Alka Bhatnagar’s musical journey from UP to USA

SunilDuttLakshmi Iyer

India Post News Service

FREMONT, CA: Alka Bhatnagar, the well known Bay Area singer and music teacher, did a huge fundraiser show on November 11 for Breast Cancer Awareness in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. Organized by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government, this initiative aims to fund early detection screenings such as mammograms across the state.

Deputy Chief Minister of UP, Keshav Prasad Maurya, other top ministers and state assembly members attended the event. The Deputy CM spoke highly of Alkaji and felicitated her.

Alka Bhatnagar is also the recipient of the prestigious UP Ratna Award, bestowed upon her by the UP government and has been designated as the Cultural Ambassador of UP (India) in USA.

Her other awards include:

  • Best NRI Singer of the Year Award at the Delhi International Film Festival (DIFF) held in India’s capital city in October
  • Rumi World Music Award

Born in Meerut, Alkaji began her musical journey at the tender age of 3, under the tutelage of her father, Brijendra Nath Srivastava, who was a great exponent of classical and light music and a famous composer himself. She went on to pass the “Sangeet Prabhakar” music examination with distinction, topping it as a gold medalist and also completed her Masters’ degree in music. Additionally, she has trained under other famous Indian maestros – Pundit Ganesh Prasad Misra, Ustad Altaf Hussain, Vinod Chatterjee, Pandit S N Goswami of Bareilly and Ustad Mohammed Wazir.

A versatile singer with a wide ranging voice, Mrs. Bhatnagar is proficient in different styles – classical, ‘bhajans’, light and Bollywood music. “Music has no limits”, she says.

She has sung at several A. I. R. (All India Radio) stations across UP and in Mumbai. Her repertoire includes songs in films and TV serials, and albums of ‘bhajans’ with stalwarts such as Bhajan Samrat Anup Jalota. She has worked with top playback singers such as Suresh Wadkar, Ghulam Ali, Mohammed Aziz, Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan, Abhijeet, Shaan, Javed Ali, Babul Supriya and Sandeep Shikar.

A reporter once asked the young, unmarried Alka about what she would do if asked to choose between her husband and her ‘kala’ (art). She replied that if her future husband asked her to give up her music, she would divorce him. That made the headlines – this young woman would choose her ‘kala’ (art) over her ‘pati’ (husband) and it was a subject of jokes in her family.

Thankfully, it was not an all-or-nothing situation. She was firm in her condition of continuing with her music practice after marriage, and wise in her choice of a husband in the then army officer, Arun Bhatnagar. He has been extremely supportive of his wife’s creative endeavors all these years.

The couple moved around quite a bit, finally settling down in Mumbai after he opted for a premature (voluntary) retirement.

Being the center of Bollywood, Mumbai offered several opportunities. Alkaji taught music to kids and also met a lot of artists, music directors and influential people. This led to concerts, albums and opportunities to sing in films and television.

Although her father’s dream was to see her as a star, she always put family first and maintained a balance between her artistic pursuits and raising her then young children – the couple have two grown up sons, Abhinav and Abhisaar – along with other family responsibilities. In fact, Alkaji’s mother-in-law had celebrated her 101st birthday before her demise earlier this year. She and her husband had cared for her along with other family members in her final years.Alkaji DIFF

Her life was struck by personal tragedies a few times. The untimely demise of her father at the age of 62 followed by the sudden death of her talented younger brother in an accident, left her in a state of shock. Adding to her grief, her mother passed away soon after. Alkaji went into a deep depression. It was music that rescued her during those dire situations.

She says, “Music is meditation and it is something that can take you out of depression.” Indeed, to her, music is medicine.

Arun and Alka Bhatnagar moved to the United States in the mid to late 90s as some of the family members were already here. Moving to another country always comes with its set of challenges and the couple took some time to find their footing.

Alkaji worked at several jobs for the first few years. Later, the family settled down in Fremont, a major hub of the Indian immigrant population in the Bay Area. This was a suitable location for her music school, “Sur Bahar”, where she has been teaching classical (Hindustani), devotional and contemporary Indian music for many years.

On someone’s recommendation, she got the opportunity to perform in front of Dr. Romesh Japra, the Founder and Convener of FOG (Festival of Globe) and impressed everyone with her talent and skill. She has been involved with FIA (Federation of Indo Americans of Northern California), under whose umbrella FOG operates, for many years now as a key member of the Cultural Committee and chair of the singing competition, FOG Idol.

As a teacher, she emphasizes the right kind of ‘riyaaz’ (practice). Many young singers try to reach very high scales, to follow in the footsteps of legends such as Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. However, Alkaji says, “It is very important to preserve one’s voice. Once it tears, it is very difficult to get it back.”

That is why she trains students to raise their scales gradually. Some are born artists, but with regular practice, scale can be raised. She stressed the importance of regular practice for singers. If one loses practice, it is very difficult to get one’s voice back to the former level.

She believes in giving back to the community and has done quite a few fundraiser concerts.  She said (translated from Hindi), “Our lives have fulfilled a purpose when we do good deeds and are remembered after we are gone, that we helped others.”

She was invited to perform on 5th December in Hyderabad in an event honoring the Indian armed forces veterans. Supporting the armed forces, who devote their energy and sacrifice their lives for their motherland, is a cause that Alkaji is passionate about.

In the US, apart from FIA/FOG, she collaborates with other spiritual and cultural organizations such as UPMA (Uttar Pradesh Mandal Association), and contributes to the Indian Consulate events with her musical services. She has worked to raise funds for the education and medical treatment of the needy in the Indian/Fiji/American communities.

A few years ago, Gov. Grey Davis of California honored Alkaji for her work in promoting Indian music, art and culture.

Besides art, she is active in local politics as an elected Democratic Delegate of District 25 Bay Area of California.

An accomplished artist, guru (teacher), a giving member of the community, a wife, mother and family woman and leader, Alkaji is the pride of not just FOG, but all of India and the United States.

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