Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Music in my voice, music in my hands, music in my heart!

Vidya Rao
     Listening to eminent singer Vidya Rao performing Bhakti songs in the Thumri form was enthralling, to say the least. For somebody who understands neither form, she patiently explained what she was doing and why. She applied the form of Thumri, which became popular only in the 19th century, to Sufi music, which begins around the 13th century. She had chosen every song for a purpose and with an understanding of the difference it created.
     She began with Amir Khusro, a 13th century Qawwali poet, followed by Kabir's 'Jo khuda masjid vasath'. Choosing Kabir's song for its secularism, she says, god does not reside in a temple or a mosque, but rather in the hearts of humans. God, then, is not a collective notion, but a personal, intimate relationship. She went on to raise questions of the body using Mirabai's 'Ma Giridhar rang rachi re'. Rao notes that while first few lines of the song can be construed as giving the universe to Giridhar, a more poetic and sweet notion, it could also mean giving the body to him, a more sensual idea. With this song Vidya Rao believes that the idea of Mirabai as a 'sweet' singer can be changed.
     She followed this song by another Mira-bhajan, 'Man chaakar rakho ji'. A song that became popular after Gandhi's movement and usually sung with an air of submissiveness to Giridhar, Rao attempted to bring in folk elements that mingled an aspect of command as well. The first line which usually means 'Please make my heart your servant', is sung as 'Mhane chaakar rakho ji' with a tone that implies 'You better keep me as your servant'. Though there is an heirarchised relationship, even in that relation the submissive one possesses an element of agency, a little bit of command over the master. Vidya Rao explored these contexts of agency through the song.
     She spoke of religion, she spoke of the body, and she spoke of agency, and then she spoke about breaking the barriers of language, and the other barriers that get broken as well. Speaking again of Khusro's music, she says that the poet sang a combination of Farsi and Hindavi. Farsi is more formal, a language of the courts. It is usually sung in such a manner that it represents a male addressing a female. However, Hindavi was the language of the home and the intimacy that comes with the home, and it was mostly sung by a female voice addressing a male beloved. By combining both languages, Rao believes, Khusro collapses the spaces between the court and the home, and even between the male and the female.
    After the Sufi song, she moved on to a Milad-un-Nabi ('Ek raaj dulhara aavat hai') or a celebration of the birth of the Prophet. But, she said, the song could also just be a paidaish or the birth of a child, thus attempting to break the notions of greatness, where the ordinary child is also considered great. Finally, Vidya Rao performed a ghazal by Mah Laqa Bai (Chanda Bibi), an 18th century Urdu poet who was the first female poet to obtain a diwan or a 'collection of poems'. She referred in passing to the song which is usually sung by a male voice to a beloved and she wondered what gendered notions were broken when a woman sang these songs.
     But transcending all these questions of religion, class and gendered bodies Vidya Rao enthralled, captivated, held her audience spell-bound by her music. Her voice was soft and calm, yet beneath that quiet surface, one could see the excitement and enthusiasm bubbling in her words, pouring out in her music, subsuming the auditorium in her world of blissful song. And the music was not just in the words. It was in the way her hands and eyes and smile danced with her words. Each line evoked a commanding finger pointing out to the person sung to (usually the 'beloved' of Sufi music), it would curl into a soft flower-mudra that understood the beauty and complexity of the song and the words, it would call out to the audience to join her in the music. At the beginning of the play she quoted her teacher, Nainaji: "Sangeet sangat hai" (I would translate that, with my haphazard knowledge of Hindi as: "Music is in the collective"). And indeed, that is what she did. Though she sat on a dais, far away from her audiences, she managed to reach out to everyone 'out there', tapping them light-heartedly on the shoulder, and gesticulating to them to join her in the sheer joy of it all. There was music in her voice. In her hands. In her heart.

Note: Unaware of exact meanings for most of the lyrics, I have provided a rough translation that might not do justice to the words. If there are better translators out there, exact meanings to the songs, words etc. would be much appreciated.

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