem “Kehnde Rehnde,” Bhasin addresses love, body image, mental health, cyberbullying and more through her music, ensuring that whether you agree with her or not, she’s always making a statement.

Bhasin, who is currently a mentor on the reality series Indian Pro Music League, talks about connecting with her roots to find her sound, the numbers that dominate the Indian music industry, key milestones over her two-decade-long career, her artistic legacy and more in this interview with Rolling Stone India. Excerpts:

Your evolution as an artist from 2002 to today has been inspiring and empowering. When you look back on your glorious career, what are the biggest milestones you can identify? 

When you have a career spanning 19 years, it is difficult to nail [it all] down to one aspect of your life that you would want to talk about. But definitely, the first milestone would be in 2002 when I started my career with Viva! The selection process, the first concert, I still remember [it all]… it was June 1st, 2002. After this, the second landmark was when I started to sing for the film industry, the first one being in South India, when I sang my first song for (composer) Yuvan Shankar Raja (in 2007), then I sang for the film Fashion (2008), my first album Tabaah [released] in 2010, my first single in 2012, I received my first Filmfare nomination in 2008. I think there are many such landmarks, with 2016 and 2017 being the life-changing years with my independent music taking off, me getting married (to producer Sameer Uddin), me having a camaraderie with my husband of love and music, all amounting to a lot of great memories.

Your contribution to making Punjabi folk contemporary and accessible is immense. Do you feel that returning to your roots has caused you to express more purely and uninhibitedly?

When I started singing folk music, it was completely unplanned; there is no manipulation or thought process that has gone behind it. My career has seen a lot of versatility in terms of the sound I have done, the music I have sung — independently and for film music as well as the pop career I started out with. But yes, I do feel it has helped me be more in tune with my roots, it has helped me evolve as an artist and helped me connect with Indian music much better. My parents and my gurus have tried for me to have an inclination towards Indian classical or traditional music and for some reason, I was not finding a connection to it in all these years and was drawn more towards western music, pop and pop-rock. With Punjabi folk, I feel a very in-depth connection to my family, my roots, my grandparents and the credit has to go to Sameer (my husband). He has all this love for folk music, not just Indian folk, but world folk. When he suggested I should start [singing] Punjabi folk music, I had my doubts. That was the start of the journey, and now I am very rooted in that form of music. I think for me, it is just music that matters — just good music, good melody, good production, good singing, and I am game for it.

It’s unfortunate that being an empowered, opinionated woman in music brings with it a range of ridiculous challenges from online trolling and shaming to having people misunderstand you. What are your thoughts on the unnecessary scrutiny that women artists continue to face today?

It is very unfortunate that even today, in 2021, we are having to talk about sexism, gender bias and being a woman in India. No one really wants to believe that we are the modern India, and we are the modern world and things have changed. I want to acknowledge that things have changed, but as you asked, it is difficult to be a woman in India, and in addition, to be a modern woman with opinions, who does not always just want to be cute or stereotypical. I feel I have paid a price and with age, what comes is wisdom and acceptance of oneself, people and the world. But was it easy in my teens or in my 20s? No, it wasn’t. Even now, sometimes I feel the pinch, I feel the pain but I think it is changing and I feel very grateful for that and I want to acknowledge that. I see a lot of men and women coming in support but we are very far away from the 100 percent change that one would want. Yes, I have been trolled and misunderstood during my career for the way I look and the way I project myself, for wanting to have an out-there image, whether it comes to my clothes and my hair, or stuff like that. Being sexy is a sin. If a man calls you sexy, it is okay, but if you call yourself sexy, or want to be projected a certain way, people have a problem with that. But I have always been hopeful and I am a champion of positivity, and I can hopefully be the change in the system and hence, I am very non-hypocritical about everything. I’m also being very forthright about certain things that I stand for and certain things that I don’t stand for.

What are your biggest creative ambitions right now?

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Off the top of my head, I can talk about three things that are my ambitions at this point in time. Number one is to put up a live concert or do a world tour that I feel we Indians are very capable of, to have a mix of my folk music, my film music and my originals and put up a wonderful live concert that we see other artists from across the world put up. The second one is… I have been dreaming of my English album since forever and I think this is one dream which I haven’t been able to live yet. Sometimes, when the dream in your head is very big, you are afraid to live it, and the time has come now. I’ve already shot my first English song — I have many written — but I’ll start with this one. It is called “Fly.” We are going to see it this year and then eventually, I will work on my album and hopefully be a part of the Grammys. Next is Folk Tales which is a passion project of Sameer and I that we launched during the lockdown. It was a series of 12 folk songs that we recorded and shot live with a beautiful bunch of musicians. You’ll be seeing the second one soon. To take to the world, the audience and film festivals, these are the three things that I can recall right now.

What is the one thing that scares you as an artist today?

I think the biggest thing that concerns me, more than it scares me, is this benchmark of numbers. We don’t even know if they are true or not, if they are fake. It’s based on a lot of perceptions and it’s becoming the benchmark for our art. I feel that art should be created from your heart and not on the basis of fear or on the basis of what is going to sell. But when you create such heavy benchmarks, it just becomes very difficult. Sometimes, I feel that what if people who want to make music, artists who want to make music or are making music are putting their backs, their finances, their teams and resources towards what they want to do, become irrelevant because the perceptions become bigger. I hope that doesn’t come true and the audience starts seeing some sense in that. A lot of them do, I have massive fans, but the number can be bigger. I always say that in the 90s, when I was growing up, there existed the likes of Michael Jackson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bette Midler, and so many artists that I loved. Then there was a classic rock era in the 70s, the 80’s disco, and they all defined who we became as people, as artists. But what are we defining for these people, for the children? We need to think about that as artists and not let the record labels or fake YouTube views start governing what this music should become for the generations to come.

Congrats on your successful releases recently. Tell us more about why “Kehnde Rehnde” is a relevant chronicle of our times? And if you feel an artistic responsibility to address misogyny and bigotry?

In line with the previous question, this is exactly why “Kehnde Rehnde” is relevant. It is important and something that needed to be said, at least for me. It was a risk that I took, yes, but that is what artists should do. Artists should be fearless, their art should be fearless, because they are going to set examples. There’s always been rebellion as far as can be recalled. In the courts of the Kings and the Queens, it was always artists that rebelled against the system. There’s a word in Hindi called falsafa (philosophy) and I think that is what “Kehnde Rehnde” is for me. It was something that needed to be said about me or about women like me, since I was a child. 

Yes, misogyny needed to be addressed, especially this whole patriarchal mindset in our country, which I feel is not just about women, but men as well. Even though we are becoming close because of the digital world, people are becoming more intolerant of anyone who is not in view of the popular opinion and I have faced that. Popular is great, but if you are not in the sheep herd, you are not a great person. You are hated online and bullied, and these are the things that the song talks about. The imagery of the song is just all that, it’s me finally saying I don’t care what you think about me and I like the way I am.

Tell us about your upcoming projects and songs.

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So, the year has just started and we released “Tu Ki Jaane” under our label 5am. We released “Taara” which is a beautiful Punjabi folk kind of song and it is an original song. It has got all the beautiful Indianness of the rabab, mandolin and tabla, and the music video was shot in Nainital. It is an unexplored area, so you’ll see the beauty of the Indian hills. I am part of a show, participating as the captain of the Delhi Team in Indian Pro Music League. It is a one-of-a-kind show where established artists along with upcoming artists will be competing against different state teams. I am also releasing my first Hindi single in a month or two, and my new English song as well. There’s a lot that is in store.

If you were to envision an ideal artistic and creative ecosystem, what would it look like?

I used to always yearn for the ideal creative scenario and today, I want to say that I have a bit of it in the sense that I always wanted to be in the lap of legends and people who want to do legendary work, people who live for the sweat and blood they put into their art. I think I am kind of there. But what one really yearns for is not just an ideal creative scenario — because we have so many creative people in our country — but the support system. I wish we weren’t victims of algorithms, of labels, of having to put an influencer or having to put an important actor in the song, but to just let the song be. When Adele came up with her song on the blank screen, the world went crazy, and that is the power of music. It’s not like Indians don’t have it. We just need to believe in it a little bit more. I wish we didn’t have to advertise our music or make it popular on social media, because it is music, and it is supposed to heal your hearts and that is the ideal creative scenario. As things were done back in the day, or as they are done in Western society even today, you come out with the album and you tour around the world and don’t do weddings or sing at corporate shows. That is my ideal creative scenario and I hope I live to see it and I hope India lives to see it.

“It was always artists that rebelled against the system,” says Neha Bhasin. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist.

I’d like to narrate a story that happened with me when I went to speak about a show that I was being appointed to judge, and I was told that I only have three roles that I can choose from: that of a mother, a sister or a daughter. I questioned them, asking what if I want to be a friend? They were like there is no such thing and the job of a woman is to nurture on a show and to have a holier than thou image. They mentioned that we have seen your Instagram images and they are too bold, so we will have to tone that down. It is not what they said, it was about them having a certain kind of expectation from me because I am a woman. They didn’t ask me what I wanted to do. I am Neha Bhasin, I have spent 20 years in this career and you don’t want me, my expertise or my mind. You want me to play a role. I am not an actor, that’s not what I do because I am an artist, a musician. I am a woman who has a brain, who wants to be whoever she wants to be. I think what we are not teaching women or men is to accept themselves for who they are irrespective of gender, to be comfortable in the body you are okay with, the face you are okay with, the voice or opinion that you are okay with. What we’re being taught is to be a certain version of ourselves to be successful, to be liked. We are all so engrossed by the validation that we are slowly forgetting who we are. 

The scrutiny, the burden, the morality, is much more on the women and I have been through it. I think people are slowly trying to accept me for who I am, but that is after 19 years of being who I am and being at it, not accepting people’s point of view of me. I can’t even imagine the plight of women who have had a year in the industry and give up or get scared, or run off, and I know so many people who have done that. I just wish that we’d be kinder to each other, especially women. If actresses had bigger roles, we’d (singers) have more songs. If actresses weren’t in mere item numbers in a film or if they weren’t in it just for beauty (I am all for beauty), there would be substance to them with lots of vanity and glamour. I think that’d be a better place for all of us in the industry.

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