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Swati Natekar – singer’s plea: ‘Follow your art’ – creates rich sounds and legacy, and is inspirational…

Swati Natekar – singer’s plea: ‘Follow your art’ – creates rich sounds and legacy, and is inspirational…

She is regarded as one of the UK’s foremost Indian vocalists and her words of encouragement for female artists especially struck a very distinct chord recently…

THERE’S a restless and positive energy that emanates from one of the finest of South Asian singers of her generation – Swati Natekar.

Earlier this year, she was presented with the Eastern Eye Arts Culture and Theatre Award (AACTA) for Music. The award citation was that she had had an exceptional year following the pandemic and continued to be an inspiration to those still making their way in the UK.

Swati Natekar

One of her many wonderful traits is her versatility and her high standards for all genres – whether it be, classical Indian vocal, thumris, and bhajans – or even Bollywood or fusion tracks – she can do justice to them all and her wide repertoire will be much in evidence on her UK tour this summer (see listings below).

She has played with several great musicians, including Ustad Zakir Hussain, widely regarded as one of the greatest tabla players of the age – her first recorded classical track was with him; while it was her vocals that feature prominently in Nitin Sawhney’s track ‘Nadia’ in his Mercury Prize nominated album, ‘Beyond Skin’ (1999 – see link below).

Other names trip off her tongue when we meet – Ustad Ghulam Ali (a Pakistani artist who has a huge following in South Asia and among the diaspora, especially for his ghazals – Urdu-Hindustani lyrics from Persian poetry converted to song); Indian recording artist Sonu Nigam; Mercury Prize-winning British tabla player Talvin Singh, and Muffazar Ali (director of the classic 1981 film, ‘Umrao Jaan’).

With the late and great Lata Mangeshkar in Mumbai in 2007 when Natekar was recording ‘Destiny Chakra’ (2007) in Mumbai

She has also performed at Glastonbury, Womad and Montreux Jazz festivals.

It was essentially a quirk of fate that brought her to the UK in 1990, when her husband Amitabh was posted to London, while he was working for Tata as a finance executive.

Her musical journey had been quite varied till that point – born in Jabalpur (about 150 miles north of Nagpur) in Madhya Pradesh, she had initially gained all her training under mother, Dr Sushila Pohankar, who was a keen musician – and later, a musicologist, becoming a professor of music.

Dr Sushila Pohankar

“She was absolutely my role model and it was how I got my love of singing. She trained both my older brothers and for me it was no different,” she told

She first started recording songs for Bhopal Radio and she could only do this when she reached the age of 16 and had already started performing on stage informally at 15 both with her and without members of her family.

Her mother continued to support and encourage her and Natekar become aware that a life in music wasn’t easy or comfortable.

Swati Natekar and Naughty Boy with her AACTA award

“I think even back then I knew you could have a lot of concerts over four months and then you could have four months of doing very little,” she opined.

Some might say she is a natural artist – drawn to poetry and song – she had enough ability as a fine art student to enter the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, and widely regarded as one of India’s top educational institutions (for aspiring artists) and much famed for many of India’s best known 20th modern century art painters.

Natekar’s move to Mumbai was also encouraged by one of the great Indian vocalists of recent times. Pandit Jasraj (1930-2020) told her she needed to go to Mumbai to further develop her talent.

Swati Natekar as a young performer

Natekar explained her way of thinking and the move to Mumbai. She stayed with her elder brother Pandit Ajay Pohankar who is a well-known musician as well.

“It was my Plan B, if my music didn’t come off then I had another passion, which was painting.

“I did my BA in music, painting and sociology and gained a distinction in music and painting. And I started performing after graduating.”

She got called back to the radio too and her solo career as a performing artist was beginning to take shape and led to television work on India’s main (and at one time only) TV network, Doordarshan, around 1983/84.

It was at this time that her parents wanted her to get married and she had a traditional arranged marriage.

Her first child, a daughter, Jui, was born in 1986 and she had only been dabbling in music since her marriage, teaching more. Since then, she also has a son, Aseem born in 1992.

With one of the key figures of 20th Century Ghazal music
Ustad Ghulam Ali

It was her mother who reminded her that music shouldn’t be dropped.

“She said to me: ‘You should be doing something for yourself – don’t let your talent go’. She was really encouraging – she had done so much herself and had performed lots of different roles – raising us (three children) doing her MA in Music, and then going onto doing a PhD when I was small – even leaving home and going to Chhattisgarh (in central north east) for three months – she was also teaching and organising concerts – she was doing everything.”

At the ACTAs in London in February (postponed from September 2022 because of The Queen’s demise), Natekar said that women had to follow their own ambitions, regardless of whether they had family responsibilities or not.

“Nobody is going to help you, not even your family,” she said to huge applause and cheering (see here – or the link at the bottom).

It didn’t mean her family didn’t support her – they did – but what she meant was that in the end, a woman, especially, has to nourish and live out her own ambitions. She also sang a little and wowed the audience.

It was the thought of returning to her music professionally that kept her going on arriving in November 1990 in the UK with a young daughter.

With tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain

“It was just the three of us, it was very cold in November and I had come from a big joint family household – and I thought how am I going to survive, let alone return to music.”

It was the thought of her mother and her example that kept her motivated.

She started listening to Sunrise Radio – and then one day rang popular station anchor Ravi Sharma cold.

“I said to him, if you need any recording, I will be happy to do it.”

It was the start of her professional musical life in the UK.

She made a jingle and word got around and soon enough she was teaching and performing as well.

“It was hard at the beginning, some people didn’t even pay but one concert would give me another opportunity and it went on from that.”

Nadia – Her vocals feature on the ‘Beyond Skin’ album
made by Nitin Sawhney (foreground)

More work came as a backing artist and vocalist and her voice now features on more than 40 albums and one of her musical heroes, the same Ustad Ghulam Ali she revered, introduced her own first ghazal album.

She also released a dance track ‘Jakatta – American Dream’ which reached number three in the main UK charts.

Her voice can be heard on the Hollywood film ‘The In-Laws’ (2003) which stars Michael Douglas and she sung the theme song for the BBC coverage of the Commonwealth Games (Delhi) in 2010. She also provided The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace with a vocal track and most recently got a letter of appreciation from the late External Affairs Minister of India, Sushma Swaraj for representing the UK, with a track for 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, celebrated by the Indian government (2019).

Her next concert will be as the headline act at the Ustav Festival at the Indian cultural institute in West London, The Bhavan (See listing below).

What acv is most struck by is not only Natekar’s infectious devotion to her art – but at one level her feminism (if we can describe it like that) and her ability to inspire the next generation, especially female artists – who often face greater challenges in pursuing their artistic ambitions.

“It’s never too late to pursue your dreams – music for me has not just been a lifeline but my whole life has revolved around it – and I’ve seen the positive effects it can have on people, so I would say, if you love music or any other art form, and didn’t have the chance to learn but still could, do and follow your dreams.”

Hear, hear.

All pictures courtesy of the artist

Swati Natekar on tour (UK)

🎭 Sunday, July 9 7.30pm headline (4.30pm) – part of Utsav Festival, The Bhavan, 4a Castletown, West Kensington, London W14 9HE – see here –

🎭 Sunday July 23 7.30pm – The Culture Trust, Luton Cultural Services Trust HQ
65-67 Bute Street, Luton LU1 2EY

🎭 Monday, August 14 6.30pm The Nehru Centre, 8 South Audley Street,
London, W1K 1HF –

🎭 Sunday, September 3 – fundraising event as part of Akshay Patra, The Bhavan, London – see

Swati Natekar – YouTube

Nitin Sawhney – Swati Natekar – vocals ‘Nadia’

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture