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The poet who waged a jihad within

A bit of accidental jazz was introduced into the subcontinent’s musical legacy by a rapturous crowd. Iqbal Bano was singing to a 50,000-strong gathering in Lahore at the height of Zia ul Haq’s regime.

music Updated: Jun 07, 2012 15:19 IST
Amitava Sanyal

Great works of Faiz
EMI, Rs 395 (3-CD collection)
Rating: 5 stars

A bit of accidental jazz was introduced into the subcontinent’s musical legacy by a rapturous crowd. Iqbal Bano was singing to a 50,000-strong gathering in Lahore at the height of Zia ul Haq’s regime. It was the time Zia had introduced the Hudood laws, prescribing Sharia-style punishment for ‘sins’ such as adultery. This move had deeply antagonised a wide swathe of Pakistan’s urban elite. Bano launched into Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum dekhenge— a song of resistance as electrifying as ‘We shall overcome’. When she came to the lines Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-harm/Masnad pe bithae jaenge/ Sab taaj uchale jaenge/ Sab takht girae jaenge (When we the faithful, who have been barred from sacred places/ Will be seated on high cushions/ When crowns will be tossed,/ When thrones will be brought down — as translated on ghazala.org), the crowd got into a frenzy. The rhythmic clapping went on and on, supported by cries of Inquilab zindabad. The accompanists, not knowing how to prolong the interlude, skidded sideways with the tune. And the unintended ‘jazz’ slipped in.

It was the moment Faiz, a poet of revolution, got perhaps the most fitting reaction to his words. But it wasn’t all that Faiz was about. He could be as crushing on love as he could be rousingly on revolution. He could make universal expressions of very human conditions. Having felt intense isolation in prison (1951-55, on the charge of instigating a coup), he could depict the vastness of separation with the felicity of a master calligrapher, with few strokes. The blazing arc of this career has been captured well in 30 songs by various artists and three recitations by Faiz himself on a collection that is, thankfully, not titled ‘The best of...’. It comes at a time the subcontinent is beginning to plan celebrations of his centenary.

Apart from the historic recording of Bano, there’s Farida Khanum’s early recording of ‘Yun saja chand’. The song was made popular in India by Asha Bhosle’s Ghulam Ali-inspired album, Mehraj-e-Ghazal. Given a choice between Khanum’s delicate folding of the verses and Asha’s peppier tonal dribbling, I’d go for the former on most evenings.

Also in the collection is Noor Jehan’s rendition of Mujhse pehli si mohabbat — which inspired Majrooh to the line Teri aankhon ke siwa duniya mein rakkha kya hai — which Faiz loved so much that he refused to recite the poem again. If Bano’s ‘mature’ voice seems to be steeped in years of Scotch, Noor Jehan’s was possibly seasoned in wild honey. And Khanum must have shifted from fruity red wines in her early career to rougher tipples later. Nayyara Noor, whose Chalo us koh par held me spellbound during my school years, must have had a regular supply of Mango Dolly ice-cream. And poet Zehra Nigah’s haunting, coruscating voice must have resulted from years of smoking.

The supple voice of Amanat Ali of the Patiala gharana, father of ‘Rockstar Ustaad’ Shafqat, reeks of zarda-laden paan, as does Begum Akhtar’s.

I took away one star from the album’s rating — for the atrocious lack of any literature accompanying this ‘collector’s edition’. When there’s no value addition of the sort, why shouldn’t we be driven to free mp3 downloads? But then, even after taking away that star, I found myself left with five.