Ali Sethi on working with Abida Parveen

Published October 2, 2016
Abida Parveen & Ali Sethi
Abida Parveen & Ali Sethi

In an exclusive for Images on Sunday Ali Sethi has documented the day the song was recorded …

Morning: I woke up at 11. This is good. Based on last year’s experience, I’m guessing we won’t go into the studio until late at night. And even then we’ll have to rehearse the song a few times before we start recording. So waking late is good, a guarantee against fatigue, mohlat for my vocal chords, which I want to save for the Great Showdown.

Afternoon: I’m drinking chai – sugar-filled doodh patti – to moisten my gullet. I’m taking these precautions because I’m nervous. I’m singing, after all, with the great Abida Parveen, and I’m having to sing at her pitch, which is a good four notes higher than mine. I have spent weeks practicing at her pitch, reaching into regions of my larynx that I didn’t know existed.

Late afternoon: Why did I agree to do this? At some level (I tell myself scoldingly) I wanted to prove a point, wanted to justify my many years of training to myself. I had a wish (was it not a death wish?) to perform an arifana kalam, an ecstatic and heedless piece of music that threw caution to the wind and allowed me to transcend my body, myself. So here I am, heading into the lion’s cage, into the jaws of annihilation.

Evening: She is here, the great Abidaji. She is sitting next to me on the dais. From the way she leans in to exchange notes about the lyrics, I can tell (with a perilous pang) that she accepts this situation as normal. As workable. She doesn’t think (or doesn’t want me to think) that this arrangement is ridiculous, that I don’t deserve to be sitting next to her (this is mind-boggling).

Night: We have done three run-throughs. Shuja, the composer of our track, seems to find it okay. Abidaji hasn’t raised an objection. I’m strangely able to match her pitch, to sing into the music, to respond with my throat, my being, to what the kalam is saying.

Recording time: This is how it goes down: you reach into a feeling – of amazement and gratitude in this case – to meet the words, to meet the music (and the formidable Abidaji) over there, in that region where man is all heart and pure spirit.

How privileged I am to feel this small, how grateful I am for this feeling of vulnerability.

Yeh sab tumhara karam hai Aaqa/ kay baat aab tak bani hui hai.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd, 2016

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