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When the new fails to excite

Most of our recent filmi albums have been like homeopathic droplets in a sea of banality. Except Sajid-Wajid's Dabangg, nothing on the horizon has really pushed us out to the deck in recent weeks. So how do you keep blinking through the studio-fresh, yawnsome stuff?

music Updated: May 07, 2012 12:12 IST

Great works of Amir Khusro
EMI Pakistan/Virgin Records India, Rs 395 (3-CD set)
Rating: ****

Most of our recent filmi albums have been like homeopathic droplets in a sea of banality. Except Sajid-Wajid's Dabangg, nothing on the horizon has really pushed us out to the deck in recent weeks. So how do you keep blinking through the studio-fresh, yawnsome stuff? You reach for some old steroid, instead.

Thanks to Virgin Records, we have just the right medicine at the right time — another collection imported from EMI Pakistan's Great Works series. This three-CD set, comprising 28 songs written by the late-13th-early-14th-century poet Amir Khusro (as it's spelt on the cover), comes right after a similar collection of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's works. And like the earlier collection, it dazzles.

Nothing in the packaging induces love at first sight. It's a dull jacket that repeats the motif of an Islamic arch in different hues and gives no information on the recordings, accompanists, or on the master whose works are being celebrated.

Yet there are a couple of things to be said in favour of the series. Rather than a ridiculous regular like 'Greatest Works' or 'Biggest Hits', the title promises a more gracious 'Great Works'. The other thing in favour of the series editors is that, in a widely-cherished field where almost every song has been recorded more than once by several masters, they have moved sideways from regular curation by including more than one rendition of some of the songs.

Take 'Chhap tilak'. Every South Asian singer interested in Sufiana kalam has sung it. It was popularised beyond the incestuous tribe of the cognoscenti by a rare Lata-Asha duet in Raj Khosla's 1978 film, Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki. This collection opens with a rendition by the Sabri Brothers, and then there's another on CD 3 by Bilqees Khanum and Ishrat Jahan. Both versions play along the traditional composition in raag Behag, but the filigree works come out clearer in Khanum and Jahan's voices. (For a longer, more loving rendition, check out the Sabri Brothers singing years ago at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, the one that was bombed last week, at tinyurl.com/26rj28h.)

Similarly, despite the collection's multiple versions of 'Khabram Raseedah' — by the magisterial Iqbal Bano and the more traditional Sabri Brothers — I'm driven elsewhere for the best pick. For me, none of these versions compare with Nusrat Fateh Ali's recording in raag Kedar (tinyurl.com/33ctqua).

Not all the songs are qawwalis. There's a fair share of Khusro's works in mithi-boli, the sweet Ganga-side tongue he used to reach out to the region's commonfolk. Among these geets, Nasima Shaheen and Nighat Seema's 'Kahe ko vyahe bides', the song that entered the subcontinent's favourites list through Muzaffar Ali's film Umrao Jaan, sounds eerily close to Jagjit Kaur's in the film. And miles apart from both these is the other version in this collection, by the Sabri Brothers.

The fact that some of the songs have been recorded decades apart offers a rare glimpse into the evolving voice of a singer or a troupe. It's not easy to tell without liner notes; but the voice of the Sabri Brothers in 'Aaj rang hai' sounds older than that in 'Chhap tilak', which in turn seems older than that in 'Khabram Raseedah'. And what a difference age makes. As time passes, you hear younger brother Maqbool Ahmed claiming more space from the elder Ghulam Farid, who keeps himself more to the guttural “Allah”.

If there's one crib with this collection's recordings, it's about the accompaniment. When not traditional, it tends to be kitschy in the manner of 1980s' Doordarshan studio recordings. Frighteningly, the 'modern' bit comes in the form of vamping on that era's 'wonder instrument': the synthesiser. Apart from that, this is as good as it gets in one publisher's repertoire.

So why not five stars? Blame it on the those who refuse to give out any information other than songs and singers. Clearly, we need to learn a lot about investing in our 'collector's editions'.