Sunday ‘baithak’ with Ashwini Bhide Deshpande at Mumbai’s NCPA

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It was a Sunday morning well spent listening to a Hindustani classical recital by vocalist Ashwini Bhide Deshpande at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.

In a small, but cosy, musical gathering, Deshpande presented the different styles of the Todi raga that is traditionally sung during the morning hours. Todi is believed to be one of main parent scales in Hindustani classical music, and is also famously associated with legendary musician Tansen of Mughal emperor Akbar’s royal court.

The late sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar has also contributed to a recent exploration of this raga, Deshpande said at the beginning of the concert. But it was a composition by the late Pandit Bhimsen Joshi that she listened to during her short trip to the concert venue that morning, she told the audience.

The compositions based on Todi, as Deshpande’s recital demonstrated, evoke a gamut of emotions: from romantic/devotional love to compassion, serenity and intense sorrow. During her performance, she narrated the story of a vocalist who began to weep while rendering a Todi song. Such was the magnitude of his grief that his wife had to pour cold water for him to calm down. But it took him twenty four hours to return to a state of normalcy, which brought upon him an inexplicable sense of peace.

The performance of Deshpande, a vocalist for more than three decades, was received by the audience with such intensity that many were found to be overwhelmed by her music. Here is one of Todi-based compositions available on YouTube:

Like Vidya Balan, this melody from ‘Tumhari Sulu’ stands out too

Like Vidya Balan, this melody from ‘Tumhari Sulu’ stands out too

A composition rendered by independent artist Ronkini Gupta in new Bollywood film ‘Tumhari Sulu’ (Yours Sulu) is being rated as one of “finest pieces” heard this year. That may not be an overestimation, considering Bollywood’s contemporary repertoire is mostly cacophony masquerading as music.

“Rafu” (which means darning) has been composed by indie musician Santanu Ghatak, who also plays a role in the film. The song, which has received more than 100,000 hits on YouTube so far, echoes what it takes to build a home, especially for a woman who is usually expected to make far more adjustments than others in a family.

The Suresh Triveni film is about the tenacious Sulu, short for Sulochana, who takes the journey from being a housewife to an overnight radio star. Ghatak’s poetry, in a fairy tale-like way, underscores the good and bad experiences of that journey.

Here is an excerpt from the song’s lyrics:

Teri bani rahein
Meri thi deewarein 
Un deewaron pe hi 
Maine likh li baharein
Shaam hui
Tu jo aya
So gayin thi kaliyaan
kuch tune si hai
maine ki hai rafu
yeh doriyan

Accompanied by a gentle guitar, Gupta’s voice is lyrical, and its rendered in the typical refrain of a light Hindustani classical-based film song.

Ronkini, who is also part of a classical-based fusion band, was previously heard in the soundtrack of Rajat Kapoor’s “Ankhon Dekhi” (Through My Own Eyes). Her training in Indian classical music informs her style, which is evident from the intense notes delivered in “Kaise Sukh Soyein”. The composition creates the virtual setting of a music concert.

Mumbai-based Ronkini Gupta, whose formal training in music began at the age of six, has also learnt Hindustani classical singing from Indian stalwarts Abdul Rashid Khan and Parveen Sultana.

Singing is not the only talent that Ronkini is gifted with. In her free time, she likes to paint as well. Here are images of some of her creations, shared with permission from the artist:

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An evening of musical horror at Jashn-e-Rekhta

The second edition of an Urdu festival in Delhi ended with a bang that I thought would make me sick with a prolonged migraine. Thankfully nothing happened to me. And yet, this morning I woke up with a bad hangover of a musical evening gone terribly out of tune.

A disclaimer at the outset: I’m obsessed about music, particularly from Hindustani classical vocalists, apart from ghazals, and qawallis on some good days too. Although I am an illiterate in the grammar of music, I strongly follow my instincts about what I like and hate. In other words, very very touchy.

So last evening was the grand finale of Jashn-e-Rekhta, a three-day festival that has earned the reputation of being one of the few engaging platforms for Urdu lovers. Pakistani artist Rafaqat Ali was the lead singer at the concert. A few hundred listeners waited for him to start the show in a makeshift tent that looked straight out of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Ali began with a couplet from “Ranjishi si sahi”, a love-torn Ahmed Faraz poem famously sung by Mehdi Hassan. And it appeared to me that gradually he had come under the spell of something indescribable as he tampered with the beautiful tenor of a ghazal. So much so that his performance looked just a tad better than a karaoke, supplemented by laugh-out-loud histrionics.

My outrage knew no bounds as he sang ghazal after ghazal in the same style that he said befits a 2016-era and also because Delhi has a metro (whatever that means!). Since his website describes him as a pop, classical and folk singer, I wonder, in hindsight, if he had mixed up genres? And he topped it with those rapid notes that you hear at the end of khayal compositions, and which he compared with the notes of a violin. I thought he took it too far, way too far.

But people enjoyed the show, giving him a standing ovation later, even though I saw few leaving during the performance.

Although I didn’t mind Ali’s mild jokes about some sentiments in India against Pakistani artists performing here, I thought it was a tawdry end to a new and promising addition to the city’s cultural scene.

Music Review – “Chandrajeevan” by Sounds of Isha

Music is life and life is music. Life has many notes and tunes; it can be a meditative khayal, or pensive like a ghazal, crazy like a qawwali, a carefree bhangra, or devotional as in a bhajan.

“Chandrajeevan” is a new Hindi music album that has everything to do with the self, while negating the idea of the same – a devotee’s journey that is supposed to traverse many aspects of life, from the mundane, the profound to the intense and much beyond.

The devotional album, produced by a non-profit India-based group Sounds of Isha, was released on Guru Purnima last month. It is believed that it was on this day Lord Shiva decided to impart the vast knowledge of the yogic sciences to the Saptarishis, the Seven Sages.

Guru Purnima falls in the July-August period. On this day, seekers worship their master, express their gratitude and receive blessings.

“Chandra” means moon and “jeevan” life. The title of the album refers to a devotee’s journey towards “dissolution”, represented in the moon’s journey from full moon to new, says the music band.

The only available song of this album — “Aye Hain Saavare” — was composed when a guru was returning to his ashram on his birthday after a six-month long overseas trip. Soaked in devotion, it speaks of a deep longing for the guru, and the sense of immeasurable joy, happiness and intense pain as the devotee beholds the master after a long hiatus.

“Aye Hain Saavare” is poignant beyond imagination. It fails explanation or analysis. It needs to be just heard, probably more than once. And if you have ever felt unadulterated, unconditional, self-less love or devotion for someone or something, this is the track for you!

Aye hain saanvare, o mere gaaon re
Mili ek thaanv re, na jaao saanvare

Aasmaan phool barasaao, hawaaon itr failao
Apni palaken bichhaa karke, dharaa tum mangal to gaao
Pakharoon charaNa kamalon ko, main apne bheege nainon se
Charnaamrut paan karake, dhara tum dhanya ho jaao

Nishaa tum komal haston se, inhe kaajal lagaa dena,
Shashi in bhavya bhaalon pe chandan tilak sajaa denaa
Mukhadaa yah tejomandit hairavi tu na sharamaanaa
Ina se jaan lenaa tum nabh mein apnaa thikaana

[Translation here]

*You can download the album by clicking here or wait for the full release.

Why banning porn in India sucks?

I don’t remember the last year I accessed porn, not only because we have a common laptop and iPad at home or simply due to lack of private space, but I have just not had the time. That’s fine by me, but the same may not be true for those who have a lot of time and inclination to watch it, now that the government has blocked hundreds of porn websites.

[Here’s an exhaustive list of adult websites blocked by India. And boy! the research is stupendous]

During a question and answer session with a famous spiritual guru, a follower – who was most probably a yoga practitioner also – asked a question about sexual desire. What does one do about it? Does one have sex? Curb it? Do it? Ignore it?

The master, in his characteristic gentle and sweet style, said it is a natural desire, so why should it bother one so much? Except, he added, don’t watch porn; it makes you hornier, he seemed to suggest.

Of course I don’t follow his advice. But the fact is sex – like eating, sleeping, breathing or shitting – is a natural desire. Why must you curb anything that is natural? And to connect morality and decency with it is even more bizarre.

If you cut your desires, you will spill more blood. Banning access to porn will not “cure” people of their sexual desires. It will not, we all know, free our deeply patriarchal and misogynistic society of sexual crimes.

Anyone who has spent even a few minutes on Delhi’s roads or in the metro will know how men or boys look at women or girls, or just how some males look at other males. They’re already frustrated. They don’t spare their own, their mothers, sisters or daughters. They’re not scared of the law either. Maybe they are. Maybe they don’t care. Does that stop them from committing acts of sexual violence?

Recall the BBC documentary of the Delhi gang rape, which the government also banned, and those chilling statements supporting such offences, including by the lawyers.

Banning porn will not change the way how the mind of such people works.

And of course there will be those, driven insane by lust, who will find a way of still accessing these sites. And what would you do about those countless DVDs that are available in the market? Or brothels? Or spas offering special services?

And what about those frightening stares? Or that “accidental” brushing of hands in bus or metro? How would you ban that?

Then you must ban sleeveless shirts, hot pants or anything that has a deep neck. Ban everything. Cover people in black robes. And get rid of that phallus, for god’s sake, that the state cannot handle.

Jai Hind!

Thinking of Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village

On weekends and in my blogs, I often return to Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village. It’s one of those party jaunts you’d go to get drunk, show yourself off, maybe get hooked up, dance till you drop and blow your money over food that is simply below average.

I do neither of the above, I’d like to believe. At 28, I prefer having home-cooked food with friends and then head out for some drinks, followed by a long walk before you call it a night and before you admire some fine bodies, with disproportionately lighter brains.

One Friday night, we went to The Project in Hauz Khas Village. It’s an al fresco pub right across the parking area and at entrance of a park. A dimly lit passage takes you to a seating area surrounded by trees. I ordered a virgin mojito, which was nice. So were the guests around, who thankfully kept their conversations to themselves for a change.

After paying three hundred rupees for a glass of some mint leaves, crushed ice and soda water, we walked back to the main lane. I could see Delhi’s pot-bellied party poopers standing outside bars and cafes in their khakhis. It was time to shut shop, the cops thundered.

Soon, I bumped into a friend. After making some polite conversation, he invited me to a karaoke that sounded exceptionally discordant to me. The singers were howling into the microphone, it seemed to me, while trying to outdo the heavy music. A group of boys and girls happily contorted their faces as one of them took a groupie. And then it was time to smash each other’s face with chocolate truffle cake.

As the village began emptying itself of people, I found myself stuck in a phenomenal traffic jam that stretched until the main road.

My karaoke friend, mostly used to performing at bars, broke into a Mehdi Hassan ghazal. He had training in Hindustani classical for many years, he told me. He began –

baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thi
jaisi ab hai teri mehfil kabhi aisi to na thi

le gaya chhiin ke kaun aaj teraa sabr-o-qaraar
beqaraari tujhe ai dil kabhi aisii to na thi

chashm-e-qaatil meri dushman thi hamesha lekin
jaise ab ho ga_ii qaatil kabhii aisii to na thii

un kii aa.Nkho.n ne Khudaa jaane kiyaa kyaa jaaduu
ke tabiiyat merii maa_il kabhii aisii to na thii

kyaa sabab tuu jo bigadtaa hai “Zafar” se har baar
Khu teri huur-e-shamaa_il kabhi aisi to na thi

[Translation here]

He sang of passion, of love and separation and those emotional twangs Urdu poetry is famous for. He sang as he navigated through a maze of honking cars full of drunk people, not allowing himself to be distracted. It was a moving and sincere attempt at singing a classic. I still have the notes ringing in my ear – “le gaya chhiin ke kaun aaj teraa sabr-o-qaraar
beqaraari tujhe ai dil kabhi aisii to na thi”.

The ghazal was written by India’s last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was more interested in poetry, dance and music than running the affairs of Hindustan. No wonder India fell into the hands of the British. He’s regarded as one of the most popular poets in Urdu literature. His grave is in what was then called Rangoon, present day Myanmar.

It was past one o’ clock. Mother called to check my arrival time. I said I’ll be home in an hour. But it didn’t matter as I found myself lost in the ghazal, even though it didn’t even remotely come close to Mehdi Hassan’s style, who made it one of his signature compositions. It didn’t have to. The words and the sincerity of my friend were enough.

The ghazal, an Arabic word which means talking to women, has its origins in the 10th century Persia, now called Iran. It came to India from the 12th century onwards as the Mughals brought their Iranian cultural influence, writes K C Kanda in “Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazal – from 17th century to 20th century.” [You can read an excerpt here]

So being an audience to a ghazal, even though impromptu, is not just a celebration but also an expression of mourning a sensuous art of singing that is now defunct.

Zafar, who witnessed the loss of his own life and with it that of the Mughal empire, wrote about the same theme in these lines:

Lagtaa nahin hai dil meraa ujday dayaar mein
kis ki bani hai aalam-e-naa_paayedaar mein

kah do in hasraton se kahin aur jaa basein
itani jagah kahaan hai dil-e-daagdaar mein

umr-e-daraaz maang kar laaye they chaar din
do arzoo mein kaT gaye do intezaar mein

kitnaa hai bad_naseeb “Zafar” dafn key liye
do gaz zamin bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein

[Translation here]

Piku’s sarod notes

For me, the introductory lilting sound of the sarod set the tone for “Piku”.

The film, directed by Shoojit Sircar, is about Piku (Deepika Padukone), and her cantankerous and forever constipated father Bhaskor Banerji (Amitabh Bachchan). It’s a funny film that portrays conflicts, emotions, silences, and just the right amount of music. Irrfan Khan is the big surprise as a taxi-driver-turned-lover-boy.

The film released in cinemas on Friday. [Review here]

The sarod, synonymous with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, is a musical instrument that is mostly played in Indian classical music performances. It is an unusual and rare ingredient in a Bollywood music album.

But if you watch the film, the intermittent sound of the sarod is anything but out of place. It is a poignant mood-creater, when dialogue is not required or when silence is all that one needs.

In the opening credits, the sarod is gently played as people settle down in the cinema hall for a new story that is about to be told. Immediately, Sircar had my thumbs up. I thought it was a very tasteful thing to do.

After Banerji, 70, has been laid to rest, Piku walks into his bedroom in Kolkata. She looks up and cries. The melodious, but sad notes of the instrument give her company. The sound reverberates, creating an atmosphere of grief and loneliness. She gets up, straightens the bed sheet and leaves.

The background score created a musical overhang that left me looking for more of the sarod. Unfortunately, Anupam Roy’s debut Bollywood music album does not feature a sarod-only track. But, kudos to the man for including the beautiful instrument in a mainstream Hindi film.

In an interview with India Today magazine, musician Roy, a big name in the Bengali industry, is asked the obvious question. Why the sarod, “which we hardly hear in contemporary Hindi songs”?

“In my Bengali music, too, I keep experimenting with Indian musical instruments. This is just an extension of whatever I’ve been doing with my Bengali music. Bezubaan is a rock ballad which sounds very Indian because of the sarod,” he says.

Roy has lent his voice to four songs in the film, including a duet with Shreya Ghoshal.

A gold medalist in engineering from Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, Roy wanted to be a doctor, like his father.

“But deep down, I guess I always wanted to be a musician. I wanted to live my life in music…in the field of arts, actually. Music, movies, literature, all of these always interested me more than anything else,” he says in the India Today interview.

His most popular song, “Amake Amar Moto Thakte Dao”, singularly contributed to his success as a musician in 2010.

“Keep it the way you do it in Bangla,” was all Sircar told his music director. It had to be simple, yet lively and of course with a lot of musical instruments.

It is not surprising that for a no-frills musician like Anupam Roy, Bollywood has not made a beeline outside his house yet. But let’s hope we hear more of him soon.

P.S. UPDATE: And guess what? Roy released Piku’s sarod theme on YouTube on May 18. Here it is:

Happy listening, folks!