“It is really unfortunate if our knowledge of music begins with films,” Gulzar said about his latest project hours before taking the stage in Kolkata. In the city for a special Agomoni concert (the heralding of Durga Puja) organised by a mobile service provider, the poet, lyricist and filmmaker made a strong case for an analogue appreciation of music.
Gulzar’s latest project is a live, interactive performance of his nazms, or blank verse, set to tune by his long-time collaborator and friend Bhupinder Singh, and supported by his wife, singer Mitali Mukherjee. “Bhupendra was the first musician to compose with Urdu blank verse [in the 1980s with Woh Jo Shair Tha and Sarmayi Raat],” Gulzar said. “It is one of the toughest things to do.”
The association between Gulzar and Singh is more than four decades old, and is celebrated for some of the most memorable music in Hindi cinema, including Parichay (1972) and Mausam (1975). But Gulzar, whose last cinematic outing Mirzya (2016) elicited a tepid response, is keen that the audiences rediscover a world of non-Bollywood innocence.
“Our country has such a rich tradition of music, especially folk,” he said. “It is all around you. The loris, the songs you are taught in schools, the Bauls of Bengal. In fact, the Bauls are the richest education in music. That is where your music should begin. There are Bulle Shah’s verses and there is classical music. How can films be representative of Indian music?”
The idea of curating some of Gulzar’s most evocative nazms and presenting them in an interactive format comes at a time when people are “getting habituated to seeing music rather than listening to it”, the poet and lyricist said. “Let’s sharpen our ears, the visuals can follow. For music, the priority should not be the visual, but it has started happening because of films. It is great if you want to visualise folk music, but it should be outside the realm of film music.”
While he appreciated the contribution of film music to the introduction of new sounds and technology, Gulzar insisted that the lines between film and non-film music be better defined. “Your musical education should begin with folk, sufi, classical and it could end with films. Not the other way round.”
Gulzar said he was keen to try out the interactive format in Kolkata first. “This is where you have the most culturally refined people in the country,” he said. “They appreciate poetry, they appreciate the nuances of music and if our work touches people here, we can take it to other places too.”
The nazm project is not meant to challenge listeners so much as to inspire the three collaborators. “Music speaks – even if you do not say a word, and your head is swaying, somewhere you are enjoying our music,” Gulzar said. “This is an experiment, and it is meant to test us. We are keen to see how people respond to our music and poetry.”
The project took several months of work and included dawn to dusk sessions at Singh’s house in Mumbai, where the singer would spend hours trying to “understand the poetry and then try to compose with the words”, the singer explained. “At times, Gulzar sahab would be excited with the stirrings of a new verse and get us to start setting it to tune immediately,” Singh added.
The project hopes to underline the fact that there is more to Bhupinder Singh and Gulzar than their Hindi film songs together. “My verses would have died in the pages of my diary had he not given life to them,” Gulzar said.