Some years ago, in the mid-90s, I walked about 20 kilometres in a yatra over several days along the amazing Narmada river that cuts across the middle of India through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. This was to discuss with villagers along the river the consequences of a development project in the area. It was a people’s rally in a very difficult and remote part of India quite inaccessible to the city bred likes of us.
Meetings were held in this Bhil tribal belt through night and day. And an important part of this activism was the songs that were sung. Several of these were tribal/folk songs calling out to the locals to take pride in their identity, their culture, rituals and so on. But there were also songs written by Gorakh Pandey, Sahir Ludhianvi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I must say, coming from a background of musicians and music lovers, I was quite awkward with how out of tune the group singing was, but the energy and the passion with which people sang was enough to forget the musical inadequacy.
This experience also brought to mind the prolific interpretations that Faiz’s poetry lends itself to. In a comparable political fervour, in a completely different environment Iqbal Bano sang her Ham Dekhenge. The ‘Inqilaab Zindabaad’ one hears from the audience in the recording still makes listening to it a thrilling experience.
I for one first became familiar with Faiz’s poetry through Mehdi Hasan Saheb’s music, which played often in our Tamil household. Just as with others in the family, my being a musician brought me closer to the raag before it did to the poetry. But the beauty of the lyric also shines through these renditions. In his singing the poetry and music fuse into each other – the cascading he creates with Baame meena se mahtaab utre in Aaye kuchh abr in Gaud Malhar is a superb example.
As I became more drawn to the poetry of Faiz, I also saw a distinct musical style in which several of the Pakistani singers approached his work. They were almost always based on a classical raag, but the raag never took over the lyric. In a sense this is a third kind of an interpretation, quite unlike say Khayal gayeki which is about raagdaari, where the raag is central and almost always the lyric is incidental or the Tarannum where the poem is recited so it does not get interfered by the melody.
Iqbal Bano, Noorjehan, Farida Khanum, Nayyara Noor and even Tina Sani (an unusual Durga for Bahaar Aaee), while they sing the ghazal or the Nazm based on a raag the structure of the verse or the couplet also comes through clearly. This was perhaps one of the reasons why the Indian Diva of Ghazal, Begum Akhtar, did not sing too much of Faiz’s work, (Shaam-e-firaaq stands out in its soulfulness though) considering that she brought raagdari into Ghazal singing like never before.
Singing Faiz gives me an opportunity to address a void that has come to be in the understanding of cultural protest, of raising a concern, of being angry or anxious, within the context of my own musical framework. I do enjoy composing some of his work and the fact that he loved classical music encourages me to explore various raags – including Shahana, Khamaj, Malhar, several of which lend themselves beautifully to his poetry. Singing at the Faiz Ghar at the invitation of his daughters last year and the love and appreciation from the audience that I received seemed ironical, that I should come across the border to sing remembering a man who fought these boundaries all his life.
The writer is a musician based in New Delhi