Passion for Music Turns a Living Room into a Performance Hall


The hostess of the monthly music program, Upama Shah thanked Anita Kulkarni for her versatile performance.
Photos: Jawahar Malhotra

By Jawahar Malhotra

SUGAR LAND: Some people have a passion that drives them to work at both ends of the candle and all across the world looking for a way to claim it. Upma Shah realized long ago as a young woman in Bombay that her passion lay in music but she was astute enough to understand that her talent lay in making the path easier for budding performers to come forward.

After moving to this country with her husband Mukulesh, this energetic and undeflatable firebrand who was an attorney in her hometown of Bombay worked hard and raised a family. But the passion for music only grew inside her and seven years ago, she decided to take the plunge by inviting some friends and acquaintances to her home for a concert by a young talent whom she had met.


Anita Kulkarni performed a medley of ragas, followed by a few popular classical Hindi film hits of yesteryear. She also played a classical raga fusion track from her CD Panorama.

“It was a small place but we moved furniture around and got people settled in around a dais,” she smiled as she recalled her initial efforts. It was enough to capture the imagination of the people who came, as they came back for more informal music mehfils as Upma found other artistes from the local Houston area to perform.

“This is what I do. Music is my passion,” explained Upma Shah after a recent performance at her new and grand house on the waterfront in Sugar Land. “My purpose and aim is to promote local artists by giving them a stage. There are so many people who are talented in the Houston area, but who are not known for their talents because they do not have any venue or audience for which to perform.”


The talented Surender Talwar, dubbed the “Mohammed Rafi” of Houston, performed songs from Hindi hits of yesteryear and gave a running dialogue of how they came into his repertoire.

When the kids moved away to college and on their own, the Shahs moved to a larger home three years ago where they could indulge in their passion, as Mukulesh had also caught the fever. “He wasn’t so much into it before,” laughed Upma, “but now he even gives me suggestions on artistes and dates to hold the shows.”

With the new house, this is very much a case where the venue is her own home, in the living room which has floor to ceiling clear glass windows that open up to a fountain and the lake beyond. Over 80 people can sit on the plastic lawn chairs that are brought into the huge room which has a dais on one side and very little furniture so that it can easily be transformed into a performance hall. The Shahs do it all on a professional scale and the whole family – son and daughter included – share in the emails, coordination and communications.

And Upma has some very strict rules: while the program is going on there is no talking, moving, or going off to the bathroom. All the artistes are seated in the front row. And dinner happens only after all the show is over. “It’s very important to me that the artists are shown proper respect,” Upma continued, “for all the hard work and effort they put into their preparation.” She believes this is her way of giving back to the community in a unique way.

The Shahs have been helped along on this musical journey by the Prabhukots (father and son). Trupti and Kiran Sheth have volunteered for the past few years in taking charge of the kitchen and all the food preparations. Upma knows that without the audience, helpers, and supporters her vision could not become a reality. “I truly believe that some sort of a divine power is working behind all of this,” she repeatedly said at the last concert on Sunday, July 21, “which motivates and encourages me to pursue this journey.”

That concert featured an artist – Anita Kulkarni – who has been a repeat performer at the Shah’s events. Anita is an architect and a classical music singer who has perfected her talent in ragas over the years at the feet of her guru in India, where she spends half of her time. Her performance was without any instruments, save her voice and electronic beat synthesizers but she was able to captivate the audience with her range and delivery. She sang a medley of classical songs using different ragas and then delved into old Hindi movie classics and finally shared an upbeat track from her recent CD which is mostly a mix of modern Western and Indian classical styles.

After Anita’s performance, the man whom we have come to call “Houston’s Mohammed Rafi” – Surender Talwar – serenaded the audience with a dozen of his self-taught songs from the movies of yesteryear. Talwar started each number by explaining the year it was that it caught his imagination and how he assimilated it into his life. It was a throwback in time that most in the audience heartily kept pace with and clapped along to, letting out a few whistles and yells too.

At the tail end of the show, a delightful segue brought everyone to their feet as they wished my mother, Shakuntla Malhotra, a happy 85th birthday, which was the next day, as well as to Upma’s mother-in-law who turned 92 a week later. Everyone erupted in the “Happy Birthday” song and then, caught up in the moment, my mother sang a few Punjabi folk songs called “tappe”, joined in by the handful of Punjabis in the audience. All of this was even more music to the ears of the hostess whose passion led to these performances.