Chandigarh, Friday, January 15, 1999
History as canvas
Voice that still enchants
Alis poetic experience
PICTURE this a live music performance, accompanied by just a harmonium and a tabla, and the singing being done in a leisurely, relaxed style, with the singer crooning softly into the microphone, and indulging in languorous improvised bol banao on the non-rhyming lines. In todays times when raucous and re-mix music and loud noises seem to have invaded our lives, such a performance sounds somewhat odd! But this is what most ghazal singers and ghazal lovers would be familiar with a delightful poetic experience mixed with smoothly gentle music.
Ghazal singing in itself is a very rich experience. Not easy like pop music, which I call sasta or cheap music. Because words hold a lot of importance in ghazal singing, there is no need to have an accompanying screeching orchestra to heighten its mettle, says ghazal maestro Janab Ghulam Ali Khan.
Born in Sailkot, Pakistan, this 57-year-old ghazal king is considered, along with Mehndi Hasan, to be among the pioneers of the modern ghazal. Shooting into fame in India, with his popular ghazal Hungama... and the controversial Chupke-chupke... and in the news more recently with the disruption of his concert at Juhu Centaur Hotel in Mumbai in May, Ghulam Ali likes to talk only about his music and the andaaz with which it is performed.
I dont have any enemies anywhere, and I always like to perform in India anywhere in India. Even if I am not able to perform live at a certain place, who can stop my voice from reaching the people?, he asked. Talking about the Chupke-chupke... controversy, Ghulam Ali clarified, Salma Agha is known to me personally. For the film Nikaah, I had been invited to sing, but had other dates to keep. Then the film played my record in the background, without me being there. But when I saw that it was being received so well here, I kept quiet.
A disciple of classical music under the tutelage of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, he ventured into ghazal singing after being influenced by the Ustads younger brother, Ustad Barkhat Ali Khan. For me, Ustad Barkhat Ali Khan has been an ideal throughout. The fortune of music that he has bestowed upon me has been a great gift for me, said Ghulam Ali.
Maintaining that an ardent intensity, a junoon, is involved is ghazal singing, Ghulam Ali expressed his dislike for pop music: Todays pop music is simply physical music and not mental music. I believe that music should never be easy for the public, even the public should make the effort to understand what is being sung, instead of just jumping up and down or shaking a leg or two.
But with the ghazal becoming quite popular in India as well, especially with the rise of singers like Anup Jalota, Pankaj Udhas and the inimitable Jagjit Singh (none of them notably Muslim) has this led to the dilution of the Urdu poetry?
Definitely not. Both in Pakistan and India, the style of ghazal singing is almost the same. The only difference might be that we in Pakistan are taught Urdu right from the beginning, here singers might have to pick up the language later. I also keep on explaining difficult words to the audience during my concerts. This does not lead to dilution in any way, Ghulam Ali explained.
For the most part, the history of Urdu poetry in India is the story of Urdu ghazal, which has been a favourite of both poets and their audiences in every period. And along with the ghazal comes the distinctly aristocratic image and style of a sherwani clad ghazal singer. Today we have clothes meant for those in a hurry, like the jeans. But do you think that I would look good singing Ghalib while dressed in jeans? Ghazal has a certain culture, a certain tradition of its own, retorted.
Commenting on the new genre of pop-ghazal-singers he said, This is all hog-wash. Intelligent people will certainly not respect such kind of ghazals, if at all such music could be called so.
About filmi ghazals he remarked, Filmi ghazals obviously have the support of the situation, the director, the technicians and most importantly the hero or the heroine. So they become popular. But I dont like them much. If Asha Bhonsles Dil cheez kya hai... from Umrao Jaan had not been sung in a film but otherwise, it would have sounded a very different ghazal.
Counting Mehndi Hasan
and Ustad Barkhat Ali Khan to be his all-time favourite
ghazal singers, Ghulam Ali said, I quite like to
listen to Jagjit Singh, Begum Akhtar, Farida Khanum and
Iqbal Bano. As for me, in the past 40 years I have sung
what Ive liked and people have appreciated me for
THE play Panch Nad ka Pani (Water of Five Rivers), based on three short stories of Manmohan Bawa, by Atamjit Singh has the 14th century Punjab as its backdrop.
Rajputs had lost their earlier importance. They were becoming land tillers (Jats). Hindus, specially those belonging to lower castes were willingly or unwillingly embracing Islam. Turks were making India their home and Mongols continued their plundering spree. In this game of power the Rajputs allied with the Turks. Among the Turks, the Khilji clan was at the helm in Delhi.
With this historical canvas in the background, the playwright has woven a story of human emotions and relations. Action takes place in Dipalpur riyasat (further divided into districts: Samana, Sunam and Bhatner) which was ruled by Ghazi Malik (later known as Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, father of maverick Sultan Muhammad-bin Tughlaq).
Nailla, a daughter of Ranmal Bhatti, Rajput chieftain of Samana, the chief protagonist of the play, resents the warring factions amongst her people. In despair, she turns to Rajab Ali, the brother of Ghazi Malik. In time, their son Ferozeshah Tughlaq ascends the throne of Delhi. The play explores gender and caste oppression in a manner which does not look dated.
Atamjit has infused his characters with a sort of universality because the choices one has to make, be it a bygone era or the threshold of the 21th century, are the same. Characters in Panch Nad ka Pani are not cardboard persona peeping through the dead pages of history, but pulsating human beings.
Presented by Shaurya at India Habitat. Centre, New Delhi, directors Vijay Kumar and Satyajit Sharma designed and mounted the play aesthetically. The performance had fluidity a seamless merging of scenes, events and emotions. Many a scene ended like a beautiful tableau. Irshad Kaamils lyrics were provided appropriate musical scores by Shashank Shekhar. The ensemble rendered them with a professional touch. Use of Dulla (Gurvinder Singh) and Tulla (Sarabjeet Singh), two characters from the traditional theatre form of naqal, as narrators and commentators was handled with care.
TERSELY summing up Shakespeares contribution to English literature, Ben Jonson, a contemporary of the bard, had said, He is not of an age, but for all times. One wonders what would a music critic say about K.L. Saigal, whose songs, even after 52 years of his death, are still fondly listened to by his countless admirers all over the Indian sub-continent and even abroad where Indians are settled? Would it not be apt to say that Saigal is not of an age, but for all times?
Of course, musical tastes since Saigals time have undergone a sea change. Our teeny-boppers delight in jigging and swaying to loud and fast-paced pop and disco tunes. But cassettes of Saigals songs can still be seen displayed in music shops, and those who watch Sa Re Ga Ma on Zee TV regularly must have observed that now and then a participant in the programme does try to sing a popular Saigal number. In fact, Saigals rich voice still holds old-timers glued to their radio sets when a song of his is played by some AIR station.
Now what is so special about Saigal that his songs keep haunting us? Lata Mangeshkar has paid a rich tribute to this great singer by singing some of his well-known songs for her two Shradhanjali albums. Playback singer Sudesh Bhosle has recently brought out a cassette of Saigal songs in his own voice. According to the well-known music critic Raghava R. Menon, the music of Saigal was as simple and unpretentious as was his persona.
But that does not mean that Saigals music lacks the sophistication of a deeply-studied art. In fact, Saigal was so dedicated to his singing that he rarely missed his daily riyaaz. In her autobiography, Kanan Devi, who was Saigals co-star in many films, says Saigal would sit with a harmonium in a corner of the studio, rehearsing newly composed tunes for hours when he was not needed on the sets.
Saigal is generally considered to be a singer who was not very comfortable in the higher octaves. But this is a misconception. Saigal could use his tenor voice with telling effect in a number of songs even though his forte was soft, soothing tunes rendered in his inimitable baritone. Note these two songs: Mein kya janoo kya jadoo hai... and Diya jala, jaj mag, diya jala.... In the former his voice scales Everestian heights while in the latter his voice, rising from subterranean depths, attains the right pitch demanded by the grammar of the song.
Again, note the relaxed ease with which he sings, Panchhi kahe hot udaas... and the bubbling, high-strung joy with which he sings this Ghalib ghazal, Main unhen chhedu aur kuch na kahen... Saigal could vary the pitch and volume of his voice with surprising ease to suit the need of the raga in which a particular song was composed.
When Saigal came to Calcutta sometime in 1931, he was an untutored genius. In honing his musical talent to perfection, music directors R.C. Boral, Pankaj Mullick and Timir Baran played a vital role. His first few films were flops. Success, however, came with the release of Chandidas in 1934. The song Suno suno re Krishan kala... from this film became a chartbuster of that year.
But it was Devdas (1935) that catapulted Saigal to the status of a top-ranking singer-hero. Two songs from this film, Balam aaye basso more man mein... and Dukh ke ab din beetat nahin... are considered to be the hallmark of his singing career.
Saigal shifted to Bombay in 1941. He worked in a number of films there. The ones that are remembered even today are Tansen Bhagat Surdas, Banwra, Parwana, Tadbeer and Shahjehan. Most of his songs from these films became very popular. But his health was failing. His addiction to alcohol had played havoc with his physique. And by the time he came to sing for Naushad in Shahjehan, he was almost a physical wreck.
His song, Jab dil hi
toot gaya... from Shahjehan became his
swan-song. It is said that when he passed away on January
18, 1947, this song was played repeatedly by several AIR
stations as his mortal remains were taken to the
Deities in calendars
IF I were to be asked where Indias largest printing industry is located, my mind would veer naturally in the direction of one of our metropolitan cities, like Bombay or Delhi. But I would be wrong. For it is the little town of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu which could legitimately claim that distinction. According to a survey, there were some 350 photo-offset machines and more than 1,000 litho and letter-press units in operation there, in 1979. The machines there are not those giant devices which one associates with newspaper printing or large-scale publishers presses.
But Sivakasis modest machines some of the old ones imported from Germany, Japan and Czechoslovakia, new ones made with local technology turn out day after untiring day images that fill millions of Indian homes. Clearly, it is more than fireworks and matchboxes that Sivakasi produces: the town deals in faith and ideals and objects of desire. Or at least in images of these. For, from its machines keep emerging, in an unending stream, all those gods and goddesses of Indian myth that find their way into puja rooms, national leaders who peer down from countless sarkari walls, irresistibly glamorous film heroes and heroines. Calendar prints is what the presses of Sivakasi specialise in.
It is a different, but a real world: this world of prints fit for framing, as the trade calls it. Different, because the images one speaks here not of photographs, or images based upon photographs, which can serve for leaders and film-stars, but not for deities derive only marginally from the domain of classical art. And real, because for the common man who buys them off pavements, or tears them off from calendars, it is these, and not classical works, which form a part of his awareness, shape his view of things.
They are documents of our times, a fit subject for serious study,as many scholars have shown us in recent times. Through them one is led into lanes of thought and of processes, that one tends to overlook in the superior view that one often takes of things, especially in the area of art. And one certainly pays remarkably little attention to the makers of these images, the artists to whom one owes them.
To this, there is just one exception, I think: Raja Ravi Varma, to whom in some manner the very beginning of these calendar pictures of gods and goddesses can be traced. Both a painter and an entrepreneur, Ravi Varma is a figure whose story has been told at some length: his interest in oil painting, his brush with itinerant European painters, his fascination for photography. There have been many others, of course, but they have only received brief notices till now, even if they deserve to be talked about, as much for their art as for the lives they led in their own times.
Speaking when I was about this to some colleagues recently, Stephen Inglis of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation drew my attention to the life and work of C. Kondiah Raju, a south Indian image-maker. It is a fascinating account, something that I would like to share, for Rajus life reads like a period piece. In any case, his work has left an imprint on the calendar-image industry matched only by that of Ravi Varma.
Son of a practitioner of Siddha medicine, living in Mylapore, Madras, Kondiah Raju took some interest early in the craft that came easily to the Raju community: religious painting. He studied privately, attended the Government Arts School, learnt European skills in respect of subject and technique alike and kept honing his natural gifts even when he got his first job, drawing maps for the Public Works Depart-ment.
Kondiah joined, after some time, a village drama troupe, and began to travel with them through the countryside, working as painter, actor, musician, manager. For years he did this, travelling even to Sri Lanka with the troupe, till the company broke up. At this Kondiah re-grouped himself and his fellow-actors, and went into painting doors and metal trunks with sceneries, occasionally even turning out portraits and religious images.
The group stayed together, and expanded its repertoire of painting work, going into painting theatre curtains or backdrops for which there was always a demand. Everything was coming together in this kind of work: photography, European perspective, new materials for painting, religious imagery. But what made Kondiah Raju acquire a status, and leave a deep impression on the religious arts of contemporary South India and South-East Asia, one might add were the images of divinities that he turned out in such large numbers, Murugan, Kannan, Meenakshi, Ganapati, among them: iconographically correct, dramatically lit, softly modelled.
His pupils (he died in 1976) speak of him with awe, think of him as an artist-saint. And tell of him a story. Early in his life, in the year 1910, they say, Kondiah had joined the ashram of Raman Maharishi, only to leave it soon afterwards. For here he had an experience which gave to his life a new direction. One day, seeing the manner in which he removed an imperfection from an old, fraying portrait, the Maharishi recognised in him a certain talent, and told him to leave the ashram. Go and share this with the world, the Maharishi said. And Kondiah left, becoming what he eventually did.
Omnipresence of prints
Inglis speaks, while
writing on Kondiah, of the omnipresence of prints in
India: in shops where they receive early morning homage,
in religious processions where they are plied with
incense, in the hands of mendicants who carry them around
as portable images, in taxis the drivers of which bow to
them before they touch the steering wheel. Many years
ago, he says, he was sitting in the office of the
Communist Party of India in Hoshiarpur where he had gone
to see a friend. As he looked up, he saw a line of framed
prints on the wall. They were identical in size and
frame, each daubed with sandalwood paste and garlanded
with desiccated marigolds. The line included Marx,
Ganesha, and Gandhi....
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