No one today can make anything that hasn’t already been done before: Hari and Sukhmani
The boatman’s son, the lover by a well, the immigrant... by now, haven’t we all witnessed and scoffed at the transformation of Chhalla into a filler tune for every other Punjabi track — including its complete transmogrification in the 2010 Hindi film Crook and the recent Uri: The Surgical Strike. One then wonders how to react to folktronica duo Hari Singh and Sukhmani Malik’s staggering, grim, goosebump-inducing dubstep version of the tragic Punjabi melody they did for Coke Studio.
“We always try to stay true to the soul of the song. When we initially sat down to produce it, the adjectives you’ve chosen didn’t come to mind! But we love the way you have described it,” says the duo, who was in the Capital for a concert recently. “As an artist, it’s important to stay true to yourself. And if that is conveyed in your music, then it’s a job well done. I truly believe that one should not put themselves in a box and create boundaries for oneself. This world has so much to offer and I do not see a point in limiting myself,” adds Sukhmani.
Of late, Punjabi folk melodies have been harvested rather aggressively, thanks to the rich history and deep sense of soul and nostalgia their rustic strains and sounds evoke. The likes of Latthe Di Chaadar, Kala Doreya and Madhaaniyaan have all been variously repurposed in films, and lyrical variations introduced, often to the end product finding an instant connect with the audience. The Doorbeen’s Lamberghini, which came out in early 2018, was on everyone’s playlist, and everyone whose phone screen I peeked into on my daily commute would be watching celebrities and choreographers groove to it.
But unlike many of their contemporaries, Hari & Sukhmani have no pretensions to the rather vague concept of originality. Their version of Baagay Vich Aaya Karo, of which Lamberghini was another version, is a fusion track with a characteristic ambient feel, done in collaboration with the Australian band The Coconut Kids. The opening English vocals glide effortlessly into the lovers’ banter (boliyan) in Punjabi.
Aithe pyaar di puchh koi na/ tere naal naiyo bolna/Tere munh te muchh koi na
Maza pyaar da chakh langa/ je tera hukm hoye/ main taan daadhi vi rakh langa
“Music has no language, and mediums of expression will always change with time. The most important thing is to maintain the sanctity of the song... make sure one maintains the soul of the song in its production. Can anyone in today’s day and age make anything that hasn’t already been done before? There are only 12 notes. A performance by an artist is true if it is relevant. We have had a great response from some people. It’s impossible to please the whole world, I think even God won’t be able to!” says the duo, who has collaborated with the Pakistani rock band Noori, Thu Le from Vietnam and the Iranian percussionist Fakhruddin Ghaffari.
We’ve got to ask it straight up then: doesn’t independent music face the danger of being overrun by the charge of a revolutionised internet landscape and proliferating hit song remakes? The duo sounds unruffled as they explain, “Indie music is different! Hence, it has its own space. Now there are so many platforms to be heard on. There’s space for everyone. It’s just a matter of hard work and a bit of luck. Personally, indie music is more expressive and individual. It doesn’t have a mass appeal that comes from most generic music, but it doesn’t need to.”
Considering that Sukhmani is a classical vocalist trained in the Hindustani tradition, it is interesting that she chose to experiment with the traditional in this way. She says, "My decision to choose a master’s in music vocal was a game-changer. It opened my eyes to the world of sur. There is peace and divinity in it and I am very grateful to my classical training and my gurus.”
“Folk music along with Sufi music is something I have grown up with. It was only natural for me to bring my own approach to the songs. Something that just came to me, I didn’t have to put too much thought there. Very organic, so to speak. Having said that, I enjoy both versions of the songs. In the end, it’s the soul of the song that speaks, no matter how it’s presented (of course as long as one is true to it),” she adds.
What Sukhmani calls soul, along with the duo’s Sufi connect, comes unquestionably from their influences — the poets and mystics Bulleh Shah, Farid and Kabir. “They have such strong and hard-hitting poetry. And nothing has changed. It still makes so much sense in today’s world. Sufi poetry is epic! A simple thought: why are we so busy fighting with each other when we should be fighting with the nerve that is making us fight, right?” asks the singer.
Classical at the core and contemporary in their approach, all of their music is peppered with modern sounds and styles. How receptive has the Delhi audience been of their style? “Delhi audience gets us! The rest of north India has been kind to us, too. Of course, we’ve had moments where we’ve performed for crowds in a more rural setting and some of the wide-eyed looks we’ve got for our dress sense and musical presentation have been a sight for sore eyes!” they say.
Some contend that in entertainment, the present time is the time of opportunity, across roles and genres. The duo is open to doing Bollywood music, and is hopeful that good work is going to come their way. “There have been opportunities in the past, but we strongly believe when the time is right, everything will fall into place, whether it’s Bollywood or something else. We did, however, do a little something for Deepa Mehta in the starting of our career for a film called Videsh - Heaven on Earth (2008). You never know — perhaps in the future, there might be something!”