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Sitar hero Roopa is living the dream ; Gemma Peplow meets the globe-trotting Leicester-born musician who, despite mixing with the rich and famous,...

July 27, 2013


Sitar hero Roopa is living the dream ; Gemma Peplow meets the globe-trotting Leicester-born musician who, despite mixing with the rich and famous, can still hardly believe she is making a living from her music

Earlier this year, sitar player Roopa Panesar was on stage at the Cannes Film Festival, performing at the opening ceremony with former Mercury Prize-winner Talvin Singh. She agrees it was probably what most would consider quite a pinch me'' moment, but it would seem all the glamour and celebrity passed her by.

Roopa, a 34-year-old mother-of-one, isn't one for all that.

It was amazing to be there, she says. The performance was in this area right next to the coast and there was such a lovely atmosphere. I'm trying to remember all the things I should tell you about it, there was so much.

But, to be honest, I think we met more people on the director/ producer level than the big stars. And, unfortunately, because I'm not a massive film watcher, I think a lot of it went over my head and I wouldn't have recognised lots of people.

I'm not sure if I saw any stars, I suppose I might have. But there were lots of very successful people there, I know that. We spent pretty much the whole time there by the sea.

Sitar playing has taken Leicesterborn-and-bred Roopa all over the world. Encouraged by her parents, who had a passion for music but had never played themselves, she took up the instrument at the age of seven, when she was a student at Slater Street Primary School, in Frog Island.

She was a natural and her tutor, Guru Ustad Dharambir Singh - one of the most well-known sitar players in England - quickly spotted her potential. Despite her obvious gift, Roopa says she never considered music as a full-time career. So, she went to university, studying chemical engineering, and worked in the oil and gas industry for two years after graduating.

Then, she fell pregnant with her daughter, her circumstances changed and she wasn't able to go back to a normal job.

She was getting more and more concert opportunities, though, and, thanks to a few YouTube videos, posted online by South Asian Arts UK, her name soon became well known in the Indian classical music industry.

It initially started out as an interest and a passion that my parents instilled in me, says Roopa. I would say it was always more than a hobby, I've been very serious about it my entire life.

When I was younger I played the recorder and started the piano, but the sitar was always my most serious instrument. I love the sound and love the music, I find it very soothing. It's a great study and it's become quite rare, especially in this country.

I always loved it. But I never considered it as a career until it all sort of started happening. I'd been performing pretty much the whole time throughout my life anyway, but I'd say it's probably in the last seven years that it's become quite serious.

A lot of it was just through word of mouth, I think.

SAA UK, which is based in Leeds, put a few of my videos on YouTube and they seemed to get a really big response internationally, which was quite overwhelming.

That's been quite a big catalyst. I got an offer to tour in America and I did lots of European concerts last year. I also performed for a very large Indian festival, the Darbar Festival, which is very prominent internationally.

The concert was aired on Sky Arts and was broadcast by the BBC as well, which was great. I think the concert at Cannes got shown by the BBC as well. I've not seen it myself, but people have told me.

Roopa released an album, Khoj, in 2011, and is currently working on another recording. She also teaches sitar, at the Ramgarhia Centre, in Belgrave, and in Birmingham.

And she juggles it all around caring for her daughter, who is now sevenand-a-half and is starting to mess around on the sitar herself.

I do it with very little sleep, Roopa laughs. I travel quite a bit so I have to work to balance musicianship and motherhood. I do have a lot of family support, though, in terms of my daughter's care. But basically, I'm on the go 24/7. But, to be doing this for work, it's like a dream come true. I don't think I ever thought I would become a fulltime professional musician, that I would be in a position to start making a living from it. I feel very fortunate. And I love being here in Leicester. It's the perfect place, as a mum and as a musician. ? .M: Roopa's set at the Womad festival, in Wiltshire, is broadcast live on Radio Three today from 1pm.

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