One singer’s effort to bring Indian folk music closer to Australia

By Indira Laisram
Dr Sarita McHarg-Borliya

There’s a lot to ask of Dr Sarita McHarg-Borliya, a musician for over 30 years in India and Australia. Her’s is a lovely story to indulge from the start going back to Ujjain, an ancient city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The city is also home to Kalidas, sometimes referred to as the “Shakespeare of India”.

It was in Ujjain that Sarita’s musician parents Pandit Hira Singh and Anusuya Borliya (both folk singers and originally from Rajasthan) bought a piece of land and became part of a community that thrived in the arts. “Growing up, we had no television, no electricity, we used lanterns and studied under those dim lights.”

On weekends, the only entertainment was watching movies on the projector in the evenings after someone has collected few rupees from everyone. Then came the television and the community watched the Ramayana and Mahabharata together.

Ujjain was also the seat hold of the Kalidas Academy that gave the city its cultural touchstone. Artistes from all over the country came and performed here. Instead of hanging around with friends, Sarita was always looking up which artiste was performing or which concert was coming up—at the risk of being called crazy by her peers.

Those days, Sarita recalls, girls were not allowed to go out at night to attend these concerts but, fortunately, she always had one relative or the other to tag along with. And with both her parents being singers, access was easy. The first concert she attended was that of classical singer Devaki Pandit’s, followed over time by ‘many beautiful artists such as Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande’. It is apparent the milieu of the time nurtured her love for music.

Sarita with a friend

Of course, she had to study music to claim her gift for it. Growing up in a family of eight siblings—six sisters and two brothers—the Borliya sisters went to the same university and were known for their same penchant for the arts.

When her turn to enrol in college came, her sister told her not to take up singing because, “They will say another Borliya sister has come again,” she recalls with a laugh. She took up arts subjects but on realising that she was not very good in drawing, went to enrol in Kathak  only to be told by the teacher that her attending classes was improbable given that her father was always performing and she will be away.

Sarita ended up taking musical classes. Singing was her first creative outlet having also learnt the various forms of folk singing, especially the Kabeer and Malwa traditions, from her parents.

She took to the sitar lying at home, it was given to her father “by someone who told him ‘you have six daughters, maybe one of them will play’”. True enough, at 15 years of age, Sarita started learning to play the sitar. By 16, she had already performed in front of hundreds of people at College of Music in Ujjain in 1993.

Sarita with her students

Sarita then went on to complete a Bachelor’s Degree (Arts) from Vikram University in Ujjain and a Master’s Degree in Arts (Sitar) at SNDT University in Mumbai. Through the years she has trained from the likes of India’s First Lady of Sitar, Srimati Joyas Biswas of Kolkata, Srimati Girija Devi, Pandit Ramakant Dubey and Srimati Ragini Trivedi of Indore.

Some of her fond memories include staying with Girija Devi in her Kolkata home while she was doing her PhD many years later. “We (four of us students) used to wake up at 4 am, massage her head, watch TV. She would cook and teach, it was a home environment.”

Apart from the sitar, Sarita also plays the dholak, the two-headed hand drum, embracing a ceaseless yearning for anything in the name of music. Interestingly, it was her brother who, often during his rehearsals, prodded her to give a theka (a beat) on the dholak—feeding into the corners of her talent.

Despite her education, Sarita describes her life then in India as being somewhat undervalued as a musician. Like all Indian families, hers too emphasised on marriage while she was “thinking of a life of music”.

Sarita in concert

But it what can be described as a turn of events, Sarita met her would-be Australian husband Garry, who she is now separated from, on his trip to Ujjain. Love followed and the two got married. In all this, her father was a support. “He told me to follow my heart,” she reflects.

Migrating to Australia in 2000, Sarita had her son and for a few years was not actively involved with music. “I used to practice the sitar with my baby on my lap.”

When he started to go to kinder, she decided to complete a second Master’s Degree in Music at Monash University in 2006.

With two Master’s degree, she then returned to India to do a doctorate in Indian Classical Music at Vikram University, Ujjain, and published a book on the Great Master of Indian classical music Baba Allaudin Khan, the first teacher of Ravi Shankar, and his influence on Indian classical music. Her other work “Traditional Folk Songs of Malwa” contains 75 folk songs dedicated to her father and guru Pandit Hira Singh Borliya.

With literally 300 songs in her musical journey, Sarita is known in Australia’s music scene for her spiritual and emotionally charged chords in her songs, her strong grip on classical ragas, staggering instrumentation, and bringing audience as they are part of the compositions.

Sarita in concert

She recalls being immediately connected the first time she met Australian singer Kate Ceberano, who performs in the soul, jazz, and pop genres. “We looked at each other and hugged and cried.” It was an experience that enhanced in her a sense of connectedness with other musicians here.

This June, Sarita raised funds for Covid-hit India and to help support artistes. “When I think of this privilege being in Australia and watching the devastation unfolding in India, you think about what you can do for them.”

While the lockdown has been shocking “because as a musician your whole body and mind is wondering everything has stopped, we need people and audience to connect”, it has also given her new technological skills to record, edit and send an audio file.

“I am so proud that I am here and sharing my culture. Our Indian roots are very ancient and if you look at the mantras or the meaning behind every poetry in our Vedic literature, it is very healing… I write my own compositions as well, it connects more.”

Sarita believes there is now so much of acceptance and appreciation of world music and  the arts. But she is constantly worried about how to keep the traditional music alive when the old generation passes on. “We need to bring this music out. Even putting in the archives and doing a PhD or writing a book is not good enough. How am I going to sing those songs and explain to people?”

Dr Sarita McHarg-Borliya

Somehow people tend to think what she is doing fusion, rues Sarita. “But no. I am bringing my culture singing and playing music and folk melody that I studied. I am trying to get everyone connected and let them understand the music.”

She says because people get bored with half an hour alap (introductory part of the music), you need to give them something interesting. “And what I am bringing is something unique, connecting all cultures like Arabic, Greek, etc., whereby they are learning my melody and I am learning theirs.”

The prospect of gaining a wider audience is one imagines, the goal of an artiste. Beginning of the year 2020, Sarita has started a new project “Journey of a Musician”—a monthly Baithak (social gathering) in Melbourne by bringing various artists from different cultural backgrounds to share their personal journey with the audience.

Music is always going to be a part of our lives, says Sarita. “For me it doesn’t matter if I am not playing a gig in the pandemic, I will still be recording, collaborating and working on it. Music is what will thrive ultimately, how long will you watch TV, or even if you are watching a movie, there is always background music,” she reminds us.

Sarita’s creative philosophy is deep but simple. “Music is like karma, it has to come back. And like the ocean, we reach a point but… there is no ending.”

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