THINK OF A SONG THAT comes to you after everyone has left. It is December, and the decorative lights that your apartment complex put up a week before Diwali are still right there. They will remain so till the New Year. It is a time when your calendar is marked with parties to go to. There is a sale everywhere, and you are buying more mufflers and boots than you can ever wear. There are artificial Christmas trees for sale, and your morose friend suddenly appears in a red sweater. The gypsies from Rajasthan living on the roadside are selling cheap barbecue sets (and even firewood). You savour the sun during the day whenever you can, and at night, you go to parties or host one yourself. There is always someone who gets a little tipsy and sings ‘Tum mile dil khile aur jeene ko kya chahiye’.
And then everyone leaves. There is cigarette ash and faint shoe marks on your rug, and empty glasses on your side table. The karaoke mike lies suspended in the air with its wire, from your TV cabinet, and the scented candles have turned into lumps; someone has dropped curry on your table runner. The marriage processions outside and their DJs and firecrackers have gone silent. So has the sound of laughter from your neighbour’s party. It is 2AM or so. The lawn which you can see from your window where old men will congregate in the morning and raise their arms and induce fake laughter to get their blood going is empty. And so is your heart. In the morning, it will be occupied again by OTPs and WhatsApps, or by what the writer Peter Handke called “the daily renewed problem of how to go on living.”
But that will be in the morning; it is not morning yet. It is a moment where you pause, and like Samuel Beckett says in Watt, consider “the darkening ease, the brightening trouble; the pleasure pleasure because it was, the pain pain because it shall be.” There is a song that comes to you at that moment.
What is that song? And is it even a song that comes to you? Or a certain memory that the song drags in like a cat? It is a memory that tells the story of a certain time in your life. It opens a door, just one door. To paraphrase Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, if we were to stack them like an album, they would tell the story of our entire life. It is something that tugs at our heart and moves us, and more essentially, reminds us of a moment when we were moved—in love or in grief induced from its cove. We may think that the emotion it evokes is placed outside of love, but it is not, really. The tipsy friend who closed his eyes and sang ‘Tum Mile’ has had a door opened up already. Someone else who joins him in singing is moved in his own way because when his door opened, he saw someone else, he experienced a different moment, but it was not outside the fundamental emotion of love.
In Kabirpanthic tradition, this act of being moved by a particular line is called ‘shabd ki chot’ or the blow of the word. I prefer thinking of it as a wound of the word, a festering spectacle, a vision that you don’t even need to see because you are feeling the exact associated chord of your life with it
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Sometimes, the door does not care about where the song begins. For me, many times, it does not open with the mukhda or the beginning of the song, but randomly from somewhere, in the midst of the song. ‘Hum apne pairon mein jaane kitne bhanwar lapete hue khade hein’. ‘Mein jaanta hoon ki tu gair hai magar yoon hi.’ ‘Tamanna hai ki roshan ho teri duniya teri mehfil.’ ‘Kaanon mein zara keh de ki aaye kaun disha se hum.’ ‘Jaan na kaho anjaan mujhe, jaan kahan rehti hai sada’. These are all lines from the inside of songs that come to me often after everyone has left. In Kabirpanthic tradition, this act of being moved by a particular line is called “shabd ki chot” or the blow of the word. I prefer thinking of it as a wound of the word, a festering spectacle, a vision that you don’t even need to see because you are feeling the exact associated chord of your life with it. You enter its universe; you get its meaning, its raison d’être. You get connected to it; you can no longer separate yourself from it; you become one with it. That is what Charles Olson used to say about “best poetry”, which he termed “a kind of schizophrenia”. And it is true for a song as well, for what is a song but poetry set in music? Olson said that “the poem does not ‘express’ the poet’s thoughts or feelings. It is a transfer of energy between the poet and the reader.”
I wanted to reverse transfer that energy once to the poet Gulzar several years ago at his home where I had gone with the filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra. In his study, Gulzar saab asked me to have tea, which I said no to out of shyness. He looked at me and said: ‘Aap chai nahi peete?’ I smiled and accepted a cup of tea, but in my head, I threw back his own words at him: ‘Alfaaz parakhta rehta hai, aawaaz humari tol kabhi.’
I can think of so many other blows I have received or the wounds I have willingly invoked. There is this memory I have of waiting for someone in a small hotel room in Mumbai watching sheets of rain fall over the large window pane. Beyond it is a bulldozer that hasn’t stopped churning earth for days, and in the torrents of rain, the mud is a revelation of some ancient colour that I sometimes imagine is the colour that flows from the jugular vein of the Ashwamedha horse. There is Kishori Amonkar’s ‘Sahela re’ playing over the din of the rain. At 2AM, that is what sometimes returns to me. ‘Abke mile to bicchuda na jaaye, sahela re.’
What other moments? The moment in a flash mob orchestra organised by Sabadell at the Plaça de Sant Roc in Spain on May 19, 2012, where a hatted violinist begins to play his part in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Or the moment when two deer come to hear Diana Gómez play her cello in a video shared by her. Or the moment when the singer Sid Sriram in a music competition throws ‘Apsara aali’, from the 2010 Marathi film Natarang. Or the moment when a group of students from the Berklee College of Music, celebrating AR Rahman’s music, sing ‘Rangreza, rangreza’ from Kun Faya Kun, raising it to a level higher than in the original song. Or the moment when Rekha Bhardwaj sings ‘Par yeh sab sochna, dil ko yun kholna’, in the beautifully crafted song ‘Aise kyun’ by Raj Shekhar. Or the moment of Vijay Prakash singing the line ‘Aushadiyan de ja re’, from Baina in Coke Studio India Season 3 (also sung beautifully by Berklee’s Rohith Jayaraman over a strain of tanpura for his Instagram feed). Or the moment when in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, the painter George, describing in ‘Finishing the hat’ what goes on in an artist’s mind when he is creating, says, “Well, I give what I give.” Or the moment in Habib Tanvir’s Agra Bazaar, when the troupe sings ‘Aur wo jo marr gaya hai so wo bhi aadmi’ from Nazeer Akbarabadi’s Aadmi Nama. Or the moment when Indian Ocean’s Asheem Chakravarthy sings ‘Paanch tatva gun teeni’, in Kabir’s Jhini.
WHAT DO I SEE when that line from Jhini comes to me? I see Asheem at the band’s studio on Delhi’s Khajoor Road, handing over a pack of erasers to their caretaker for his daughter’s school. I also hear his voice advising me never to write for free and at a bar in Saket sharing a very personal spiritual experience he once had at the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. This was in the year 2001. Eight years later, I was climbing a steep road in Kasauli which the locals call the “Palpitation Point” when I learnt about his passing away due to a cardiac arrest. I remember keeping climbing that road, not wanting to think about the news. A few years later, at the premiere of Leaving Home, a film by Jaideep Varma on the band, I saw Asheem again, in the film, getting emotional about his growing-up years and it all came back to me. ‘Paanch tatva gun teeni’.
Why am I telling you all this? I am telling you this because I am moved by the unexpectedness of the music of a recent Netflix film, Qala. Amit Trivedi’s music creates a living, blooming origami inside us. In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, the writer Maurice Bendrix wonders: “We can love with our minds, but can we love only with our minds?” Trivedi uses all his skills to enable us the resurrection of time, to enable love to extend itself all the time (as Bendrix ruminates) when we listen to the Qala soundtrack. The vulnerability of Sireesha Bhagavatula’s voice over Kausar Munir’s beautiful evocation creates a universe long missing from Hindi film industry through words like Kiwadiya, ib daupahari, cham-cham, Chham-chham. In Rubaaiyaan, the use of words like shajar complements it well, without giving a feeling one often gets in Hindi songs of the current times, of forced use of Urdu to create a faux beauty. It makes the song a rubaai itself. In ‘Shauq’, Shahid Mallya, whom I discovered for the first time, does wonders with Varun Grover’s best work, in my view, since ‘Mann Kasturi’, in the film Masaan.
We need it to feel alive, no matter how broken we become; we need it to centre ourselves, especially in the age we live in. What a song also does, without disrupting our monosis, is that it fills our silences, the blank or the numb canvas of our minds singed with doom scrolling. Because as Nietzsche said: ‘when we fall silent, how are we ever to know what we are?’
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The album reminded me of my first year in college when walking in a market corridor, I heard for the first time the taan in the title song of Mani Ratnam’s Roja. It broke the monotony of the film music of the early 1990s. The artist Jenny Odell’s father, who is a musician, explained to her once that this is what the definition of good music was (“sneaks up on you”). Referring to how she feels when she hears a song she unexpectedly likes, she writes in How to do nothing:
“I sometimes feel like something I don’t know is talking to something else I don’t know, through me.”
In Qala’s ‘Nirbhau Nirvair’, Mallya sings a line: ‘Judan tu zyaada tutda’. Perhaps that is the destiny of a man; the feeling of being more broken than mended is why we return to the song. We need it to feel alive, no matter how broken we become; we need it to centre ourselves, especially in the age we live in. As the musician and composer Pauline Oliveros says in Quantum Listening, “In the twenty-first century, we will be grappling with who we are as extended humans.”
What a song also does, without disrupting our monosis, is that it fills our silences, the blank or the numb canvas of our minds singed with doom scrolling. Because as Nietzsche said: “When we fall silent, how are we ever to know what we are?”
That is why the song—or specifically the 2AM song—is a mirror of us. It tells us who we are. For that alone, we must always, always return to it.