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Ghalib: A new life in letters

It's like rearranging an old jigsaw to look at the same picture in a remarkably different manner. Salim Arif, costume designer and period consultant for Mirza Ghalib, the 1987 television serial directed by Gulzar, has cleverly re-stitched Jagjit Singh's songs from the biopic to re-tell the 19th century poet's tale with an amazingly fresh narrative almost 25 years later. Amitava Sanyal writes.

music Updated: Apr 16, 2012 11:28 IST
Amitava Sanyal

Tera bayan Ghalib
Gulzar's Mirza Ghalib, re-arranged with Ghalib's letters
Saregama, Rs 300 (2 CDs and a booklet)
Rating: ****1/2

It's like rearranging an old jigsaw to look at the same picture in a remarkably different manner. Salim Arif, costume designer and period consultant for Mirza Ghalib, the 1987 television serial directed by Gulzar, has cleverly re-stitched Jagjit Singh's songs from the biopic to re-tell the 19th century poet's tale with an amazingly fresh narrative almost 25 years later.

The new stitching is in Arif's script, which tells Ghalib's story through a selection of letters he wrote to friends, pupils and patrons — on subjects ranging from his own rough past and imitative peers, to his changing city and its ruling weather. The yarn for the stitching is the rich timbre of Gulzar, who reads the letters with the felicity of a character actor. The effect, combined with Jagjit Singh's classic renditions, is transporting.

Gulzar the master storyteller marries the mijaz (mood) of Ghalib's story to his songs. His inflections remind you of Naseeruddin Shah, the voice and face of Ghalib on screen. But the new Ghalib is much more than the sum of the quarter-century-old parts.

Gulzar's Ghalib tells us matter-of-factly of the death of his father when he was five and of his caretaker uncle when he was eight. The shy energy he gathers to tell us of his friend Bansidhar segues convincingly into the nostalgic couplets, ‘Woh firaq aur woh visaal kahan'. In one daring moment, Gulzar even introduces an emphasis in the middle of a song. When at the beginning of the second CD Ghalib laments the destruction of his beloved Shahjahanabad following the war of 1857, Gulzar's voice descends into a tired sputter that seems to have given up on life. Whether you understand the high Urdu or, like me, have to reach for the dictionary, you are unlikely to be unmoved by the lilt in the metres.

The accompanying booklet says Jagjit Singh wanted to record some new compositions for the album, but he passed away before he could. The background music, credited to Sudip Majumdar, is the only bit that detracts — it drags us back to the competent-but-fusty flute-led formula of Doordarshan studio pop of the 1980s.

The 20-odd tracks in each CD are lumped as single files, making navigation between the tracks impossible. Also, beware of a bizarre identity crisis if you play the CD on a computer. The first volume is identified as Pastor Tuten's ‘Six Danger Signals Along Narrow Way' and the second one as ‘Live at Nago Beach, Okinawa 2008'. Saregama's weirdness truly defies
gravity at times.

The Silent Sea
Second album by Delhi-based band Advaita
EMI, Rs 295
Rating: ***1/2
Octet's Second crossing
The second album from the Delhi-based eight-piece band Advaita marks an interesting turn in their musical journey. Like in their first album, most of the 10 songs in The Silent Sea take off from traditional raag-based compositions and float towards a progressive, psychedelic rock sound. But this time, they tilt consciously more towards some so-called rock sensibilities — as manifest in pumped up instrumental choruses and a louder rhythm section. And what a crafty balance it is.

'Gorakh', the second track, is a traditional composition in raag Gorakh Kalyan sung by Ujjwal Nigam, who considers Jaipur's Sikar gharana to be a major influence. The next track, 'Meinda ishq', unspools from a Sufi composition by Khwaja Ghulam Farid. In 'Mo Funk', Ujjwal has taken a well-known Carnatic krithi in raag Natya, 'Maha Ganapathim', as the keystone above the song's entry and then settled into the Hindustani raag Jog.

My curiosity was with the mixing of Mandirva, a composition in raag Bhimpalasi. In it, Nigam's voice is clearly pushed to the back and the guitar interludes are all too clearly played up, like in ad breaks in the middle of television shows. Ujjwal and the band's guitarist Abhishek Mathur tell me the decision was taken by producer Shantanu Hudlikar of Yash Raj Studios, who worked on their first album too. (The mixing, it seems, took half a dozen iterations over several months — pushing back the album's release.)

Maybe we are used a bit too much to melody-led, harmony-less compositions. That makes us crave for clear voices or lead instruments. But it swaddles this song's vocals, as if it has been kept under water — just as they depict on the cover. Now how many bands can keep such a promise?