Har Kadam Kadam Se

A song from an almost forgotten movie, Char Dil Char Rahaein (1959)- reminds one of the optimism that pervaded the post- independence years, as well as the popular appeal of the progressive movement. Listening to this socialist song one can still feel rejuvenated in sometimes depressing times. Lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi, music by another legendary name- Anil Biswas.

The audio quality is just about ok, and there is some noise in the beginning, that goes away after about 15 seconds. Thanks to the person who took the trouble to upload the video!


The Left, Nuke Deal and Patriotism

Amulya Ganguli has cited from Mohit Sen’s memoirs and used his assertion that the  (undivided) CPI preferred class over nation to conclude that the Left continues to do the same today as well and hence is “betraying the nation”.

Yet, their servility earned little appreciation in Moscow as the following passage from Mohit Sen’s autobiography, A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist makes clear. “As for the Soviet Union needing the CPI’s support”, wrote Sen, “Stalin is reported to have told a CPI delegation in 1950 that his country could have done without it and the CPI should have looked after itself. There is no doubt, however, that the CPI did what it did because of its belief that priority had to be given to support to the Soviet Union for the sake of communism and Indian freedom (from bourgeois rule) even if it meant swimming against the national current. This instinctive loyalty, first to the class and only then to the nation, the CPI shared with most other communist parties, except the Chinese and the Yugoslavs”.

On the earlier occasions, the Left could only harm itself with its revolutionary frolics. But if it succeeds in derailing the N-deal because of its “instinctive loyalty, first to the class and only then to the nation”, the damage to India’s reputation will be enormous. It will not be possible in that eventuality to gloss over the unpatriotic tag, which the commissars have worn as their badge of dishonour since 1942, because the setback suffered by India will be incalculable.

This is certainly a misreading of Sen’s views. He was indeed a critic of the Left’s inability to understand nation as a category, but neither his, nor the Left’s views placed the nation as something opposed to class as Ganguli suggests. The distinction, or rather the conflicting pulls of class and the nation  became crucial only in certain cases- and Ganguli’s illustration of the 1942 volte face by the CPI is only partial. Mohit maintained that the decision to support the Allies was correct- only that as the reversal of the Axis forces began, the CPI should have reverted to throwing its lot with the nationalist forces.  The CPI was perceived as a strongly anti- colonial force whose vision went far beyond the achievement of freedom from colonial rule. As an example of its appeal among the nationalists, it needs to be recalled that it was the heroine of 1942- Aruna Asif Ali, who joined the CPI in the 1950s, among others at various times both before and after 1942.

On a side note, it is laughable that Ganguli invokes patriotism in support for a treaty with the United States, whose own record with its ‘allies’ is not exactly something to write home about (the list is long, ‘luminaries’ include Saddam Hussain) !

There is certainly much that is wrong with the Left, particularly the CPI(M)’s views- not only are they dogmatic but they sound much more so. See, for example, the otherwise intelligent economist Prabhat Patnaik’s article in People’s Democracy- even someone like this blogger who is well conversant with ‘Marxist shorthand’ finds it a difficult read. Cryptically written, obtuse language as in this paragraph is certainly not the best way to popularise even otherwise unpopular (though not necessarily incorrect) ideas:

Non-alignment, autonomy vis-à-vis imperialism, breaking loose from the shackles of globalisation that leads to the dispossession and expropriation of petty producers, and having an autonomous State that can intervene in favour of the marginalised, and will do so because of the pressure of having to face the electorate, are what the “nation of the poor” needs. But this is precisely what the “nation of the rich” abhors.

It would be too much to expect the CPI(M), one of the few parties in the world that still proudly displays Stalin’s pictures during its conventions, to give up its dogmatism, but it certainly needs to package its goods better- especially because some of its views are not wrong either. The Left, in India and elsewhere, still has a strong (too strong, perhaps) theoretical understanding of colonialism and imperialism, as was its understanding of unfashionable things like land reforms at one time- all said and done with a huge agricultural economy comparable to Punjab and Maharashtra, there are no farmers’ suicides in West Bengal (see also this edit in People’s Democracy).

It is unfortunate that the success of its land reform program and hence the CPM’s major electoral success in West Bengal also sustains its dogmatism at the national level.


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Pavarotti- RIP

For someone who has no appreciation of the operatic form, I have been enthralled by Pavarotti ever since I first heard him on television years back. Pavarotti died today morning after a prolonged struggle with pancreatic cancer. This is what Salon has to say in its obituary:

In opera circles it is widely agreed that Pavarotti would have done well to retire, as had the late Beverly Sills, before his vocal resources had declined too precipitously. During his prime — roughly the late 1960s to early 1980s — he possessed not only that unmistakable, burnished voice, but also a superb sense of musicianship: a strong vocal attack and clean release; the energy to renew a note’s energy with every throb of the vibrato; and the flexibility to sing with great ardency or with the melting tenderness that Italians call “morbidezza” — the sound a great hero makes when dying of love.

Here is Pavarotti, in one of his last performances in February of last year, where, according to the article quoted above, he is “at his nadir”- just notice how his voice rises in its crescendo, even during the ‘nadir.’ The man had some voice!

The nadir came in February of last year at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Enveloped in a tentlike black cape, looking like a sad, oversize Count Dracula, the once-great tenor warbled his signature aria, Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” transposed down from its original key so that the triumphant high B was only a B-flat.

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World Music Day

On World Music Day (which is on 21st June and about which I was ignorant of till Rama’s post), here are two programs that I have enjoyed lately on the BBC World Route series.

There is a good collection of Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali songs at Dishant, where I have been listening to Srikant Acharaya.

…and not that I am turning religious, but there are quite a few gurbani stations online. Sikhnet offers gurbani sung in the Western style besides the classical Hindustani, and this one plays a lot from Bhai Harjinder Singh Ragi, who, incidentally is known for singing a lot from Kabir.

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Wadali Brothers: Sufism as Emancipation

Noted Sufi singer brothers Puran Chand Wadali and Pyare Lal Wadali and three members of their troupe were injured when their Tavera vehicle collided with a stationary truck on the Amritsar- Jalandhar road in the wee hours today.

While Puran Chand Wadali got internal injuries, his younger brother Pyare Lal was stated to be serious.

As I read this chilling piece of belated news (via Sufinews), I was reminded of the many performances by the Wadali brothers that I have had the privilege to attend.

The Wadali Brothers are a 5th generation Sufi singers from the village called Guru ki Wadali in Amritsar district.

I first heard them sometime in the early nineties. We sat on rugs on the floor in a DAV college auditorium, as mists swirled in the wintry evening outside. The auditorium was not exactly overflowing with students.

This was to change later, when I heard them next, the show was in the city’s biggest theater and it was packed to capacity.

But in both cases, one was struck by the electrifying quality of their singing. It was not just the sheer quality of their deep throated rendition, but also the selection of the qalam. They sang not only much from the doyen of the Punjabi Sufi poets, Baba Bulle Shah but also one could not but help noticing that their compositions combined poetry from various Sufi poets.

Some of the most radical snippets were taken from various sources to deliver a performance that not only mesmerized with its musicality but also delivered a strong message of emancipation. The verses were from Bulle Shah, Baba Farid, Amir Khusro and Sant Kabir as well as Shah Hussain, Ghulam Farid and other Punjabi Sufi poets.

This is one aspect of their singing that renditions available in cassettes, CDs and also online do not seem to contain.

Only in this rendition of the Jugni does this aspect come forth to some extent. The Jugni had been, for many years, trivialized to some extent. The Wadali Brothers’ version of Jugni that I heard in a live performance had elegantly combined some very powerful snippets from Kabir and Bulle Shah, both of whom have written very critically about institutionalized religion. Bulle Shah, for example says:

dharamsal vich dharvi rahinde, thakur dware thug
vich maseet kusatti rahinde, aashik rahin alag

(In temples reside the ruffians, in gurudwaras, the thugs
In mosques reside the liars, the true lovers (of the Divine), stay aloof from all these.)

If I am not mistaken, the Wadali brothers come from among the Dalits for whom Sufism has a strong appeal with its message of emancipation.

The elder of the two, Puran Chand Wadali spent 25 years wrestling in an akhara before becoming a full time musician. They describe their initial experience in performing at the Harballah Sangeet Sammelan thus:

Our admirers in the village told us of the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar. Ready to perform, we headed for the concert, where we were disallowed entry due to our appearance. We did not even remotely look like musicians, what with my handlebar moustache and all. We were attired in chadar kurta and had no airs around us.

Incidentally, though they had been singing for a quarter of a century, their first cassette was released only in 2000. Their popularity was to soar quickly, as CDs by TIMES and others were released subsequently.

They went on to sing Amrita Pritam’s poem Aj aakhan Waris Shah nu in the film Pinjar.

A very comprehensive collection at Musicindiaonline.
The Apnaorg site also has a good selection of some of their recordings.

Image Acknowledgment

The Child Prodigy of Indian Music- Master Madan

Among the early popularizers of music in India was Master Madan, a child prodigy who died at the age of 15 in 1942. Few of his recordings survive, though he was a precocious and prolific performer.
Among his famous renditions Hairat se taq raha hai jahan-e-wafa mujhe and yun na rah rah kar hamen tarsaiye can be heard online.

It is impressive to see the mastery of classical music and the command over the Urdu language for someone so young and one can admire the rich texture of his voice even seven decades later.

Pran Nevile on the child prodigy.

… when K.L. Saigal was working with Remington Typewriter Company in Shimla he often visited their house to meet Master Mohan, Madan’s elder brother. Saigal would bring his harmonium and both of them had long singing sessions with Madan (who was only two) attentively listening to them.

Shanti Devi has mentioned an unforgettable train journey from Kalka to Shimla with Saigal, Mohan and Madan. They had kept singing all the way, much to the amusement of the passengers. Later after Saigal had joined New Theatres Calcutta, he always looked after Master Mohan and Madan whenever they visited Calcutta. In fact, Saigal became very fond of Master Madan and admired his instinctive knowledge of music and his mastery in singing intricate classical compositions with perfect ease in his heavenly voice.

Update: Fawad has more information on Master Madan and the 8 recordings that have survived.

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Paul Robeson and India

Sean Coughlan writes about Paul Robeson, the singer, black activist and socialist (full report at BBC):

“Robeson was like an electro-magnet going through a pile of iron filings. It wasn’t just admiring fans, it was deep admiration… he radiated personality, a man of great commitment and strength… totally immune to the persecution he suffered.”

Prompted by Benn’s elderly aunt, Robeson sang Old Man River. “The whole tea room went silent, it was the most extraordinary experience.”

And to those in India, Paul Robeson’s song Ol’ Man River, came to us much before one came to learn about Paul Robeson himself, for me, the introduction was via Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist. The song itself had come to us in Bhupen Hazarika’s invocation to the river Ganga (in Hindi) and to the mighty Brahmaputra (in Asomiya).

An mp3 version of the song sung by Robeson, though it is a very short clip.

Robeson,however, came to us in the voice of Bhupendra Hazarika- in the Hindi and the Asomiya versions.

Hazarika had met Paul Robeson and was so influenced that he rendered the famous song into Asomiya and Hindi.

Few know that, during his time at Columbia University, Hazarika was a friend of Paul Robeson, the great black American singer, actor and civil rights activist. Robeson’s passionate crusade for social justice and black pride has permeated Bhupenda’s own worldview. Inspired greatly by Robeson’s powerful rendition of the song “Ole Man River”, Hazarika created his own moving ode to the Brahmaputra.

(Bard of the Brahmaputra by Sanjoy Hazarika)

For this song alone, he is forgiven the sin of joining the BJP in his later years.

An excerpt from the song (full text), with its powerful message in the language as spoken by the Afro Americans:

O’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.

Long ol’ river forever keeps rollin’ on…

He don’ plant tater,
He don’ plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten,
but ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

Long ol’ river keeps hearing dat song.
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin an’ racked wid pain.
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah, gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’keeps rollin’ along!

Link to BBC report via the Histomat.

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Bismillah Khan and the Kabir Tradition

Ustad Bismillah Khan passed away in Varanasi today.

What struck one about the Ustad was his life of simplicity and the tradition of syncreticism- also called the ganga jumna tehzeeb that he upheld. He lived and died in the city of Varanasi- also the place associated with Kabir. In both his vocation and life, he represented the continuation of that tradition.

The novelist Dr. Rahi Masoom Raza had illustrated this tradition in the names given to towns like Aligarh- a combination of an Arabic name ‘Ali’ and a Sanskrit word ‘garh’ (fort).

This tradition has been particularly strong in Hindustani music and the Ustad embodied this syncreticism in our age, perhaps the tallest one to do so. He lived, ruefully, to see how precarious this tradition is- it often seemed to be on the verge of collapse in the last two decades of his lifetime.

That it has managed to be resilient is because of people like the Ustad.

Brecht summed up the tragic contradiction in great heroes we look upto in times of need: Unfortunate is the land that needs heroes.

Following is a compilation from a few news reports, obituaries and editorials following his demise.

He lived his 91 years out in Varanasi, the temple town, where he often played at the famous Vishwanath Temple.

While several people saw a rift between his religion and the music he played, the Ustad saw the dichotomy as a divine one. A devout Shia, he also worshipped Goddess Saraswati. “Music has no caste,” he often said.

…from rediff site

While paying his heartfelt tribute to Ustad Bismillah khan, Singh says no other artiste after Sant Kabir has achieved so much in creating a fusion between Hindus and Muslims. Samsher Singh pays his tributes:

We will remember the Ustad like Sant Kabir

Speaking of his love for the city Kishan Maharaj the famous tabla player, who often accompanied him on the tabla, pointed out that he and Bismillah Khan continued to live in the Varanasi city while the other artists from the city gradually moved to bigger cities like Mumbai, Kolkatta and Delhi.

A family friend and a senior correspondent with a national channel Rajesh Gupta recalled a couplet by local poet Bhiya ji Banarsi which Bismillah Khan was fond of quoting,

“Chana Chabaina, Ganga Jal aur sookhi roti baasi; Dhaat tari London ki, humko pyaari apni Kashi” (Roasted grams, Ganga jal and stale dry bread Who cares for London, I love my Kashi)

Recalling his sense of humour Gupta said when he met the Ustad at his hospital bed two days ago he not only recited his favourite kajri but also reprimanded his grandson Bande Ali for being “out of tune” as he rhythmically stroked oil into his grandfather’s grey hair! Performing for as little as a rupee for a night -long performance, he was now commanding a fee of Rs 5 lakh per performance but continued to be his humble self, pointed out Gupta.

Known as a man of impeccable secular values, old-timers narrate that he not only refused to migrate after partiition but instead rejoiced by playing the shehnai at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947. According to his son Mehtab Khan one of his last unfulfilled wish was to play at the India Gate.

From The Tribune

Varanasi, from the Wikipedia:

The culture of Varanasi is deeply associated with the river Ganga and its religious importance; the city has been a cultural and religious center in northern India for thousands of years. Varanasi has its own style of classical Hindustani music, and has produced prominent musicians, philosophers, poets, and writers in Indian history, including Kabir, Munshi Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Ustad Bismillah Khan.

Editorial in The Hindu

His house contained a minimum of furniture and little else by way of ornamentation aside from photographs of him being honoured by dignitaries from various corners of the world. It was a cheerfully bare kind of place, in keeping with the maestro’s character. Much has been written about the Ustad as a devout Muslim who also worshipped Saraswati, the muse of all artists. His pluralism and tolerance were not learnt. They were instinctive and non-didactic, something that flowed naturally in the context of his being. He belonged to a generation that worshipped naad, the abstract principle of the perfectly tuned note. It was the pursuit of this goal in a culturally composite context that defined his greatness.

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The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez

A review of The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez, author of The Peron Novel and Evita.

But the year now is 2001, when the Argentine economy collapsed. Graphic descriptions abound of a city under siege by the migratory poor, camped on the streets, desperately attempting to find food or beg a living – a city of ragged shadows and bonfires on corners, of a political structure in crisis. The city that Martel maps out for Cadogan is an even bleaker one, superimposed on an even blacker past. It is this recent history that Cadogan explores through a variety of subplots.

Link via SPALIT.

An interview with Martinez here. An excerpt:

I ask him about what the limit is for the manipulation of the historical reality into fiction, and he shoots me back my own question, eruditely mentioning Tolstoy and Victor Hugo: “What historical reality are you talking about? I don’t think there is any historical manipulation in Tolstoy’s Napoleon in War and peace or in Victor Hugo’s in his Les Miserables, neither is there in the Julien Sorel [character in The Red and the Black] of Stendhal, who is based, as is well known, on a real person. Writing novels is the freest act of the human spirit and it is up to the reader to discern novels from history books.”

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"Future of Western Classical Music is in China"

This year the Berlin Philharmonica launched its grand Asian tour in Beijing in the background of a rage for Western classical music in contemporary China, where in the metropolises a fondness for Beethoven is considered modern, as expression of aspirations for a modern lifstyle, when in the West itself, interest in this type of music is on the wane.

Professor Zhao Ping Guo, who discovered the Chinese prodigy Lang Lang explains the background of Western classical music in China:

Professor Zhao wants to correct the western misconception of a vast classical fever that has suddenly broken out in China. The country has a much longer tradition of absorbing western music. The foundation for such a reception was laid down as early as the 1930s. Beijing Conservatory was founded in 1950, he himself was one of the first piano students to attend. The best musicians were offered opportunities for advanced studies in Budapest and Moscow. The Russian school, he says, continues to have a strong influence on Chinese piano instruction. And the Cultural Revolution, in his view, did not destroy this foundation, but only interrupted it. He perceives a long trajectory of musical development in China. Highly gifted musicians like Lang Lang and Yundi Li and composer like Tan Dun have by no means simply fallen from the sky.

Zubin Mehta, currently in Chennai, puts the new found interest for Western classical music in perspective:

Because we (in India) have so much of our own (musical traditions) here. China and Japan don’t have it — not in music. They have literature and painting … very advanced, but not music. Therefore, they have espoused the [music of the] western cultures.

But what struck me was the following observation (in Die Zeit):

Parents, he informs us, have such high ambitions for their children, no one thinks of anything but a solo career. Collective music-making, chamber music, is given short shrift in China.

Western classical music is distinctive because of the large repertoire of musicians that work flawlessly in tandem- one would have presumed that the collectivist nature of the endeavour is what would have attracted the Chinese- Western classical music has for long expressed a higher organized form of society. But if the interest in solo music indeed happens to be the case, this current interest in Western classical music would soon transform into a rage for rock and pop as in the West.

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Beethoven and Mozart

I have always wondered why I like Mozart almost intuitively while being nearly deaf to Beethoven. Dylan Evans explains why while going on to claim that Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan. I liked this part of the piece:

It’s instructive to compare Beethoven’s morbid self-obsession with the unselfconscious vivacity of Mozart. Like Bach’s perfectly formed fugues and Vivaldi’s sparkling concertos, Mozart’s music epitomises the baroque and classical ideals of formal elegance and functional harmony; his compositions “unfold with every harmonic turn placed at the right moment, to leave, at the end, a sense of perfect finish and unity”, as the music critic Paul Griffiths puts it. Above all, Mozart’s music shares with that of Bach an exuberant commitment to the Enlightenment values of clarity, reason, optimism and wit.