Just as December came to an end, Mughal-e-Funk came out with the very last hit of the year. They managed to squeeze it in just in the nick of time. This was a release they did themselves, independent of major music platforms. What they did have was Meesha Shafi, who is having her moment of musical triumph, with back-to-back popular releases on both Coke Studio and Velo Sound Station, as the main vocalist of this composition.

Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarson [Mustard Blooms in the Fields], from Amir Khusrau’s poetry, is a popular kalaam among qawwali groups, classical singers and music aficionados alike. Written in the Indo-Eastern Bhojpuri language, the performance of Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarson by qawwals at the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi almost always takes place at the start of the spring, marking the beginning of a new year.

Indian historian Rana Safvi has posted a fascinating account of its origins, as told to her by one of the direct descendants of Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. According to Safvi, Nizamuddin Auliya was grieving the loss of his young nephew, to whom he was very attached. His followers longed to see him emerge from his melancholy.

Safvi writes that, “One day, Hazrat Amir Khusrau saw a group of village women, dressed in yellow, carrying mustard flowers and singing on the road near the Khwaja’s khanqah [retreat or monastery].

Mughal-e-Funk’s version of Amir Khusrau’s Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarson shines a spotlight on the instrumentation of the track as much as it does on the vocals

“He asked them where they were going dressed like this. The women replied that they were going to the temple to offer the flowers to their god. Amir Khusrau asked them whether this made their god happy? On hearing an affirmative answer, he immediately dressed up in a yellow saree and, carrying mustard flowers, came into the presence of his pir, Khwaja Hazrat Nizamuddin singing, ‘sakal ban phool rahi sarson.’

The Khwaja, recognising his favourite disciple, smiled.”

The Mughal-e-Funk version is acoustic instrumentation mixed with electronica, pixie dust and magic. It’s very catchy and carries a strong, groovy bassline with just repetitions of, ‘Sakal ban’ and then ‘phool rahi sarson’, building the momentum of the song. The drums are really what guide the movement in the song, adding intensity at its many peaks and then lowering it for the interludes. What really caught one’s ear was Rakae Jamil’s distorted sitar. He’s a wizard on the sitar and in Sakal Ban he breaks all of the conventional rules of sitar playing and reintroduces this very classical instrument in more of a rock music avatar.

Mughal-e-Funk’s Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarson is a song that shines a spotlight on the music and instrumentation of the track as much as it does on the vocals. Lyrically, it’s a tad different from Rizwan and Mozzam Qawwal’s earlier version that was released in Season Eight of Coke Studio. A quick search on the internet and you see how groups belonging different regions adapted the words, ever so slightly, according to where they were from.

Some of the lyrics in this version are: Sakal ban phool rahi sarson/ Umbva phutay/ Tesu phulay/ Koel bolay daar daar/ Aur gori karat singhaar/ Malaniyan gadhwa lay aayin karson

[The fields are filled with yellow mustard blooms/ Mango buds open/ Flame-of-the-forest trees blossom/ Branches echo with the song of the koel bird/ And the fair beauty adorns herself/ The ladies of the garden bring fragrant bouquets].

Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarsoon is a somewhat offbeat, musically rich number that reimagines how traditional Sufi poetry can be celebrated. It’s an enjoyable, beautiful track that marks the end of a year that has seen Pakistani music reemerge from its shell of tedious, unimaginative covers, with music that’s both fresh and original. It’s not over yet though, there is still more to come. Sakal ban phool rahi mosiqui…

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 3rd, 2021

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