As a port city, Kochi has been a welcoming anchor for diverse cultures for over 500 years. Seafarers, traders, travellers and conquerors have given the city as many as 30 languages. So it wasn’t surprising that in late 1980s, when word got around that a singer with a new musical style was doing dinner concerts at Abad Plaza, then the fanciest hotel in downtown Kochi, quite a few listeners turned up.

Abad Plaza, owned by a Kutchi Memon family who made Kochi their home in the 19th century, had started offering a stage for struggling musicians. Their newest protégé was singing in Urdu and the songs were set in unfamiliar Hindustani ragas with brilliant harmonium and tabla backing.

Very few in that audience knew Urdu and fewer still had heard Hindustani music in a landscape dominated by the Carnatic system. But there was something hugely appealing about the melancholic songs of love, heartache and loss that had until then been the preserve of Malayalam films. Before long, the singer acquired a fan following.

That tall singer, with smiling eyes and long, tapering fingers that flew over the keys of the harmonium was PA Ibrahim, who came to be known as Umbayi. Not only did he popularise ghazals in Kerala but, more importantly, he pioneered the idea of ghazal writing in Malayalam.

Photo credit: Umbayees ghazal/Facebook
Photo credit: Umbayees ghazal/Facebook

The origins

At a Delhi concert for members of Parliament from Kerala, an admirer once asked Umbayi: “Why can’t we have ghazals in Malayalam?” It set off a new line of thought in Umbayi, who had so far been doing covers of Urdu ghazals of legends such as Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh. “The pangs of love and separation aren’t the preserve of only North India, are they?” the singer said years later in a television interview.

Umbayi started looking for Malayalam poets to write ghazals for him. Most of them were hesitant, including the biggest names in Malayalam poetry and lyric writing at the time – ONV Kurup, Yusufali Kecheri and K Satchidanandan. This was alien to the state – it would sound forced in Malayalam, they protested.

Finally, it took a relatively unknown poet, Venu V Desom, to write Pranamam, the first-ever Malayalam ghazal album. With Pranamam, Umbayi became the face of the genre in Kerala, managing to almost singlehandedly prop up an alien form for five decades, until his death on August 1 at the age of 68.

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'Pranamam', the first Malayalam ghazal album.

Umbayi’s ghazal evangelism built a fan base for the style in Kerala – it was the reason why one of Mehdi Hassan’s last concerts in India was in 2002 at Kozhikode. It was why Ghulam Ali, harassed out of concert halls by the Shiv Sena, found a platform in Kerala in 2016, and why Jagjit Singh sang to packed audiences, again in Kozhikode.

So fierce was Umbayi’s passion – his days were spent working and reworking melodies on his trusty harmonium with Dinesh beedis and endless cups of tea to keep him going – that he finally had almost every big poet writing for him. His popularity soared after he sang for avant garde filmmaker John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan (1986). The film was based on the custody death of engineering activist P Rajan during Emergency, a case that continues to haunt Kerala. Umbayi’s take on Talat Aziz’s Kis shaan se woh aaj beintehaa chale played as a poignant track to Rajan’s death.

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Umbayi's cover of 'Kis shaan se woh aaj beintehaa chale'.

So how true to form is a Malayalam ghazal like, say, Veendum Paadam?

I will sing for you once more, a song of separation/
If you promise not to let your eyes well up again.

“I would describe it as what some call azad ghazal, one that didn’t adhere to the traditional rules of composition,” said Satchidanandan. “It is more about creating a certain mood using Hindustani melodies – love, solitude, pain. I extended the themes to include nostalgia, childhood, nature and the ephemerality of life. The way I distinguish from other poetry is that I keep the language accessible and more suited for musical rendition than reading.”

Umbayi’s ghazals may not pass the purist’s test of structure. What he passed on to his listeners was his deep love for the idea of a ghazal. “His intense yearning to own the ghazal, make it a part of our music – I think questions of form and structure of ghazal simply melted before that,” said Srinivas, a popular playback singer.

Travelling south

The ghazal has fascinated writers and thinkers for centuries, enough for it to shed linguistic boundaries long ago, although its roots lay in Arabic, Persian and more recently, Urdu. Goethe played with experimental ghazals in German in the 1810s in his collection titled West-Ostlicher Divan. Acclaimed Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali rendered them in English in his 2003 collection Call Me Ishmael Tonight for themes ranging from love to state repression: What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?/But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain.

There have been ghazal cultures in Gujarati, Bengali and Marathi too. Amarendra Dutta’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Music traces Bengal’s fascination with the form back to the first half of the 19th century, culminating in the huge popularity enjoyed by the Bengali ghazals of Kazi Nazrul Islam. The history of Gujarati ghazals go back to the 19th century with Sursinhji Gohil or Kalapi, its most popular exponent of that era.

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Kazi Nazrul Islam's ghazals.

Malayalis fell in love with the idea of the ghazal in the 1960s, though it wasn’t called that then. These songs sounded different because of the dominant use of Hindustani ragas in a state where Carnatic was the ruling system. Some of the most beautiful, evergreen classics of the decade were composed by MS Baburaj, widely regarded as one of – if not the most – outstanding talents in the state’s film industry.

Born Mohammed Sabir in 1921 into the composite culture of Kozhikode, again a port city, Baburaj was taught Hindustani music by his father, a Bengali, Jan Mohammed. Like Umbayi, he had mastered the harmonium and tabla, and grasped the nuances of ghazals and qawwalis. Abandoned by Mohammed, the family struggled to survive. It was the music halls of Kozhikode, the magnanimity of its art lovers (he was mentored by Kunju Mohammed, a police constable), its theatres and network of social and family events that nurtured Baburaj’s musical talent.

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'Thamasamenthe varuvan' from the film 'Bhargavi Nilayam'.

“Baburaj’s best-loved songs, written by P Bhaskaran, can be classified as ghazals and, if not, as songs with heavy shades of the ghazal,” said Srinivas. Songs such as Thamasamenthe varuvan (Bhargavi Nilayam, 1964), which was every lovelorn young man’s anthem for generations, came as close to a ghazal as possible. Thaane thirinjum marrinjum (Ambalapravu, 1970) and Oru Pushpam Maatram (Pareeksha, 1967) are other classics from the composer that closely resemble ghazals.

Baburaj’s prototype of the Malayalam ghazal forged in the 1960s stayed unformed till Umbayi gave it a fresh turn. It was Umbayi who pushed the form’s expanding frontiers. Adding to his appeal was his fascinating life story, described with heartbreaking candour in his 2016 autobiography Bhairava Ragam. It was a hard life with some terrible lows: his desperate search for music as a youngster from a poor home, battles with a disapproving father, the flight to Bombay in search of an ustad, the many odd – and some nefarious – jobs, including small-time smuggling, and surviving acute alcoholism.

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'Veendum paadam njaan sakhi', by Umbayi.

Umbayi was a creature of Fort Kochi’s Mattanchery area, home to many migrant communities. He called it a “melting pot of music”, referring to his style as “Mattanchery gharana”. Another musician from this gharana was his mentor, the legendary indie composer and singer H Mehboob, whose music was the rage between 1950 and 1980. Mehboob was a maverick whose songs were close to the soil, to folk traditions, and issues that affected the common man.

“Mehboob popularised the independent music tradition in Kochi,” said Bonny Thomas, author of Kochikaar (The People of Kochi). “Till then, aspiring singers sought only one destination – the movies. Mehboob sang for films but he also wrote songs on social issues that were bothering the average Malayali – poverty, hunger, unemployment. These songs allowed younger musicians like Umbayi to find a fertile ground to plant new musical ideas.”

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In his early days Umbayi was helped by the patronage from the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He and a group of other musicians set up the Red Young Arts Group in the 1970s, which became a travelling ghazal troupe, but it wasn’t until the stint at Abad Plaza that recognition came his way. Today, younger singers such as Srinivas, Gayatri Asokan, Shahabaz Aman find ready audiences for the style in Kerala.