Morningness bathes you. Grandfather’s Arms rise skywards. The newspaper-man hurls elastic-clasped, rolled-up headlines into the porch. Mother lights the stove to wake up milk.
Ahir Bhairav takes you to a place so empty, it’s full. The absolute centre of nothingness. The beginning of all beginnings. A lighthole.
In a slowly-igniting corner of your mind, your guru’s saintly beard unspools. You can hear him talking about the sadhu who devoted his life to the service of Bhairav, the primordial sound. Your guru’s smile is a cryptic message now.
Vilayat and Imrat lead you with strings. Unscratched morning flows into a cowshed. The uniraga sadhu still befuddles, but with Ahir Bhairav, you partake in a fraction of his madness, his self-absorbed samadhi in the lighthole.
The school girl dreams. One day she’ll tune her voice to the throat of the songbird whose call mocks the cage of age.
FISH OUT OF WATER
Water was the first traitor she came To know. It didn’t drown her. Seasoned traitors seldom do that. She was the river’s sibling-child, knew its mood swings, joaar and bhata like she did her night terrors, throat-clasping. Easy to forget once the grip loosened.
When father spread his net over its body, the river heaved through the mesh, packing fish into its giant mouth. She should have known then What it is to be thrown onto dry Ground. Gasp. Wriggle. Writhe. Succumb. Forget that water ever nestled your breath.
The river’s betrayal came not in abandoning her. It did when it became a concrete mesh, And she, a fish in the city’s sewage tank.
A long-dead poet brings home truths to the work desk. Mid-day ennui seeks lunch break and a walk in the park. Between flesh and flight, the girl chooses to ride the breeze Like kebab smoke trailing the gallies of purani Delhi. Careless, footloose. Another dead poet dreams of a new day on earth, a more womanly day. Old wounds find new ways of festering. Congealed blood rejects washing. Rain harnesses in megapixels tears that no longer wet hearts.
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
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
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
A man is dragged and
lynched for what they
decide he ate. Flat notes
flounder to rise above full ones.
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.
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 or seven years back, when my brother brought a couple of 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 own 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 his life story, I found the reverse was true, at least as far as his youth was concerned. Like most members of the affluent class, he spent his youth in the company of dancing women, financial and material indulgence and with 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 mystically 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 the first song referred to in this post, visit this link.
November 19 is Salil Chowdhury’s birth anniversary. Although this multi-layered artist passed away in 1995, his stamp of exclusivity continues to sustain his livingness. A majority of Indians know Chowdhury (popular among his admirers as Salilda) as a virtuoso music composer. So did I, for a good many years, leading into my college life. His s music was hard to ignore for any lover of vintage-era Hindi film music. The earthy notes in Do Beegha Zameen (based on a short story by Chowdhury) 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 him in a league of his own. 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 people who will judge you Have woken up, Your Honour. Your guns and 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, profiteering 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 Chowdhury 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 have 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 1950s 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 dreamt of 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 light Don’t stop in this dark of night Don’t anchor your boat of hope On this slippery shore.