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Monsoon wedding: Poems of rain sung by Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal puts Premghan’s poems of rain to music at a Delhi concert

music Updated: Aug 19, 2017 11:39 IST
Manik Sharma
Renowned Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal.
Renowned Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal. (Praveen Bajpai / HT Photo)

The idea of adapting a poet for music may seem slippery but that’s exactly what celebrated singer Shubha Mudgal will do this weekend when she sings 19th century Hindi poet ‘Premaghan’s’ verses. The second half of the century was particularly significant in the development of Hindi literature. Alongside Bharatendu Harishchandra, easily the most recognisable and significant prose writer of the age, there were others whose work laid the foundation of modern Hindi literature. But literature, especially of the period, wasn’t restricted to the application of being read. It could also be sung. The poetry of Badri Narayan Chaudhury is the marriage of the two. Chaudhury, known by his pen name ‘Premghan’ was born to a wealthy family in Mirzapur (UP) in 1855. Wealth afforded Chaudhary the luxury of studying literature and music and he wrote what he liked to call ‘sangeet kavya’ – poems meant to be sung.

“Among Premghan’s poems are several songs associated with the monsoon called kajri or kajli that are traditionally sung during the rains,” says Mudgal. “Premghan’s association with music, therefore, makes his work of special interest to musicians and students of music.”

But for a singer to travel more than a century back in time to find a poet is still odd. “The 19th and 20th centuries are significant for music students,” explains Mudgal. “This was a time when song-books or compilations of songs were being published by collectors, music schools were being established, Premghan and his friends and associates like Bharatendu Harishchandra were pioneering various changes related to theatre, arts, music and literature. So it is not surprising to find musicians trying to study this period.”

Premghan’s poetry belongs to a time when modern Hindi was still being born. It appeared in the form of local dialects – Awadhi, Dakkani etc -- that eventually petered out in favour of a more universal format. “Bharatendu and Premghan both wrote in Brajbhasha as well, and in Urdu and Hindi among other languages. For people who are fluent in Hindi, their work is not difficult to read or comprehend,” says Mudgal.

In terms of composing music for text, Aneesh Pradhan, a regular collaborator with Mudgal, had plenty of things to consider. Among them, the dilemma of whether to compose for Mudgal’s voice alone. “In the case of compositions that are made for the khayal or thumri-dadra genres or even in seasonal forms like kajri, chaiti, jhoola, one does not necessarily compose for a particular vocalist,” he says. “The idea is to compose and hope that more than one vocalist will choose to include such compositions in his or her repertoire.” In this particular case, none of Premghan’s texts came with musical notations. “But it was in a sense a liberating factor, since it did not hold you back from exploring musical composition in any which way. However, we decided to definitely keep within the realm of khayal, thumri-dadra or other forms,” says Pradhan.

Pradhan and Mudgal have been performing together for years now, and their understanding of each other’s work is evident. More evident is the fact that Mudgal, despite being a veteran of the art, is still desperate to learn and research as she would have decades ago as a student; which is how she still refers to herself. “As a student of music, I find myself keenly interested in literature and song-text as well. So apart from my riyaaz and study of music, I try and read about music and literature as well. There are so many scholars who have worked on both and provided invaluable information for posterity. All you need to do is to open a book, read, make notes, look up references that have been cited, and voila!” she says.

Premghan offers the intriguing prospect of listening to the age-old poems of Badri Narayan Chaudhury, written in a Hindi that must be at a considerable distance from the Hindi we know and speak (or don’t) anymore. At this point, one can’t help but wonder how Mudgal converts these words into song. “I usually begin by reading text as literature, trying to understand context, and then if I feel the urge to sing something, I try and compose it. But I feel it is important to try and understand metaphor, imagery, background and context. If I don’t try and understand what Kabir is saying through his verses, how will I sing Kabir?” she says.

Programme details

What: ‘Premghan,’ a musical rendition of the poetry of Badri Narayan Chaudhary

When: Aug 19, 8-9:30 pm

Where: OddBird Theatre & Foundation, Dhan Mill Compound, 100 Feet Road, Chhattarpur. For tickets visit www.oddbird.org

Nearest metro station: Chhattarpur