Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon...

A lot of us remember Deepal Shaw gyrating her hips in an insult of a school uniform skirt, thrusting her bosom into the camera and making all sorts of raunchy gestures to the beat of ‘Kabhi aar kabhi paar’. A lot of us will also remember the entire lyrics of the peppy ‘Saiyaan dil mein aana re’, made extremely popular in its remix avatar, and at all parties, we would’ve have chorused its ‘Chham chhama chham chham’ beat. Some of us might even remember Kajol trying her best to sing ‘Kahin pe nigaahein kahin pe nishana’ in the iconic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, when Shahrukh Khan eases his hand on top of Mandira Bedi’s shy fingers, assuming her to be his lady love. This song then, I feel, became an idiom to tease every person whose targets skipped away from in front of his eyes. Oh, and it is a staple at all wedding antakshari contests too!

Why these songs? Well, that’s because they are united by a voice full of life, which, ironically is being remembered at the time when it has transcended the mortal world. It is even more ironic that while we remember each word of these very hummable songs, only a minority of us will be able to recall the name behind the voice which gave character to these songs. I am talking of the inimitable Shamshad Begum, whose singing was not made up of the velvety, soft, soothing or sugary voice we so admire in our modern day singers. Her voice was husky, unconventional, bold, full of zest and conveyed a sort of mischief, which could be found in each of her renditions. Yesterday, at the age of 94, and much after she left an indelible mark on the Indian music industry, she passed away at her Mumbai residence.

Shamshad Begum forms an important part of my childhood memories. Summer vacations were spent at my maternal grandmother’s house, where, all of her six children (my mother included) were great fans of old Indian music. By old, I do not mean the R. D. Burman numbers, which are as far back as the younger generation’s imagination goes when we utter the word ‘retro’. My family was keen to dig out retro from its very roots, from before the time giants like Mohd. Rafi or Lata Mangeshkar marked their presence. I used to sulk and make faces at the ancient melodies which came out the tape recorder, and it was not until much later that I could briefly remember names of Noorjehan, Uma Devi, Zohra Bai Ambalewali, and then, Shamshad Begum.

It was my eldest mamaji, who left for his heavenly abode last year in a heartbreakingly unexpected manner, who was instrumental in making me develop a taste for old, golden music. This taste has flowered to such an extent that today, I have lyrics of an endless number of classic melodies at the tip of my tongue, and a noticeable share of those melodies belong to Shamshad Begum’s corpus. She was one of the earliest female singers to have become a part of Indian music industry, and was its reigning queen for quite long, well into the fifties, when O. P. Nayyar made her sing immortal melodies in Aar Paar and CID. Along with Geeta Dutt, she is among my favourite singers of all time. What was strikingly unique about her was that in a period where classical values were staunchly adhered to even in film music, her voice brought a rustic and folk touch, which was fresh and lively. Try listening to her songs. They will make you happy, and induce a springy feeling inside you. I do not know which was the first of her songs I heard, but one of the first which caught on my tongue was ‘Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon’. I might not have understood the meaning of the lyrics, but the song seemed funny and entertaining enough to make me enjoy singing it. Simple, with no complicated musical notes, I think songs like these are a triumph on the part of the composer, singer and the lyricists, because they so easily appeal to the audience and in some time, become a part of their culture.

Yes, Shamshad Begum’s songs are a part of our culture now. I have kept saying that she had a lively touch to her voice, but this does not mean she shied away from singing poignant melodies, one of the most memorable being ‘Chhod Babul Ka Ghar’, composed by Naushad. She was born in Amritsar in 1919, and her contributions to Punjabi music are also immense. She has sung romantic songs, wedding songs, bidaai songs, folk songs, solos, duets – there is nothing that can be said enough to effectively eulogise her music career. It can, however, be safely stated that her songs are a touchstone to judge good music. She spent her last days living with her daughter in Mumbai, and as a very delayed recognition of her talent and contributions, was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2009 by the Government of India. Khayyam, in an interview quoted on her official website, had stated about “Her voice was one of its kind and her enunciation was wonderfully clear. She commanded a lot of respect both at the personal and professional level.”

I know many of you would not have ever heard her songs, or at least, not in her voice. It is a little different, or unconventional, from the kind of music all of us are used to hearing. But if you can find some time, here are five recommendations from me to gain an introduction to her world. These are my favourites – songs I can hear over and over again, throughout my life.

Boojh mera kya naam re from CID
Meri neendon mein tum from Naya Andaaz, a duet with Kishore Kumar
Kajra Muhabbat Wala from Kismet, a very entertaining duet with Asha Bhonsle
Yeh duniya roop ki chor from Shabnam, a cute, funny and bubbly song
Saiyaan dil mein aana re from Bahaar – I could not have left out this song at all!

A statistic states, that 70 per cent of remixed songs had originally been sung by Shamshad Begum. That says something about the kind of appeal her melodies have till date.

Another star has set on Indian music industry. May her soul rest in peace. 

(Originally written for and published on Scroll 360)

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Assassin's Song by M. G. Vassanji

Where should the bird fly after the last sky – Mahmoud Darwish

M. G. Vassanji is a known name in the genre of postcolonial writings who has dealt with demanding affiliations that manifest themselves at emotional, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, or political levels. In The Assassin’s Song, he places his protagonist in the context of harrowing identity investigation and a constant flux of experiences and values. As a Canadian writer with roots in what the West chooses to call the Third World, one notices in Vassanji’s works a striking preoccupation with shifting boundaries, his protagonist caught in the in-between world, and confused at the very premise of what to assert his belongingness to. In this quest, his narratives plunge into an investigation of the past, because it is from those nether lands of time that one snatches elements to complete the mosaic of his identity.

One way to look at The Assassin’s Song is as a bildungsroman narrative. It is essentially the story of Karsan Dargawalla, so is the son to the guardian of a Sufi shrine in Gujarat, called Pirbag, and is also its heir apparent. He is poised to take over his father’s role as ‘Saheb’ or ‘Lord’ of the shrine. The story traces Karsan’s struggle to come to terms with this pre-ordained fate of his. Like any other child, he has his interest zones – cricket being mentioned as one. However, the words of Providence come sealed in iron for him, and he is forced into reconciliation with his future as the Saheb, also in the face of a difficult relationship with his distant father. Karsan breaks free from his restricted, stifled existence at Pirbag when he receives an offer to study at Harvard.

Karsan finds himself enjoying the new life in a new land, where he is given a greater chance to discover himself, his interests. It is also in this new life that he develops a different and closer relationship with his father through numerous epistolary exchanges. He discusses Keats with his father, who sends caveats enclosed in envelopes for him. In a sense, it makes one feel, as if the son is trying to expose to his father the vast expanse of unexplored land around, and the father is trying to rein the child within the secular, secure and sacred confines of the domestic space.

Karsan emerges in the novel as the figure of a wanderer – much like Nur Fazal, his divine ancestor was. Also in the wandering spirit, one can see the autobiographical imprints of Vassanji, who has also located and relocated, from Kenya, finally living in Toronto. In the image of Karsan, thus, one can see the personal conflicts faced by most native as well as diasporic members of postcolonial societies. Thus, woven into the fabric of Karsan’s personal struggles for identity are universal echoes emerging from postcolonial sites.

Among other things, The Assassin’s Song is about the danger of taking a neutral position in a world that demands certainties. The faith followed by Karsan’s family, the keepers of the Pir’s flame, is neither Hindu nor Muslim, but this doesn’t count for much in the heat of communal riots, when convenient labels have to be put on everything. The Assassin’s Song, in more ways than one, comes out as a novel which is fiercely secular, but not secular in isolation. What the novel does beautifully is to problematize the neutrality of someone who does not align himself to any one religion. The narrative puts to test the idealism ensconced in the notion of secularism by holding it as a source of conflict in the mind of Karsan when it comes to surviving in a world so vehemently bent upon demarcating itself into cocoons of narrow sectarian identities. Vassanji, an Ismaili Muslim, here draws on his own experience of belonging to a small religious community.

This bildungsroman story culminates in Karsan’s return. He comes back to that very place, and perhaps that very fate which he had desired so much to evade. In a sense, the novel reveals that all freedom is illusory. Even while travelling beyond his native realms, he was, somewhere deep down, the heir of Pirbag, the one entrusted to carry forward the secular legacy of Nur Fazal. After the devastation wrecked by clash of faiths, Karsan returns to his domain – the place which was his – and it is with ease peppered with slight anxiety that he takes on the role of the next Sahab of the shrine.

In this end, Vassanji doesn't tell us what to believe; he merely shows us the various stages of a person's exploration of self. At the conclusion, though the prodigal son returns, there is no sense of finality that a reader may get after journeying through various geographical and psychological terrains with Karsan. It can perhaps be said that exploration of self is a continuous process. Identity evolves with experiences. It is not to be found at the place of one’s beginnings, but can often be located in a faraway land, where distances come to signify affiliations in a stronger manner. Often, identity demands acceptance. Karsan’s moment of greatest disillusionment came, perhaps, when he discovered that the eternal lamp illuminating Nur Fazal’s dargah was not a manifestation of miracles, but a fraud of sorts in which his mother was complicit. But later, Karsan understands the necessity of miracles to sustain faith. To conclude, a quote from the first chapter would be apt, where words and sentences combine to give a sense of what form would Karsan’s quest for identity acquire as the novel proceeds.
“That is the important question I had to learn. What lies beyond the sky? What do you see when you remove this dark speckled blanket covering our heads? Nothing? But what is nothing?”
The author

Verdict? Very strongly recommended. Never did this before, but this novel takes 5 on 5 stars. 

(The above article is an exerpt from a paper I wrote in college, as a part of my course on Postcolonial Literature)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Green Is The Colour!

Have you heard of a strange phenomenon where a predator befriended its prey? I am forgetting the minute details, but it so happened in a recent incident somewhere in  theinterior hinterland of India that a wolf, who, while pursuing his quarry, a goat, fell into a deep ditch along with it. Rather than attack and devour his now confined prey, the wolf and goat were found in a perfectly amiable condition by surrounding villagers the next day. My fantasy guess is, the wolf and the goat might’ve helped each other find a way out. Anyway, truth is self-preservation took precedence over hunger qualms. The animals ‘adapted’.

All animals, with the glaring exception of homo sapiens, have learnt the art of perfect harmonious cohabitation with animate and inanimate elements of their surroundings. Even a lethal carnivore would not hunt for pleasure’s sake; if satiated, he would allow without care for a whole herd of prey to pass by. So have discovered animal behavioral scientists. Even our ancestors had practiced and advocated harmonious coexistence with nature. For them, each animal, even plants were a part of the larger family order Providence itself has ordained for us. However, somewhere during evolution, our very race lost touch. In a bid to prove our mental (intellectual) superiority, we became the predators hell bent upon feeding on those very constituents of Nature which caused and sustained our existence.

Sustainable Development is one of the key governance issues which each government across the world has to deal with both at a macro and micro level. I understand the ‘janta’, masses form an indispensable component of any country’s democratic set up, considering just democracies for the time being. The definition of public is not confined to their role and responsibility as the electorate. That is to say, our act on the democratic stage does not end with casting our vote. It goes beyond, and extends up to the point where we adopt the character of a citizen who acts responsibly in all spheres of life. Sustainable Development, growth while preserving resources so as not to encroach upon the endowments of future generations, as a concept encompasses many nuanced, technical aspect which the government has routinely been failing at throwing enough light on. In the same sphere, civil society activists have been doing a remarkable job of protecting, preserving and propagating awareness about what is our natural heritage.

However, these scribbles are not to lambast the government for what is another possible area of policy paralysis. Or of yawning gaps between policy and practice. We, as a nation, pride upon on our vast and diverse resource rich state. Scant do we pay regard to the possible problem that are woven into the fabric of that very diversity. Our country is such where the topography changes every ten steps (little exaggeration, if you permit please), and cultural identities and practices change sooner. Talking of curbing carbon emissions at a global stage is one thing; developing action plans for what could be a major problem plaguing just one sequestered area in a nondescript corner of our country quite another. Take the example of the Ladakh valley, where environmental problems are a particularly new phenomenon, caused largely due to the massive influx of tourists in the area. Now, since Leh-Ladakh are not playgrounds from which political gains could be usurped, regards paid to the local issues of this place which boasts of having evolved its own specialized gene pool are nothing more than mere lip service. Consequently, the onus for preservation and prevention falls on indigenous population and motivated volunteer groups.

That aside, environmental preservation is one area of activism all of us can partake in, even within the smug confines of our home. Let not shifting responsibility become a favorite sport as far as concerns of or dwindling resources go. I’m sure most of us reading this article would be conscientious, educated, and liberated people doing their bit for the environment. April 22 is celebrated as the Earth Day each year, the concept pioneered by John McConell, and crystallized by U. Thant, former Secretary General of United Nations. What better time can you find to heed the call of Mother Nature for protection? Do me a favour. Choose one from the below listed many pledges which are simple to observe and healthy to adopt as permanent practices in the interest of our depleting ecology. I think I am going to stick to most of them, and more.

I pledge to translate Earth Day messages to local language and spread them among as many as I can.

I pledge to use paper carefully and responsibly and motivate others to do the same.

I pledge to become the Electricity Nazi at home and ensure that no wastage occurs under my nose.

I pledge to celebrate my birthday (which is around the corner) by planting a tree.

I pledge to celebrate birthdays of my friends by gifting them saplings.

I pledge to reduce the consumption of plastic unless where absolutely indispensable.

I pledge to never, ever, ever, ever litter anywhere I go, even if the place seems like a garbage dump already.

I pledge to not find it below my dignity to be corrected on practices against the environment and assume responsibility for undoing potentially harmful actions of mine.

I pledge to make environment a bigger cause in my heart and mobilize support for the same.

I pledge to never give into practices like smoking which harm not just me, but also others and the environment through a passive route.

I pledge to use public transport as much as possible.

I pledge, particularly me, to read up on green legislations and green social sector initiatives so that I can call myself a green literate before I go onto spilling gyan about green practices to others.

Image Source - Aaqib Raza Khan photography.