Because the end precedes the beginning, it’s time to remember the year gone by, take stock, make resolutions, send jejune WhatsApp memes or, if you are like me, just want to do nothing.
But the editor has cracked the whip and asked that I produce my song for the new year.
I will not even pretend to think of one song. How do you choose just one song, anyway? It is just not possible. What is possible, and what I will endeavour to do here, however, is to celebrate Kishori Amonkar’s music for she was clearly one of the biggest losses of 2017.
I knew nothing about Hindustani classical music when I chanced upon her first album sometime in the 1980s (not that I have much of a clue now), but there was an immediate connect. This has stayed and is the first song that comes to mind when I think of Amonkar.
I had heard thumris in Bhairavi before, including incomparable classics by stalwarts like Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, but this was hauntingly different, even though the tropes were familiar.
Koyaliya naa bol, daar daar
tadpat jiyara hamaar
How do you translate this? Do not sing, O cuckoo bird, do not add to my agonising restlessness? No, I should not even try.
It is difficult to stop at playing it only once even now, even though there are many other recordings where she sings this Bhairavi with far more vistaar and elaboration.
The next one on the playlist was Ud ja re kaga in Bhinna Shadaj. This is the raag that lends its name to Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale’s documentary on Amonkar.
I am always struck by the fact that the two songs of hers that I absolutely fell in love with on first hearing are both addressed to birds. If the bhairavi was about telling the koyaliya to, well, shut up, this is about exhorting the crow to fly away – but with a message for the beloved. Rajan Parrikar, who runs one of the finest archives of Indian classical music online, calls it the finest Bhinna Shadaj there is.
Ud ja re kaagaa
le jayo sandeswa
laage naa jiya
The next one isn’t addressed to a bird, alas. It doesn’t even feature one, but this is the composition with which Amonkar truly came into her own – Pratham Sur Saadhe, her signature rendering of Raag Bhoop.
There is no antara here, just these simple lines, believed to be her first lyric composition:
Pratham sur saadheJab howat gyaan
tab alankaar kar dikhaaye
First study tonal purity
When knowledge dawns
Then turn to ornamentation.
She was not offering advice. She was announcing her musical philosophy. I could play this on loop. As a matter of fact, I pretty much have been, since yesterday.
It is not quite right to think of her strikingly original interpretations of the traditions of Hindustani classical music as mere renditions. These are meditations on the raags she chose to sing. Someone who was known to be mercurial was always so calm and composed in her singing, yet managing to effortlessly imbue it with so much distilled emotion.
She didn’t have to resort to any flourishes – even when she performed with a showman like M Balamuralikrishna (the latter’s jugalbandi with Bhimsen Joshi, another favourite, is a study in contrast, with both characteristically – and joyously – trying to outperform each other).
Zakir Hussain speaks of her Bhoop as one of the most “immortal renderings ever”, comparing it to Amir Khan’s Marwa, in Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale’s documentary, Bhinna Shadja, that takes its name from the raag of the song above.
“Her music is like a painting that embodies every detail of someone’s life,” Hussain said. “There is great happiness, great sadness, great anger, great frustration, great desperation – everything just comes into focus in this great concentrated little piece.”
And since we are talking of Bhoop and jugalbandis, take this performance with Hariprasad Chaurasia.
We haven’t even come to some of Amonkar’s other landmark performances – the Malhars the Bageshrees, the Bhimplasis. I could go on rhapsodising about her singing, but having already begun the year on a rather pensive note, perhaps it is time to at least mark the passing of two other significant musicians we lost in 2017 – Chuck Berry and Tom Petty.
Ever the optimist, the American polymath Carl Sagan was behind the idea of including a set of identical golden gramophone records containing images and sounds aboard both Voyager spacecraft when they launched in 1977. They were intended to represent the diversity of Earth’s life and culture, in the hope that either extraterrestrial beings or future humans might uncover the best of human civilisation.
Amongst recordings of Western classical composers Bach, Beethoven, and Stravinsky was included Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode, which was considered a controversial choice at the time on the grounds that rock music was “adolescent”. Sagan pointed out that there were a lot of adolescents on the planet. So this is for them.
(We should at least parenthetically note that the Voyager Golden Record also included Jaat Kahaan Ho by the lone Indian, Kesarbai Kerkar. It just so happens that Amonkar was often compared with Kerkar, her mother’s outspoken and illustrious contemporary.)
From the possibilities of advanced space-faring civilisations and life in interstellar space that Sagan hoped for, perhaps it would be fitting to end with a song that encapsulates a fine philosophy about life on earth. Back then in 1988, this song by Travelling Wilburys had ended up becoming a requiem for Roy Orbison after his untimely death from a heart attack at 52. His vocals are on the song, which was recorded long before the video shoot, but his absence is marked by the guitar on the empty rocking chair. Tom Petty was 38 when this song was recorded, but seemed to have made his peace with the idea of mortality already.
”Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey
Well it’s all right, you still got something to say
Well it’s all right, remember to live and let live
Well it’s all right, the best you can do is forgive
Well it’s all right, riding around in the breeze
Well it’s all right, if you live the life you please
Well it’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine
Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line.”
It is perhaps as good advice as any we are likely to get to mark the beginning of the new year.