Monday, June 27, 2005

Abida, Kabir and the Sufis

I’ve been listening to Abida Parveen sing Kabir.

Admittedly, Kabir’s not easy. Not easy to understand, not easy to translate, not easy to sing. Easy to recite, though. The mystic sant may have taken many liberties with grammar, but he knew his sounds: Kabir’s cadences are so smooth. Say this aloud:

Maya mari na man mara, mar mar gaye sareer
Asha trishna na mari, keh gaye das Kabir


Kabir’s dohas are particularly difficult to set to music. For one, each is a disparate piece, with its own theme. Like the ghazal. However, unlike the ghazal, in which each sher at least follows the same meter and rhyme, Kabir’s dohas are somewhat uneven in length and rhyme differently.

It has been done, though. T Series has a long line of Kabir’s work, and you might stumble upon any one travelling in long distance buses in North India; the drivers hugely favour Kabir for early morning listening. I have one of those too, Kabir Amritvani. The producers choose one tune only and set scores and scores of dohe in the same pattern. Repetitive, and a bit jarring, but the enunciation is clear, and soon you find yourself listening to Kabir with minimal interpretation, almost unadulterated, so to speak.

Not so with Abida. The album is surprisingly disappointing, because she neither does justice to Kabir’s verses by allowing their inherent rhythm to show, nor does she treat her material as a vehicle for a purely musical exercise. She takes the middle road and disappoints with both. This was only a first listen, and a first impression. If it grows on me, I’ll just have to come back and let you know.

Abida has sung many greats: Khusrau, Bulleh Shah, Hazrat Shah Hussain, Sachal Sarmast… there is no faulting the literature. I persistently feel dissatisfied with her melody, though. It’s not a priority with many Sufi singers – feeling is rated higher, and most important is how you can carry your listeners into higher and higher realms. That is as it should be, but it needn’t be at the cost of sweetness. The greatest of them were sublime musicians as well as sufis. There was no either/or.

This is also why I’m uncomfortable with people calling Abida the true successor to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. First, she’s not a qawwal, she sings sufi music – there’s a difference. Second, Abida’s style of rendition needs a rather active participation from the listener. Nusrat was like this fragrance that wafted. Even casual listeners would be seduced, drawn by the tendrils and reeled in. Abida needs a commitment from you to begin with.

PS. What a great job they do with album sleeve notes these days. Complete with profiles of everyone involved, notes on history and context, and they include every word sung. Precious, too, because with sufi music, the verses they’re printing are usually difficult to find in English. Educative, and worth nearly half the price of the album.


Emma said...

Interesting... I am very fascinated by Hindi poetry and ghazals as well, though my knowledge isn't as extensive as yours. Where do you pick up these albums? Off the shelves in music stores? I would love some pointers.

Sheetal said...

Emma, I've found Sangeet Sagar almost always better stocked than the Music Worlds and Planet Ms. And I listen off the internet, of course.

zany said...

:) came here while searching for kabir..
and glad to see someone else who is a fan of abida and kabir..

have you listened to raqs e bismil?

bhupinder singh said...

Thanks for your perceptive comments. Your observation about Kabir not being very easy to set to music is incisive, but I may add, also somewhat paradoxical. because Kabir was always meant to be sung. There are no written records of anything that Kabir composed till the late 16th century. His 'writings' form part of a long and vibrant oral tradition that is common in illiterate or pre- literate cultures.

If one were to re- state your observation, I may suggest this one- it is difficult to 'set' Kabir to the notes of classical music. His formed part of the popular culture, the 'low' and not the 'high' tradition. That might be the reason for the discomfort between the two. It looks like Kabir refuses to be co-opted to the high tradition. The rebellious spirit is not tamed so easily.

Possibly Kabir is very hummable when less constrained by the rigours of classical, and the Amritvani cassettes may indicate that fact.

Disclaimer: My understanding of music is at best limited and my comments may be speculative...

Sheetal said...

First, Zany, sorry not to have responded before. I visited your site, found I couldn't read the hindi(?) on my browser, told myself to find out what plug in would allow me to read it and then forgot all about it. Thanks for stopping by, and no, I don't think I've heard Raqs-e-bismil. Good?

BS: I see what you mean. Certainly, oral/folkish traditions preserved Kabir with great charm. I was indeed talking of the more 'formal' genres, in fact of 'recordable' pieces. If you want to sing the dohe, one after the other in a tightly packed sequence with orchestration, it is challenging to do, if you're seeking any kind of interpretation at all.

Kabir refuses to be co-opted to the high tradition
Interesting observation, that. *Chuckle* Imagine Kabir digging in his feet, refusing to be upgraded.

bhupinder singh said...

Abida is at perhaps one of her best in Raqs a Bilmil, unlike her laboured rendering (and still more laboured listening) in Kabir and even Faiz and Bulle Shah.

You may also like to listen to the new kid on the Sufi singing block- Shafaqat Ali Khan (unless heard him already).

Regarding Kabir- I liked the imagery 'digging in his feet, refusing to be upgraded'. I didnt think of him that way :-)

chintan said...

great comments..

i love abida and revere kabir.. thoght she had done a great job .. not making it too classical and too sufi.. have not heard amritvani tapes but caught anup jalota singing kabir on tv.. had to change channels..

have you heard osho's interpretation of kabir.. phir pukara kabira ne.. a series i keep on going back to..

dont compare abida and nusrat.. was visiting kashmir and late in night starting watchin nusrat's qawalli on a local channel... was up till 3 am