Purity of expression

Nonika Singh

With Sufi singer, cinema theorist, writer and lyricist Madan Gopal Singh questions become redundant. Like a torrent, his thoughts envelop you just as his honest and pure singing does.

Madan Gopal Singh
Madan Gopal Singh

All he needs is a little nudge here and there to take you back to reveal the story of his life, his musical journey, the twists and turns that have taken him from one milestone to another, from one interest to another passion. Of course, be it sufi singing or his understanding of cinema the seed sprouted in his childhood years. For, this son of noted poet Harbhajan Singh grew up in a culturally rich milieu, was always immersed in books and by class XI, had read all authors from Chekov to Sarte. Music happened to him perchance. He recalls his first musical soiree ó a song from film Tum Sa Nahi Dekha called Jawaniyan yeh mast mast bin piye, which earned him studentsí wah wahs and a tight slap from his teacher for wasnít the song a trifle erotic.

Nevertheless young Madan Gopalís talent was spotted and he went on to win the first prize at the Baiskahi festival under the guidance of his teacher. But he never trained under a musical guru and is today grateful that he didnít go to an ustad. He believes, "Formal training saps your inner voice. But for rare examples like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who transcended formal training and made it a spiritual act, most singers are trapped in the mechanics of formal education of music."

His understanding of both sound and music he owes to Gurbani as well as early years in New Delhi, when in the deafening quiet he could hear an aeroplane taking off or a train whizzing past. Those pure sounds, he insists, firmed up his musical base. Today, as he sings, nay interprets, the texts of greats like Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu and others he canít help but notice how Bahuís couplets end with the sound hu. Says he, "All music, all poetry ultimately celebrates the pure sound and itís with this hu that Bahu makes you enter the realm of pure sound." No wonder whether Madan Gopal sings for movies like Kumar Shahani's Kasba and Khayalgatha and Mani Kaul's Idiot or composes for documentary films like Kashmir - Paradise on a River of Hell directed by Meenu Gaur and Abir Bazaz, his prime preoccupation rests with purity of notes. So, for Sabhia Sumarís much-commended movie Khamosh Pani while scratch recording became the final music he has never ever had his song "software corrected." Precisely for this reason he never cuts any albums. He deems, "All recording is meant to hide your deficiencies." Even otherwise singing for him is not about flawless rendition but is an honest expression rendered with heartfelt sincerity.

In sufi singing, he believes the ultimate aim is to arrive at a point where you de-burden yourself of textual load. But arenít words of great import in sufi singing? He nods, "Indeed, these words tell you how the inviolability of the other is sacrosanct, how its important to be happy in oneís being, how one can be a participant and a spectator at the same time and above all what bliss it is to be a fakir." So, though at the time of the interview he is all set to participate in a festival at France followed by another one in Australia and though this year alone he has performed at London thrice, he is only too happy to perform for small niche audiences in India as well. From 250 to 1000, from students to connoisseurs, he is willing to be an interpreter for all. His concerts at educational institutions invariably include workshops and concerts are more often than not trips down the lanes of history replete with visual aids.

With a buzzing singing itinerary that leaves him little time for doing simple ordinary things of life, he still manages to pack his life with a battery of pursuits. For a Punjabi film, he is writing lyrics as well as dialogues. For another one, he will be an overall mentor. For a documentary film on women boxers, he will be giving music. With Bharatnayam exponent Navtej Johar, in whose critically acclaimed dance piece Fanna he sang and gave music, he is toying with working in another production.

And yet amidst delivering lectures, conducting seminars and singing concerts he could take six months off and just read a book. To be in the fakiri mode for him is to live life king size. Let others be dazzled by the razzmatazz, for Madan Gopal, with honesty and sincerity of purpose as companions, life is all about capturing its intrinsic essence.