Sunset and Moonrise in Kumaon

First published in Five2One

A film song carries the
background score of
the hills and the

weight of its sunsets.
An opacus swallows
friends’ Laughter.

The moon is a
torn heart tonight.
What price

The bondage of
togetherness —
Fleeting or longer?

My head in the middle
of a sun-slathered snowy
Himalayan range. A spectre

locked in eternity. Do the
Treacherous cliffs
Have elasticity of memory, too?

Asavari

First published in Open Road Review

The sooty morning rankles
with smoke and fear
from last night’s gunfire.
On some streets, the
blood is yet to clot.

An old man sings
Asavari on the radio. His
voice quivers
through the unsteady
channel. Asavari, with more
flat notes than full.

On another morning,
A funnel had sucked
the sky black. With
smoke billowing from
bodies of turbaned men
set alight inside cars.

I did not know Asavari then
but did, the notation of
wailing. Full-throated
groaning set against
the flat notes of mourning.

On the poet’s birthday,
we sang his composition in
Asavari. “I cherish the slumber
that you break with your song.”
One marvelled at the poet’s ingenuity
to make flat notes vibrate
in awakened celebration.

Asavari plays on
the radio. The singer’s aging
voice jars with the
newscaster’s breaking-news.
A man is dragged and
lynched for what they
decide he ate. Flat notes
flounder to rise above full ones.

 

A Song in the Cloud–Kajri

In his comment to my previous post, Abhay said, “Rains bring some of the most original emotions.” I think that holds especially true in a tropical setting like India, where the prolonged and scorching summer makes the monsoon season one of the most awaited and treasured. Consequently, the metaphor of rain makes its appearance in all things creative–painting, literature, music, cinema. Rains here evoke a host of emotions, from joyous outbursts that sing with the dancing greens to pangs of separation from one’s lover that cry with every burst of lightning and thunder. The latter translates into a particular form of folk/semi-classical music called Kajri.

Sung in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Kajri has a popular legend associated with it. According to folklore of Mirzapur, a place in UP, a woman named Kajli had to live in separation from her husband, who lived in a faraway land. She would miss him all the time, but when thick clouds splashed monsoon showers across the land, the estrangement became unbearable for her. She is believed to have taken her petition to a certain goddess Kajmal with her wailing. The other origin story comes from the Hindi word kajal, meaning kohl. The colour black is related to the dark clouds of monsoon, which in this case, bring relief.

If folk beats and earthy melody interest you, listen to a selection of Kajri here.

Image:

Bovitz

Hason Raja’s Songs

A while back, I wrote about the timeless appeal of Kabir. What is it that makes any creation timeless? The most obvious answer would be that the creation continues to make an impact long after it’s first created. However, another facet of ageless works is that they continue to hold relevance even when seen outside their original context; they fit into any and every life situation and require no knowledge of the backdrop in which they were created.
I say this as I contemplate on the songs of Hason Raja, a 19th-century mystical poet from Bengal. I first heard the songs some six-seven years back, when my brother brought some audio tapes from a trip to Bangladesh. The songs had a distinct folk identity, marked by earthy tunes and simple, everyday language. A few of them touched me instantly.

Roop dekhilam re noyone
Aaponar roop dekhilam re

Amar majh to bahir hoyiya

Dekha dile aamare

I saw my reflection
In your eyes.
You revealed yourself to me
By emerging from within me.


The reason I mentioned context in the beginning of the post is that once I read facts about Hason Raja’s life, I was nearly bowled over. His songs reflected a Sufi-inspired minstrel who spent his life celebrating the oneness of all creation and seeing the divine in everything. On reading about him I found the reverse was true, at least as far as his youth was concerned. Like most members of the affluent community, he spent his youth in the company of dancing women, financial and material indulgence, and much of the symbols associated with the hereditary rich of 19th-century India (Bengal was still a part of undivided India at the time). In his later life, however, he turned away from the material way of life and became mystical inclined. He wrote hundreds of songs using simple language, most of which underscore the undivided nature of all life—an idea that seems increasingly relevant and important.

“Tumi ke aar ami ba ke
tai to ami bujhi naa re.

Eke bina dwitio ami

Onyo kichhu dekhi naa re.”

I cannot fathom
Who you are and who I am.
I fail to see
Any second thing apart from the One.

To listen to songs of Hason Raja, visit this link.

Salil Chowdhury: Awakening Strains

Last Sunday (19th November) was Salil Chowdhury’s birth anniversary. Although this multi-layered artist passed away eleven years ago, his stamp of exclusivity continues to sustain his livingness. A majority of Indians know Salil (popular among his admirers as Salilda) as a virtuoso music composer. So did I, for a good many years, leading into my college life. Salil’s music was hard to ignore for any lover of vintage-era Hindi film music. The earthy notes in Do Beegha Zameen or the Indianised version of a Hungarian folk tune in Madhumati; the poignancy of a day wearing down in Anand’s Kahin dur jab din dhal jaye or the strains of Middle Eastern music in Kabuliwallah—music, which didn’t slot Salil Chowdhury into any musician’s club, but established a separate league for him. For me, he was a genius. His versatility, the ability to make music that was internationally-influenced yet India-rooted, and his knack for getting the very best out of his singers easily made him stand out among his peers.
One day, during my college years, Salil Chowdhury stunned me again. This time, with a side of his that had remained unknown to me all this while—as a poet-composer of songs of protest and mass awakening.

Bicharpoti tomar bichar korbe jara
Aaj jegechhe shei jonota…

The public who will judge you
Has woken up today, Your Honour.
Your guns, your hangings, your prison tortures
Will be crushed by their weight.

Salil wrote this song in 1945, two years before India’s independence. It was a diatribe against the farce that was often carried out in the name of judicial hearing of Indian freedom fighters. The 1940s was also the decade when Salil Chowdhury joined the Indian Peoples Theatre Association or IPTA, an organisation of artistes and writers, born to address the conscientious role of the artistic community. As part of IPTA, Salil wrote many songs, beseeching his fellow countrymen to take power into their hands and rebel against exploitation by those in power. He wrote in simple Bengali, using words village folk spoke and voicing issues that concerned them.

O aayre, o aayere
Bhai bondhu, chal jaire…

Come o brother,
Let’s cut the paddy and
Stock the harvest in our granaries.

Thus went his anthem for poor peasants who were perennially robbed off the rewards of their toil by shrewd, profit-minded landlords. The poet-composer didn’t stop at his creation, though. He took these songs to villages and soon these became people’s songs in the truest sense.

It’s easy to see what inspired Salil to feel for the disadvantaged members of his community. As a young boy, he grew up in the tea gardens of Assam, where his father was a doctor. Chowdhury senior would routinely rope in the poorly paid coolies of the tea gardens to organise and stage plays against British exploitation. He also took part in many anti-British rallies, quite an audacious feat when the British were still ruling India.

Although in the mid-fifties this brilliant song-writer-musician matured into an exceptional self-taught composer with the onset of his professional career in film music, he never lost touch with the man within who hoped for a classless society and envisioned an India that wasn’t touched by religious differences. He wrote his last mass song in the early 1990s, shortly after the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu fundamentalist forces.

O aalor potho jatri, E je ratri
Ekhane themo na
E balur chore ashar
Toroni tomar jeno bendho na

O traveller of the light path
It is night; don’t stop here.
Don’t anchor your boat of hope
On this sand shore.

For more information and recordings of Salil Chowdhury’s brilliant compositions, visit The World of Salil Chowdhury.

Images:

The World of Salil Chowdhury
People’s Democracy