Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Soft-spoken, unobtrusive, unassuming. That pretty much describes the poet-songwriter whose lyrics for the recently released Autograph seem set to start a movement. With phrases such as ‘chol rastay’ and ‘gia nostal’ rapidly gaining ground among the young brigade, Srijato is a name you’ll be hearing more of in future, a fact the poet himself typically tries to play down.

“The first soundtrack I wrote for was (Birsa Dasgupta’s film) 033,” he says, over a cup of coffee. “I was convinced I would fail, but Birsa wanted to try me. And once I found out I could actually write songs, it became easier to say yes to (director) Srijit (Mukherjee) and Debuda (composer Debojyoti Mishra) when they approached me for Autograph.

Watching his lyrics turn into Chol Rastay Saji Tramline, he says, was like watching straw turn into an idol. During our entire conversation, that’s about as poetic as he gets. His words are measured, his gestures minimal, his voice controlled, his humour wry. The impression is of a firmly grounded man, a man who focuses on the lyricism and romanticism of life’s ordinary, everyday realities, and expresses them in language accessible to everyone.

But that is what Gulzar has been doing for years for Hindi films, hasn’t he? Mention of the legendary poet-lyricist’s name moves Srijato to a state that actually resembles excitement. “How do I put this? Gulzar, for me, is a combination of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan,” he says. “Quietly, entirely on his own, he has redefined film song writing.”

The other icon of Srijato’s life, evidently, is Kabir Suman. “His appearance was the Big Bang of Bengali music,” he says. “All creative efforts in Bengal since then owe him in some way.”

There’s something endearing about the way Srijato constantly negates his own rising fame, or the growing popularity of his edgy, irreverent, yet heartfelt poetry. Now in his mid-30s, he’s been writing poetry since his early teens, and despite close to 10 published volumes of poetry, one senses that he still feels a sense of surprise at the fact that publishers actually approach him for his works, or that his poetry actually finds readers.

“Of course, writing for films, one reaches a far wider audience,” he concedes. “But that’s about it. I never hang on to my works. The moment I handed over Chol Rastay to Debuda, I forgot about it. I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who change with fame. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

As he talks, however, one realises that for all his seeming sensibleness, there’s a streak of eccentricity somewhere. From joking about how the ‘tramlines’ of his song are rapidly becoming history to describing how, on the eve of his BA Part II Geography examination, he ran away from home, there is an inherent quirkiness about him that constantly belies his appearance and demeanour.

“I’ve never believed in self-assessment,” he muses, as our interview draws to a close. “As I have grown older, my poetry has become more complicated, perhaps, and a little harder for me to get hold of, but, as (poet) Shankha Ghosh once said, ‘We have no history’.”

But he certainly has a future, with films like Parambrata Chatterjee’s Jiyo Kaka and a few others coming up. The tramlines may be vanishing, but the rasta (road) is getting wider.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 20, 2010

Add to Technorati Favorites

Advertisements

Soumyojit Das, Stefan Stoppok, Sraboni Sen, Sourendro Mullick

As a youngster in Essen, Germany, in the 1960s, Stefan Stoppok laid hands on an album by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, a name that Europe was beginning to wake up to, thanks to the Beatles. “I heard it often, and the music went deep into my heart. And in the early ’70s, Anglo-American musicians thought it cool to include Indian influences in their music,” he smiles.

In the 1980s, having started his musical career as a street musician, he went to form his own one-man band, Stoppok, in 1982, and shifted base to Bavaria. As he went on to become one of Germany’s foremost folk and rock guitarists and singer-songwriters, however, his connection to Indian music remained confined to the memories of his childhood and youth.

Now, the wheel has turned full cycle. For the past few days, Stoppok has been stationed in Kolkata, working on an album of Tagore songs along with noted Rabindra Sangeet exponent Srabani Sen, and musician duo You & i.. (vocalist Soumyojit Das and pianist Sourendro Mullick), who Stoppok met in Germany in 2005, and whose idea it was to invite him, on his first ever trip to India, to collaborate on the album as a guitarist and singer. Incidentally, Stoppok was a guest artiste on the duo’s debut album, Back to the Future (2009).

The experience has been a revelation. Sitting in Sourendro’s north Kolkata home, Stoppok gestures freely with his hands and consults his mobile phone dictionary as he hunts for the right words to describe Tagore. “He is so rooted in this area,” he says finally. “What is wonderful is the way everyone here knows him, and I find it exciting to reinterpret his music, without any idea of how listeners here will react.”

Sourendro and Soumyojit say that reinterpreting Tagore the composing genius is the biggest theme of the album. And the other USP is that all the tracks have been recorded live, in real time, in a brave departure from the mandatory mechanised studio recordings.

“Tagore’s music is so timeless and versatile that you can recreate his songs in a modern soundscape for a national audience, even if they don’t get the lyrics,” says Soumyojit. “And we opted for live recordings, as they used to be done in the past, because we didn’t want the lifelessness of computerised rhythms.”

“What I love about this project is that it connects the past with the present,” adds Stoppok. “As a musician, when I look beyond the boundaries that I know, the East is exciting because Anglo-American music has become too familiar. Tagore is a different taste.”

So Khorobayu Boye Bege has taken on a contemporary romantic pop sound, aided by guitar, electric piano, and a few notes of Raga Bilawal. Aj Jemon Kore Gaichhe Akash features “Bavarian percussion patterns”, says Sourendro, or Kaar Milan Chao Birohi, essentially a dhrupad in Raga Shree, is embellished with the electric piano and electric guitar, and a hint of the theme from Manihara, the Satyajit Ray classic. Then again, Brahms’s immortal lullaby, Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, has found a spiritual cousin, according to Soumyojit, in Amar Raat Pohalo.

But that isn’t all that has kept Stoppok busy. He has also been shooting for a music video in Kolkata along with filmmaker Sebastian Niehoff, for Tanz (Dance), a solo that he has composed. The video is themed on Stoppok’s street singer days, which required him to pose as a street singer in this city, too. “In Europe, street singing is a completely different culture, but people here actually started requesting Stefan for songs,” laughs Sourendro.

If the response to the Tagore album is anything close, Stoppok certainly won’t complain.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on May 22, 2011

Add to Technorati Favorites

Acting it all out

He’s a small man, Pandit Birju Maharaj. If you’ve never met him face to face, that is one of the first things you are likely to notice about him. And yet, when he is dancing on stage, he seems to cast a shadow over it, so larger than life is his personality.

As we enter the modest room where the interview is to take place, India’s foremost Kathak legend is sitting cross-legged on the bed, in a simple blue kurta, and humming the Lata Mangeshkar classic, Rasik Balma. Once again, those who don’t know enough about the dance maestro will be taken by surprise at how well he sings.

And just in case you thought that was it, during the course of our conversation, the 72-year-old fishes out a notebook and, with childlike glee, shows us his pencil sketches of a jhalmuri wala, and a group of dancing children, made on the train to Kolkata. Oh, and he also writes poetry and composes music.

However, all of this, he insists, is secondary to the joy of teaching, something he has been doing since he was 13, trained by his father and guru, Achhan Maharaj. Also part of his lineage are his legendary uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj. “The way I see it, my values and skills should reflect in each and every one of my students,” he says, as his American ‘shagirda’ (disciple) Natalia, who sits in on the interview, nods vigorously.

There is a joy in watching Panditji speak, because the impeccable abhinaya (dramatisation) that he brings to each of his performances permeates his conversation as well. His eyes, his hands, his entire face and body, sketch graceful, intricate movements as he describes the joy that Radha and her sakhis feel when Krishna teases them, but the show of mock anger that they put on.

In between, the conversation takes in his students in countries as far apart as China and the USA, who have been propagating his uniquely contemporary version of Kathak, which remains true to tradition in many ways, and yet incorporates such ‘untraditional’ forms as satire, humour, and social commentary, emerging from the stereotyped Radha-Krishna ‘leela’.

Sadly, though not uniquely, his efforts to set up an academy have been in vain. Kalashram, his dance school in Delhi, is a two-room affair courtesy the municipality, where 250-odd students train. “This is not a degree diploma waali taalim, yeh anand waali taalim hai (they don’t train for a degree or diploma, they train for pleasure),” he smiles. “But I wish I had some help from somewhere. When I see the government rewarding sports stars, I sometimes feel, what of artistes? Not that I have anything against sports stars…”

On his return to Delhi, the maestro, who was in Kolkata to record for a private album, will begin rehearsing with his troupe of 400-odd dancers for the Commonwealth Games opening, assisted by son Deepak and daughter Mamta.

What of filmdom, and his compelling work in such films as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi or Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas? “Haven’t received worthwhile offers, really,” he says, with a straight face. “Today, dancing in films is confined to the hips.”

So he will continue to travel the world, disseminating the “laya (rhythm) that God created”, teaching his students that each of us is born with rhythm. “There’s rhythm even in the way we breathe,” he beams.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times

Add to Technorati Favorites

Begum Akhtar, 1914-1974

First, the words:

Aye mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya
Jaane kyon aaj tere naam pe rona aaya

Yun toh har shaam ummido mein guzar jaati hai
Aaj kuchh baat hai jo shaam pe rona aaya

Kabhi taqdeer ka matam kabhi duniya ka gila
Manzil-e-ishq mein har gaam pe rona aaya

Jab hua zikr zamane mein mohabbat ka Shakeel
Mujh ko apne dil-e-nakaam pe rona aaya

Then, the song.

Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Vocalist: Begum Akhtar

This is one of Begum Akhtar’s most popular ghazals. I myself have heard it innumerable times, but never paid attention to the lyrics, for some strange reason. Until I heard it once again yesterday, on a mobile phone.

How I wish I had continued to remain inattentive.

The next time anyone uses the term ‘heartbreak’, think of the words above, though I may have got one or two wrong. And how aptly they describe Akhtari Bai Faizabadi’s tormented life.

Shakeel Badayuni, I dare not applaud you. Will tears do?

Add to Technorati Favorites

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, 1931-1986

In 1986, sitar maestro Pandit Nikhil Banerjee cut short a late-night performance at the Dover Lane Music Conference and apologised to his audience. Two days later, at age 54, he was dead of a cardiac arrest.

Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, who accompanied Banerjee on the tabla for that concert, recalls how worried he was about the maestro’s evident unease as he took the stage, and how he stopped playing the tabla in order to force Banerjee to stop playing, too.

Steven Baigel

Chaudhuri’s reminiscence is one of several poignant moments that Steven Baigel captures in That Which Colours The Mind, an 80-minute documentary on Banerjee, which is likely to become one of the very few pieces of research conducted on the life and music of the reticent sitarist.

For Baigel, it is clearly a labour of love. He describes the documentary as “work in progress”, because some amount of fine tuning, such as colour correction and audio mixing, remains to be done. However, he is in town to screen the film, looking for financial support as he seeks to transfer the film to a DVD, with help from sur sringar exponent Anindya Banerjee, who was closely associated with Banerjee and his family.

Having begun work on the documentary over a decade ago, Baigel, who himself never met Banerjee, is conscious that had he been alive, he would never have agreed to be thus publicised. His own introduction to Banerjee’s music came through a friend in the US. “I had heard Ravi Shankar before that. But Nikhil Banerjee’s music changed my life, I had no idea music could be so spiritual. I just kept listening,” he says, his emotions evident.

Baigel has spent “thousands of dollars” on the project already, but the exorbitant cost of the footage featuring Banerjee’s performances in India and abroad, footage that he would like to include, will require massive investment, and he needs solid financial backing if his dream is to come true.

Also on his list of concerns is the fact that he has to strike a balance between Indian and Western audiences. “When Anindya saw the film, he asked, ‘Why have you only included afternoon ragas?’ No Westerner would ask me that, and the answer is that this is all I have,” Baigel explains.

The documentary editor and occasional documentary maker and producer is, however, determined that his viewership should be as wide as possible, clearly in the hope that their lives will change the way his has.

“Having spent a series of evenings at classical music concerts in Benaras in the 1990s, I bought myself a sitar and started learning. I love Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan… but Nikhil Banerjee’s music touched me so deep. I couldn’t get enough of it,” he says.

Baigel has already met a few potential sources of support, though the outcome is not too hopeful. But, having come this far, he will not let his tribute to the forgotten genius fade into darkness.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times, Kolkata, on February 4, 2010

Add to Technorati Favorites