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Be One With What You See

16th September is the 100th birth anniversary of Carnatic music legend MS Subbulakshmi. Few know that MS also sang Ishrat-e qatrah, a complex Ghalib ghazal. S Anand, author, poet and founder of Navayana, an independent publishing house, writes about this strangely beautiful endeavour

books Updated: Sep 09, 2016 23:05 IST
S Anand
S Anand
Hindustan Times
MS Subbulakshmi,Mirza Ghalib,Carnatic
MS Subbulakshmi(HT Photo)

ʿIshrat-e qat̤rah hai daryā meñ fanā ho jānā

dard kā ḥad se guzarnā hai davā ho jānā

The drop delights in being effaced by the sea

When pain crosses a threshold, it becomes relief

tujh se qismat meñ mirī ṣūrat-e qufl-e abjad

thā likhā bāt ke bante hī judā ho jānā

Into the lock on my destiny, the writing of your key

Such is fate that should we click, we’d be parted instantly

dil huʾā kashmakash-e chārah-e zaḥmat meñ tamām

miṭ gayā ghisne meñ is ʿuqde kā vā ho jānā

The ruining of the heart in finding a way out of grief

The chafing and tightening of the knot while seeking release

ab jafā se bhī haiñ maḥrūm ham al-lâh al-lâh

is qadar dushman-e arbāb-e vafā ho jānā

Now even tyranny is denied to me, Allah is testimony—

To be such an enemy of those who profess constancy

ẓuʿf se giryah mubaddal bah dam-e sard huʾā

bāvar āyā hameñ pānī kā havā ho jānā

In weakness, my cries are turned into sighs

I now have faith in how water turns into breath

dil se miṭnā tirī angusht-e ḥināʾī kā ḳhayāl

ho gayā gosht se nāḳhun kā judā ho jānā

The effacing of your hennaed fingers from my memory

Is like a fingernail being rent from flesh, slowly

hai mujhe abr-e bahārī kā baras kar khulnā

rote rote ġham-e furqat meñ fanā ho jānā

The bursting open of a spring cloud upon me:

In the grief of parting, tears descrying their mortality

gar nahīñ nak’hat-e gul ko tire kūche kī havas

kyūñ hai gard-e rah-e jaulān-e ṣabā ho jānā

If the fragrance of rose is not curious about your street

Why would it turn to dust in the path of the breeze?

baḳhshe hai jalvah-e gul żauq-e tamāshā ġhālib

chashm ko chāhiye har rang meñ vā ho jānā

Enjoy, Ghalib, the allure bestowed upon you by flowers

Be one with what you see, let the eye take in all colours

tā kih tujh par khule ějāz-e havā-e ṣaiqal

dekh barsāt meñ sabz āʾine kā ho jānā

So that space furbished by the breeze is revealed to you

Observe, when it rains, the mirror turning green

It was MS Subbulakshmi’s brave and bhakti-filled rendition of this Ghalib ghazal, listed as 48 in his Divan (, that drew me in. On the YouTube link ( to the song, the copyright holder has pettily objected to its use, and has had it removed; so we listen to silence. But the comments and reactions are too noisy to miss; they tell many stories. (We can yet listen to the song here,

A YouTube commentator says it was the thumri and ghazal queen Begum Akhtar who taught MS this ghazal during a visit to Madras. However, someone who has tracked MS closely, the journalist and MS’s grand-niece Gowri Ramnarayan, says ( “Begum Akhtar had wanted to teach MS, but it was Siddheshwari Devi who came to live in her Kalki Gardens home for six months and taught her thumri, bhajan, and even chhota khyal.” But listening to MS rendering some murkis — super fast mordents — in Begum Akhtar’s signature style, it is likely that the Begum had had her way at least once with MS. And after all, Siddheshwari Devi did not sing ghazals or any Ghalib that we know of. The Begum was also being rather impish in offering MS a ghazal rarely sung even by experts given its rather abstract and philosophical — and at once erotic — take on love and death. Barkat Ali Khan (, brother to the better-known Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, has had a go at it too. No matter from whom she learnt it, it is MS who shines the light on this ghazal.

Read more: Can Vidya Balan do an M.S. Subbulakshmi?

After being thrust into the service of Indian nationalism by T Sadasivam, who single-mindedly pursued the profession of being her husband, MS sang at a host of platforms and in many languages — including an invocation ( at the inauguration of the Sixth Afro-Asian Conference of Ophthalmology in 1976 in Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese, English and Tamil — as if each were a conquest of sorts for Sadasivam. Someone like Coimbatore Thayi (, we could argue, even carp, was far more talented, and that not every gifted Devadasi in those days had such a savvy brahmin manager-husband and hence the opportunity to stake claim to temporal immortality (for time, sometimes, can be wounded by art), and that Thayi (1872–1917), named by her mother Vengamaal as Palanikunjaram, lived before her time and is little known today despite cutting about 300 discs in her short life.

But we must suspend all judgment awhile when MS sings Ghalib; we must try and not judge even ourselves. We must not forget that we are in the presence of a woman capable of charging words in any language with the current of music. Barriers like pronunciation and incomprehension do not come in the way once MS sets her mind on something. And so MS (aided by Sadasivam’s daughter, Radha, to whom she became a young mother and teacher) sings Ghalib’s Ishrat-e qat̤rah in Carnatic style Kapi raga with the same devotion she reserves for her famous Kurai ondrum illai in Tamil, Jagadodharana in Kannada or Bhaja Govindam in Sanskrit, a sentiment that seems misplaced if not dissonant as an adornment for the rather powerful set of abstractions Ghalib presents around union and separation, life and mortality, to show us how these distinctions fold into one another. To be clear, MS’s version of the ghazal features in an album that bears the tacky title Universal Krishna, featuring an odd medley. Released posthumously in 2006 (SaReGaMa), it has recordings likely made in the 1970s including that of Bhajara Yadunatham Manasa.

MS Subbulakshmi at a function in New Delhi on 18 December 1980 (Virendra Prabhakar/HT Photo)

Jumping quickly to the line ab jafā se bhī haiñ maḥrūm ham Al-lâh Al-lâh, MS takes the name of Allah at 1.23 with utmost devotion, never mind that this is not the affect Ghalib intends to invoke here. Despite singing in an andāz, style, that echoes Jaddan Bai and KL Saigal, she offers delectable gamakas (the stylised negotiation of gravity between notes) wherever she deems them necessary. The harmonium player, bless him even if he remains nameless, offers some amazing interludes. My friend the Hindi poet Asad Zaidi, who led me to this song, says he’s never heard Allah being rendered in such a fashion, and regards it overall to be a superlative effort.

Mirza Ghalib

The words may not be enunciated by MS the way any Udru speaker is likely used to hearing them; in fact, in the maqta line at 5.35 she calls out Ghalib’s name with great affection as Gaaleeb. That’s how a Tamil would address Ghalib with love, and love can speak any language — and even do without it. But these anxieties and amusements fade if you let the singing take over. You realise one genius is simply eager to offer her salaam to another. If Ghalib had heard MS become one with his words so, he’d have surely written her a few love poems and tried to steal into his lines the light glinting off her diamond earrings, and called it noor. If MS were his contemporary, Ghalib may have made a second long journey in his life, to Madras (the first one was to Calcutta). And he would have been one with what he saw; he’d have let his eye take in all colours, and he’d even have cried, Al-lâh Al-lâh.

(For Asad Zaidi)

S Anand is the co-author, with Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, of Finding My Way