The Covid-19 pandemic and the countrywide lockdown has thrown us all into a state of complete chaos and has created conditions that have destroyed millions of lives. One can only hope that graded decisive steps towards economic rejuvenation will help the country to recover. The circumstances have impacted our lives in imperceptible ways too, causing anxiety and depression among many people.

For a musician, naturally, the absence of opportunities for performance, teaching, conducting workshops and lecture-demonstrations has been a source of great uncertainty in an already risk-laden professional life. But how has the present situation affected musicians at a deeper level?

Indeed, the life of a musician is for the better part a solitary journey involving the sheer rigour of musical practice, introspection, recapitulation, and creative endeavor in the form of composing, all of which are undertaken in isolation. In fact, Hindustani musicians are familiar with the “chilla”, a daily regimen of several hours strictly followed over a 40-day period in order to work on specific musical content or technique. Perhaps, not many musicians follow this particular regimen today, but work in isolation has definitely played an important role in the life of a serious musician.

And yet, the inspiration that one draws from interacting with the rest of society, the energy that one derives from musical dialogues with other performers and the possibility of communicating one’s art to an audience are all factors that are also significant in a musician’s life. None of that is possible now and it does not seem likely to change vastly in the near future.

What is also acutely discernible to everyone, but more so to those involved creatively with sound and various audio inputs, musical or otherwise, the very soundscape of our urban environment has been transformed. From the regular car honking, the frequent trains speeding by, the planes roaring overhead, and so many other sounds that seemed to have pushed others into oblivion, we have now moved to a stage where none of these can be heard.

The sounds of birds and the trees swaying in the wind have become the main sounds that filter into our isolated existence. But what were once regarded by us as happy and refreshing aural delights, can also be mildly tantalising or at times even oppressive, depending on the moods that captivate you now and again.

Call the the koel

This is when the call of the koel or the Indian cuckoo seems to assume an urgency like never before and sheds a different light on compositions from Hindustani music that one has grown up listening to. Mention of the koel finds mention in numerous thumri-dadra compositions. I return to the Sonic Saturdays column after a short break with memories of three such compositions and the new meaning they have assumed today.

The first two were inseparable from what connoisseurs would consider as the definitive or essential Begum Akhtar recordings. We begin with Koyaliya Mat Kar Pukar that likens the call of the koel to the piercing stab of the knife into the heart of the forlorn lover. This dadra is set to the Dadra taal, a rhythmic canvas of six matras.


The second composition based on the raag Des is also set to Dadra. This is a kajri, a seasonal song-form sung during the monsoon, and like most kajris this composition also describes monsoon imagery and its effect on the forlorn lover. The koel appears in the antara or the second verse of the composition. The second verse even finds a reference to the papiha or the hawk-cuckoo.


At times, some vocalists have tried to simulate the call of the koel or papiha while singing such compositions and in the process add much melodrama to the presentation, which has robbed listeners of the gravitas that they link to these and similar compositions. Begum Akhtar does none of that, and yet, one can almost imagine the incessant call of these birds reminding lovers of their imagined tryst.

The last track is a popular traditional bandish ki thumri in the raag Khamaj and set to the 1-matra Teentaal. We included this track sung by well-known vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar along with another interpretation in a previous installment of this column.

Kashalkar is accompanied on this track by Mehmood Dholpuri on the harmonium, Murad Ali on the sarangi, and I play tabla.