The Arts

Talking South Asia: Can Identity Be Crafted Through the Medium of Music?

A conversation between Pakistani singer Ali Sethi and former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao.

This is the transcript of a conversation between Pakistani singer and writer Ali Seth and Nirupama Menon Rao, former Indian foreign secretary. It was jointly hosted by the Bangalore International Centre and the South Asian Symphony Foundation in Bangalore on May 17.


Nirupama Menon Rao: Ali Sethi, welcome to this conversation, brought to you by the Bangalore International Centre and the South Asian Symphony Foundation (SASF). SASF is a not-for-profit trust dedicated to building connectivity between musicians of South Asia and the South Asian diaspora through the creation of a South Asian Symphony Orchestra, which we call Chiragh.

South Asia, as we know, is a region fraught with more than its share of conflict and alienation. I recall [the historian] Simon Schama saying recently that the world has built a romance around division. But turning to music, I think it can provide a healing and integrative touch and make a difference. With it, concepts like exploration and discovery take on a new meaning.

You were brought up in Lahore, where you finished school and then headed to Harvard University, where you focused on South Asian Studies and where you also decided that you would build your future in music. I think music is a wonderful way to make sense of the world and the musician is an integrating figure. So welcome again and do tell us about delving deep into South Asian literature and history at Harvard. Our Indian audience will be interested to know you studied Tamil Sangam poetry, read Shakuntala and poems in praise of Shiva and that you are a great fan of A.K. Ramanujan, who hailed from Mysore, which as you know, is not far from where we are here, in Bangalore.

ALI SETHI: Thank you for organising this, Ambassador Menon. This is really wonderful and I feel that more conversations need to happen across South Asian identities, nationalities and other markers of difference. You quoted Simon Schama – we in South Asia especially, given our very rich tapestries of cultural, linguistic, emotional and ontological connection, remain so fixated on difference.

You asked me, how did I come to Ramanujan, Shakuntala, classical Tamil poetry in translation – I need to point out, as a Pakistani, how did I come to read all of this stuff? The assumption, which is largely true, is that if you grew up in Pakistan, you’re bereft of this South Asian education. Even a traditional ‘Indo-Muslim’ education has been marginalised in favour of a bureaucratic, colonial version of things.

I grew up reading these things in Pakistani textbooks – that gave us a really rather rushed and uninspiring version of history. There was an attempt to draw a sometimes implicit, at other times explicit line between scattered events throughout history in order to justify what was then called the Two-Nation Theory. I’m kind of amazed to see today that the Two Nation Theory is being justified, at least in Pakistan, by saying, “Look at what is happening in India today. Of course we needed two nations.”

Things were framed in terms of the national constantly. Yet through music and language – my parents had been dissenting voices within Pakistan – one of the things my mother did, which I’m really grateful for, was to expose my sister and I to a lot of traditional South Asian music. We grew up listening to qawwali and to ghazal, to folk music from Punjab and the Saraiki belt, to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, bhajan singers – it was all part of one musical landscape. Through these other experiences and perspectives, one was able to have another sense of a South Asian identity.

I arrived in Harvard in 2002, one year after 9/11 – there was very little ‘connectivity’ in the world at that time. If you wanted to delve into the history of the region, you really had to go to the library. I remember being haunted by this question – what does it mean to be Pakistani, to come from an Indo-Muslim context? Where do you draw your sense of identity and genealogy, what do you include and exclude?

These questions became sharpened for me in America in the post 9/11 context. There were a lot of young South Asian Muslims in my college also asking the same questions. I found these answers in my first year of college, when I went and auditioned for the South Asian Association’s annual event called Ghungroo, which I now think is something of an extravaganza. At the time it was fun, a lot more modest. I went and auditioned and sang a little bit of a ghazal. I got in. I performed for the first time on a stage. I had grown up singing and practicing, etc., but in Lahore, there was no opportunity. There was no forum for performance at my school. When I performed for Ghungroo, all the way in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the first time I had the sense of wholeness – a ghazal in this scholarly environment could give me a way into my own heritage, a way to convey to people where I was coming from, that felt right.

NMR: You’re right about monolithic concepts of identity. The world is following divergent paths today. When you think of globalisation and the interconnectedness it was supposed to have brought about, you see this contradiction. That is where I believe art and aesthetics are essential in trying to disengage the divergent from the universal. Creating a balance, as somebody said, between head and heart and stomach. When you speak of creating this community of identity, I believe that music can be that builder. I think that your new song, ‘Chandni Raat’ [recorded in February 2019], represents this and you spoke after the song’s release about the number of messages of peace, love and tolerance that crowded in from both sides of the border. In one of your interviews, I couldn’t help but notice that you define peace as inclusive of a sense of loss and vulnerability. I think that was a very interesting definition. In another context, Beethoven said, ‘On the heights is peace, peace to serve,’ which is essentially what we’re trying to do through this attempt to craft a South Asian identity through the medium of music.

And again – and I’m not using the term in the literal sense of the word – music can in a way be subversive also (as Edward Said once said) – you have yourself referred to this in one of your past interviews. Let’s talk about that.

AS: I think there was this binary opposition between tradition and modernity growing up. Post-colonial societies have grappled with that constantly and still do. This question of, do you adhere to the values and ideas that were ostensibly passed on by your forbears, your ancestors? Or do you break with that? That’s how it’s been presented to us, either you break with the past or you forego modernity – whatever that means. What I found through traditional music, through my immersion in and engagement with South Asian forms of folk and classical music, is this wonderful paradox: You find through these ‘traditional’ things genuinely radical, freeing, subversive, cosmopolitan, experimental worldviews. You arrive at these moments in history that today seem so unlikely and far-fetched, given how polarised we are and how ossified our identities have become. For example, now that I have trained with Ustad Naseeruddin Saami of the Delhi gharana and Fareeda Khanum, who grew up in Amritsar and came to Rawalpindi and then to Lahore after partition – when I listen to a ghazal or a qawwali, ostensibly a Pakistani or Indo-Muslim musical form, I see in it elements of Turkic culture, of pre-Islamic Indic culture, very specific regional inflections – I hear a Begum Akhtar, I hear Carnatic inflections, I know the ragas that have travelled from the South to the North and how they have been adapted. I can hear Sindh, I can hear Persia. Through language as well, the lyric and the mythology. This is where someone like A.K. Ramanujan was such an aid to me. He allowed me to see the continuities and the connections – it was like an echo chamber, this world of South Asian mythology and folklore. So I think this coherence came about through this synthesis – through this text, subtext, context and the music that gives voice to all those elements.

Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan (16 March 1929 – 13 July 1993). Credit: Wikipedia

Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan (16 March 1929 – 13 July 1993). Credit: Wikipedia

NMR: I think the area that we all belong to – the subcontinent – has always been known for its capacity to assimilate. It has never been antagonistic to foreign influence. It found a way to reinvigorate itself through this process of assimilation. This really escapes those who would prefer to define things in terms of the monolith that you speak about.

AS: I find it so interesting. Just a little footnote. It’s such a beguiling paradox. So much of what I know of the Vedic religion was formed in territory that today falls within Pakistan. When I hear the ancient ragas, when I hear ‘Malkauns’ or when I hear ‘Durga’ or ‘Shankara,’ when I hear ‘Hindol,’ when I hear those ragas and the way my teacher has explained to me the kind of inflections and modulations [they require], you can sense the deities being visualised through these ragas and you can also sense the arrival of a people who were forming their identity. That is what is so exciting to me. I can feel and sense identity formation through these musical devices. And then to see people treat them as these orthodox, rigidly museum-ised things that dare not be opened up to interaction, immersive kind of encounters, feels to me like such a travesty. The same is true of Sufi text. So many Sufi poems have become situated in these narrowly revisionist, framed by nationalism [thought processes] – someone like Iqbal for example, who has so many interesting, subversive, edgy, unstable points that can lead you anywhere depending on your inclination

NMR: With Iqbal who travels from the Koran to Heidegger to the Vedas…

AS: Absolutely. All of it. Of course, Iqbal is connected to someone like Tagore. We’re talking about that very large, expansive worldview.

NMR: Tagore’s words for that were ‘The Advaita of humanity.’ A universalist concept: you are in me and I am in you – that was his concept.

AS: Exactly. Aajkal as we say, we live in a world where we are hyper-connected via physical technology. But I like to say that this technology of the heart, the technology of the heart-mind, knowledge, which is our peculiar subcontinental combine of lyric and music, this technology of the heart we are not activating sufficiently enough to generate those profound meanings.

NMR: It’s that emotive knowledge that should underscore the fact that we are one extended family. That undivided joint family! Today, we are like the Montagues and the Capulets.

AS: Right. And we know that within that joint family, there are profound differences – that jhagda – and perspectives and opinions and all the rest of it. But there ought to be ways, as my teacher, Professor Ali Asani, says, of doing dialogue across difference. The Bhakts and the Sufis marshalled these forms in order to do dialogue across difference.

Also Read: Lockdown Blues: Ali Sethi, Farida Khanum and Rekha Bhardwaj Hold Live Instagram Gig

NMR: I admire Ali Asani’s work very much. In particular, that subject he treated at length in his PhD thesis about the ginans [Urdu/Gujarati]… a word based on the Sanskrit ‘gnana’ or knowledge and awareness. Titles like the Bhuj Niranjan – such a Sanskrit sounding, Indic sounding word – and it is essentially a collection of sacred poetry, bhajans, that was used by the Khwaja Ismailis – devotional song and poetry. You have poems where Imam Ali for instance, is called nakalanki, which means ‘blemishless.’ It’s also a quality – ‘blemishless’ – we use to describe many Hindu deities – for instance, with the avatars of Vishnu, you always refer to him as the blemishless one. In a sense the people of the subcontinent embraced these things in a very borderless way. When the British came along and there was colonial rule and governance, then it became a question of categorising people in terms of religion, where one is from, or linguistic and ethnic differences. All that comes into existence in the near modern period of our history and that of course has created so many repercussions for what we are today.

AS: Absolutely. I have alighted on one aspect of this process of progressive narrowing, if you will, that has happened in our imagination over the years. I’ve alighted on this one theme, one aspect, which is metaphor. One of our great devices for doing dialogue across difference has been metaphor. The metaphors that we have used and continue to use in so much of our popular music. I was doing a live session on Instagram, humming in ‘Raag Bhageshree’ – it just occurred to me that the wonderful song from the film Khamoshi – ‘Tum Pukaar Lo,’ sung by Hemant Kumar, with lyrics by the wonderful Gulzaar sahib [took me back in time]… I was about 10 years old and my grandmother, my dadi, played the song in a car, we were driving somewhere, where there were mountains and I remember my soul awakening to this sense of… this larger perspective – being around mountains helped. The fact [occurred to me that] Gulzaar wrote in such a richly metaphorical way, gesturing at multiple realities, multiple dreams, at multiple emotional states, through a single, capacious image that can carry all those different experiences. Then you read someone like Amir Khusro, who is the master of the metaphor and who uses metaphor, symbol, allegory, who takes the voice of the birahini, who takes all the tropes of the Radha Krishna saga and is also able to gesture at and incorporate Muslim devotional perspectives and experiences into that as well. When you hear ‘Aaj Rang Hai, Rima Ranghai’that famous qawwali, ‘Rang,’ is such a… one thinks of the scripture that Muslims recite, one thinks of the whole Sufi dargah mahaul, [and also] one thinks of vermillion in a parting. There is so much that is evoked simultaneously. One of my other teachers at college was the wonderful literary critic, James Wood. He has this beautiful phrase somewhere – he’s describing Virginia Woolf, I think he’s ascribing to The Lighthouse and he says there is “a flashing simultaneity” that happens as you read. What a beautiful phrase. I have always felt that – with Sufi and Bhakti metaphor in particular – it allows us to have this sense of simultaneity – which is that this applies to me, but I am also suddenly aware that while I am having this subjective experience, there are other subjectivities being evoked as well. And I think today in the era of identity politics where we are all trying to figure out a way to do dialogue across difference, one of the great under-looked strategies is metaphor, poetic metaphor, especially for South Asians – it allows us to do this dialogue.

That is what happened with ‘Chandni Raat’ – here is this ghazal about a half-lit meeting. It happened that the video came out two days after the last major conflagration between India and Pakistan. People immediately treated it as a safe space, as a place to congregate, a place to gather, to find shelter and to do dialogue.

NMR: That spare and stark space [in the music video of ‘Chandni Raat’], people gathering there, who are strangers essentially, who look vacant and lost. To me, that was a metaphor of South Asia itself. We’re in a single geographical space, an integer, as I always say, sharing the same weather patterns, the same repercussions of climate change, the poverty, lack of development, the lack of connectivity and how, [but] we are strangers to one another. There are stereotypes and prejudices. And somehow, in many ways, it became a metaphor to me of how we’re trying to create our orchestra. People coming together.

And one point that always comes to mind is how we have lost that art of listening – the act of listening is itself an act of love. When we learn to listen to each other… that song somehow led me into that chain of thought, as it were. I began to think about how [in] creating this band of musicians, people coming together, we are doing that, listening to each other. I hope at some stage you have an opportunity to perform with our orchestra as well.

In fact, when I think of Professor Asani’s work, I hope we can commission an orchestral work based on the ginans, which we can perform together. East meets West – we’re essentially taking a Western concept, the symphony orchestra, into a region that is so fraught with conflict, division and we’re trying to look outside of ourselves. We’re taking ourselves out of South Asia and also bringing South Asia to the world.

The other point you mentioned about ambiguity, about the ghazal and metaphor. The Germans talk of naturpoesie – poetry that comes naturally, say out of the lullabies that mothers sing to their babies. And they have kunstpoesie, which is artistic, more ornamental, more worked on. In South Asia, these two have come together. I’m from Kerala, the deep south, and there’s so much folkloric music there – Hindu music, Muslim music – they have coexisted [with the more classical forms] and created something so symbiotic of a region that has always been open to the world. I would propagate the value of openness – the tragedy of the closed mind is the worst state of being.

AS: One of the things that occurs to me is that when we perform, so much Punjabi devotional kalam is performed, using varieties of ‘Bhoopali,’ ‘Raag Bhoop.’ That is now pronounced ‘Bhopali,’ which makes you think there is some connection with the state [city] of Bhopal. These are some of the quirkier aspects of the travelling of words and sounds, the approximation. My ustad would point this out, “Beta, yeh Carnatic se aaya hai, hamko (Son, this has come to us from Carnatic music).” The idea that this pentatonic, beautiful raga has come from Carnatic music into the music of the north – listening to that melodic framework within Carnatic music led me to this whole other journey – Kerala, the coast of South India – they were in touch with Arab traders even before the advent of Islam. We now know that the Indus Valley Civilisation was probably in touch with Mesopotamia as well.

Even our ideas of Hindu and Muslim don’t sufficiently encapsulate or encompass the cultural connections, the openness that has been such a central aspect of South Asian life since the beginning of time as we know it.

NMR: That’s why I think communalism is an imported concept, a more recent phenomenon in our region. When we talked of adaptiveness and the capacity to assimilate and the kind of borderless way in which we tended to look at daily life and the transaction of the social contract – that tended to break down. That’s a tragedy for all of us. When you look at South Asia, this vast space – almost the size of a continent –perhaps that’s why we are not able to achieve the potential, that strength that is in us. That humanitarian quality has been lost: the everyday has become politicised. That is the slogan for our times.
When you think of Sakyamuni, the Buddha – also from this region – and the humanitarianism that he preached and the definition of compassion… We talk of deterrence, nuclear deterrence… Do we ever talk of resilience? That is far more native to us as a people.

You once mentioned your guru Fareeda Khanum saying that dard, I don’t know if you would call it pain, or alienation, being externed in some ways, is the greatest gift of life. I was quite intrigued by that – is it that we learn to live with pain? That we carry it on our shoulders like a rucksack on our backs? Are we destined to this? Is it our natural inheritance?

AS: I will give you my version of the answer, then ask you the same question. What Fareeda ji said to me was, she would repeatedly say this: I was trying to understand the thumri ‘Baju Band Khul Khul Jaye’ in ‘Bhairavi raag,’ how to say it, really, the accent, ‘Kis ang mein kehna hai (which mood must I use?)’ She was a wonderful host, one of the great challenges of studying music with her is that there is always something to eat, some chai, some wonderful distraction is always available. She is always gesturing and saying, “Eat something, have a samosa, drink some chai…”

We talk to each other in Punjabi and I asked her, “How is it that you so effortlessly become the voice that can say this piece, which is rather complex. She said, “With just a little bit of dard.” I think English words like ‘pain’ and ‘affliction’ are inadequate; ‘dard’ is quite a delicious, ecstatic sort of feeling. I think pathos is the way to go at it. It works in the same way as pathos does – sympathy and empathy come from pathos. Bedardi and hamdardi come from dare.

That sense of pathos can be evoked through all kinds of experiences – separation, which as an American friend of mine – she’s a comedian – she said, ‘The Beloved is always separated from the Lover, why can’t they just get together?’ I said, ‘If they get together, it will kill the pleasure of the piece!’ She said, ‘That’s the problem with you South Asians, something has to be wrong always in order for you to just get on with it!’

But I find that there’s a metaphysics at work. Obviously. Birha and hijror firaq in Arabic.

NMR: There is the Sanskrit word ‘viraha’ which means distanced, trying to reach out and yet parted. And ‘vedana,’ the pain you feel because of the separation. Not a physical pain, of course. Vedana has so many connotations.

AS: It’s a metaphysical concept. The idea is that, the Sufis say that ishq-e-mazhazi will lead you to ishq-e-haqeeqi – the idea that some sort of worldly experience of love, an earthly love, if you are sufficiently devoted to its pursuit, will lead you to a higher truth. That’s exactly what is evoked with the line, ‘Ranjha, ranjha kar diye main aape ranjha hoyi…’ The idea that ‘ranjha‘ is a catalyst or a spur, that the beloved is a chimerical entity, will lead you to other things. That is something anyone can relate to, but South Asians have made a whole school of thought out of it!

I think it applies to us in our current political situation as well, where birha, viraha, hijr, firaq, ‘Chandni raat badi der ke baad aayi hai’ becomes a metaphor for our endless partitioning. Our endless chopping up and saying, “This belongs here, or there.”

NMR: We’re dividing the secular and the sacred when often there are so many intersectional meetings that take place and we’re not meant to compartmentalise that.

AS: This idea that one narrative or one identity must be in the ascendant or must be hegemonic or prevail over others is mutantly modern, I feel. People before the era of nationalism didn’t think like this. Poets and intellectuals certainly didn’t think like this. Nowhere do you find this literalist implementation or pursuit of identity. It seems to begin with colonialism and becomes married to the national project in both countries. It leads to where we are today, really a kind of obsession with national identity, a very narrow identity. It defines itself by excluding the other.

NMR: Or scapegoating the other! We’re all proud of who we are and where we come from. That patriotism is not bad at all, we should be proud of it. But when that leads to scapegoating the other, it takes on a negative colour. And that’s where as intelligent, sentient human beings we should be aware of this.

That’s where [perhaps] a good liberal arts education makes a huge difference. Our universities need so much upgrading and invigorating. We have to learn from better examples elsewhere.

AS: It will take us a while to update syllabi at our universities, given how dominant the right-wing perspective has become in both of our countries. Formal education is central to the programme of building a monolithic nation. Those of us who are used to critical thinking have to confront this almost on a daily basis. I need not give examples of how and where it happens, I think we all know!

But at the same time, you can have a liberal arts education through… through… say, music, through a discursive, poetic conversation. Sure, I had four years of an American liberal arts education at Harvard and 12 years of another kind of education with my ustad Naseeruddin Sami saab and Fareeda ji. An immersive apprenticeship that also awakened and opened me to these very beautiful, supple, liberal in a non-Western sense, perspectives and experiences.

NMR: And when I read your piece on Saadat Hassan Manto in the New Yorker – the story about Kabir weeping… Kabir coming back to modern day South Asia. He is weeping inconsolably as he sees the statue of Lakshmi tied up because someone is threatening to destroy it. There are militaristic forces saying, “Even if the people are starving, we will fight.” This makes Kabir weep. That is something we seem to have lost. That’s why I like your piece on Manto so much. You were quoting him when you said, ‘Despite my best efforts, I could not dissociate India from Pakistan and Pakistan from India.’ That to me became his epitaph in many ways. Still unanswered, even though there may be many voices in both our countries saying, ‘We know it can never be so.’ Those who were embedded in that cultural ethos are the ones who truly know.

Sadat Hassan Manto. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

AS: It’s about where you choose to look. You don’t even have to go out of your way to retrieve these so-called connections. They are all around us. I was having a Zoom discussion a few days ago and I pointed it out as it occurred to me. One of the great privileges of spending time with Fareeda Khanum ji is her stories – she will tell me that this is the style of Bengal or this is the style of Punjab. [This is] One of the things that is so apparent in the world of music, in the Bollywood music that is the main music for the South Asian diaspora. I went to buy a jacket for one of my Coke Studio performances and this Italian woman in the shop said, ‘Oh, you’re a Bollywood singer? I know how to dress you!’ This is our ambassador-form. Everywhere we go, people think we come from the world of Bollywood! But when you think of what Bollywood music is made up of, many of its tropes, many of its techniques are still coming to us from the very cosmopolitan milieu of Calcutta [Kolkata] in the 1920s, of Bombay [Mumbai] in the 1930s and ’40s.

One example I gave the other day – I did a programme for Pakistan TV – they have this way of filming. The camera comes at you from above, from the perspective of the box. And there’s always this elaborate stage set up, which I think the rest of South Asia may have dispensed with. PTV, however, still has this old world, romantic way of filming a musical performance. And there’s a painted backdrop and a dazzled singer moving about, catching the light. It occurred to me that this recalls the style of the Calcutta theatre, the Parsi theatre of the 1920s. Where the great Patience Cooper and Mukhtar Begum, etc., went and set up…

NMR: Devika Rani…

AS: Yes… They went and set all this up. They were great impresarios and improvisers, who are immediately imbibing and appropriating ways of dress, manners of speaking, ways of setting up a stage show. That survives in PTV!

NMR: We still see that on Doordarshan. There’s a comforting familiarity about it.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Credit: Flickr

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Credit: Flickr

AS: We think of the qawwali as a Pakistani genre, a Punjabi genre because that’s just how people have come to see it. That’s because of the greatness of Fateh Ali saab, how he came to embody the form. He had formed a niche version, a Punjabi version of the qawwali. But it didn’t actually originate in Punjab. It originated in Delhi, it was associated with Urdu and if you think about it, until the 1990s, qawwali was associated with the song ‘Tayyab Ali Pyar Ka Dushman Haye Haye.’ He’s [the singer] depicted repeatedly as this humorous trope figure in popular culture, with this kind of school teacher aspect. And Nusrat sahib comes along and transforms it, with his eccentric genius, into a very dynamic, folksy sort of thing. Today, no Bollywood movie is complete without an ‘ishqa, ishqa’ kind of song. Very few people will make that connection, though, and see how something went from Delhi to Punjab and came back to mainstream music.

If we see this as more than Indian, Pakistani, Carnatic or Hindustani, we see the connections.

NMR: You talk about the qawwali tradition, if you go down south, to Kerala, you will hear the Mappila music. The Muslims of Kerala are called Mappilas. Their wedding songs are beautiful. You should hear them sometime…

AS: I have a question for you! What’s it like to bring a South Asian sensibility to the art of the symphony, which to my mind, is such a quintessentially Western, European space?

NMR: Well, what I felt we needed, since I have worked in diplomacy, literally in the trenches, I felt there was a big wall of prejudice, of stereotyping. We were incommunicado in many senses. We are just getting people to inculcate a spirit of cooperation. You sit at a desk in an orchestra which you’re sharing with somebody else. He or she might be a stranger, but you bring your passion for music and inculcate with that passion a sense of discipline. It is, as I said, the art of listening, you begin to become more sensitive to the need to listen to the other. You may be playing a trumpet and however loud your trumpet is, it’s not going to sound all right unless it is able to calibrate its sound. This is where the powerful and the less powerful come in. You need to learn to synchronise. That, from the Western symphony construct, would help us in a South Asian context. But I didn’t want to stop there because I felt the oeuvre, the kind of work we were going to use for our programming – while we would play Western pieces, we would begin to build a body of work which is South Asian but which is suitable to be played by a Western orchestra. In a sense we’re building that South Asian identity, that awareness, among ourselves and also bringing it to the world. In the first of the two concerts that we did, I would say we made, not composed; we took seven songs from seven of the eight countries of the region – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (we couldn’t get one from the Maldives) and we made a piece called Hamsafar. We used very popular, mainly folk, but nationally known songs from each of these countries. From Pakistan, we had ‘Dam-a-dam Mast Qalandar,’ from India, we took ‘Mera Jhoota Hai Japani.’ From Bangladesh, we took a Bengali folk song, ‘Allah Megh De’ and similarly Nepalese and Bhutanese folk songs. From Sri Lanka, we took a song about two brothers, ‘Aiyandole,’ and the feud between them and how they recall their childhood and mourn their current fate. We made a beautiful piece. When it premiered at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, we not only had the Western instruments, we also had Kashmiri and Afghan musicians on stage with their traditional instruments, like the santoor, tanpura and the chumbaknari. We created that confluence. It’s about creating confluence, a communication, a coherence that the rest of the world can relate to.

AS: I think that’s beautiful. There’s such an overlap between what you say and what I have been feeling lately. I don’t know if you have seen, but we have done a series of spontaneous Instagram sessions.

NMR: You must sing before we end the session.

AS: Yes, we must! Can I sing a little bit… I mentioned ‘Raag Bhupali,’ I have composed a song and written a large part of it as well, taken from a couplet by the Urdu poet Shakeel Badayuni. In fact, I tampered with the couplet. I took the first line and wrote the second half of the shayar (verse). I sat with a lyricist and composed the second half of the song. It began in ‘Bhupali’ and travelled into a space called ‘Shuddh Kalyan,’ a very beautiful, devotional raga that evokes, I think, romance as well as the devotional.

NMR: ‘Kalyani,’ as in the Carnatic music tradition… In Sanskrit, the word ‘kalyan’ has the connotation of benevolence.

AS: There you go. There’s also ‘Yaman’ and a variety of it called ‘Yaman Kalyan.’ With ragas too, we see this dialogue across categories. They are entirely themselves but are also able to communicate with one another. So this is the… The words go like this:
Ishq ki chingariyon ko,
Phir hava dene lage.

And I completed it thus:

Ghum huye jo raaste,
Mere pata dene lage.

This wonderful collaborator friend of ours, Srilata Sircar, sent in an English translation:

Embers of my longing have been flamed again,
The lost trail remembers the way again.

I thought it was a beautiful collaboration across borders. Srilata is a translator who works with many Indian languages.
I composed this using some of ‘Raag Bhoopali’ and ‘Shuddh Kalyani.’

(Sings)

Alas, I do not have my tanpura, but this is how I feel about music and what it has given me – flamed, lit the way for me, shown me my way.

NMR: You used the image of illumination and that is what we use to describe our orchestra – we call it ‘Chiragh.’

AS: Absolutely, and Inshallah, I hope one day…

NMR: You will perform with us!

AS: Thank you. This was super fun. I hope we’ll have more opportunities to chat together and work together.

 (Transcribed by Darshana Ramdev)