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The music in her heart

Man ke Manjeere is about the chimes within women's hearts, and the anxiety to ensure that they are not muted

Man ke Manjeere
Rs 75

Have you seen the music video for Man ke manjeere? It's a fantastic study in russet: the colour of desert sand, of sunsets, and, you slowly realise, the colour of rebellion and the search for dignity.

Shot by Sujit Sircar and Gary (their first video)it is based on the true life story of Shameem Pathan, who showed the courage to break out of her marriage with a violent man to seek her destiny on the tough highways -- literally -- of life. She tried milk vending, and then learnt to drive a van. Through all this she supported her son (the video adaptation uses a girl) and lent a helping hand to women in desperate domestic circumstances.

The word unafraid comes to mind to describe Shubha's vocals. Her enunciation is open, not minced; her voice is thrown out, not half swallowed in timid compliance. The tune is bracing, full of darkness and hope, matching the visuals that are both bleak and beautiful. The mridang brings to mind a warrior -- the woman who soldiers on with stoicism and refuses to lose her warmth. The video is a mini masterpiece, briefly narrating a story of bonding, with all the actors bringing an unartificial grace to it.

The flute blows in and out unobtrusively but with heavy, cello-like momentum, adding a breathy charm to the melody. I haven't heard any other Indian song use the flute in this style. The orchestra is done with great sensitivity: it stylishly backs up Shubha's fabulous singing, and nowhere does it overwhelm the words.

In an interview with Monsoon Magazine, Shubha says modestly that all her attempts at singing different gharana styles and music genres have just been experiments to see what she could do with her "flawed" voice. This would seem to sum up the way all human life ought to be: a passionate striving to make good with the given. Echoes what Allama Prabhu, the Kannada vachanakara, says, "He is neither brave nor wise who refuses the horse offered and asks for some other".

Man ke Majeere was conceived by Breakthrough, an organisation for women's rights founded by Mallika Dutt.

Mallika became well-known when she worked with Sakhi, a group to help battered Asian women in the US. A lawyer by training, she is now the human rights programme officer at the Ford Foundation office in Delhi.

This all-women album brings together folk, classical and pop singers. The mix is something you are unused to, and the shift from one genre to another jerks you in surprise, and makes the album an uneven listening experience.

This should be an album close to Shubha Mudgal' heart, unlike the cliched Pyar ke Geet, her last album, the video of which tried to cash in on the Kargil war.

Mahalakshmi Iyer, who sings for A R Rahman and Ilaiyaraja and the remix group Instant Karma, and Antara Chowdhury, daughter of the legendary composer Salil Chowdhury, also sing individual tracks.

There's raw, authentic strength in the voice of Rukmabai, the first woman of the Manganiyar community to perform in public. Music Today, incidentally, has brought out an excellent collection of songs by the Langars and Manganiars, folk singers from Rajasthan, in its excellent folk music series. It's only the men who sing on those albums.

Rukmabai, polio-stricken and unable to move, sings Kesariya balam, a traditional song in raga Maand. It's a raspy call to the beloved to return home.

After Rukmabai's song, Shubha returns with

Intezaar, where she speaks out some lines and breaks out into a protest against the eternal waiting of women. Won't someone tell me to go to sleep, she asks. The tune has a jazzy dissonance, and might bring to mind those excellent vamp songs in Hindi films.

Prasoon's writes:

Ayega woh dhoop ka tukda ik din mere dwar
Intezaar intezaar jiske mujhe intezaar

(That bit of sunlight will come to my door one day
I wait, I wait, I keep waiting for it)

Shubha says men poets always use the feminine point of view. The girl waiting for her lover, and her longing and pain at his unfaithfulness have found expression in poetry by men. This is the classical legacy that Prasoon carries forward. The former copywriter earlier wrote the songs in Shubha's Ab ke Sawan and Silk Route's Boondein.

Shubha sings Maati , a slow number about the deep kinship that women share with the earth, always cast as the biggest provider and caregiver of all. Babul, based on raga in Khamaj, is a girl's hesitant plea to her father not to marry her off to a goldsmith but to an ironsmith who will melt her chains. The influence of thumri singing is evident in the way the song progresses. Incidentally, Shubha is known as a fine exponent of that romantic form.

Jheel, also by Shubha, says a woman needs to be like a river, finding her own path, and not like a land-bound lake. The song begins with a faraway, folk-style phrase by Sughani Devi and her companion.

Diwaliben, a folk singer who won the Padmashri in 1990, works as a nanny, escorting children to school and back. She sings Aiva aiva, a traditional Gujarati song which meanders in a way that jazz artistes would envy. Shantanu decorates it with unnecessary keyboard strings and rhythm. Only the piano against the twining voice sounds right at the beginning of the song. Folksy-sounding instruments like the morsing and some bells mix with the keyboard. The song, more than 200 years old, is about a woman waiting for her fisherman husband to return.

Antara Chowdhury has a thin voice which sings correctly and suits the girlish and straightforward pop tune Khwab khwab. This paints a young girl's dreams, and seems out of sync with the other tracks on the album. Antara is now writing a book on Salil Chowdhury's music. Nearly two decades ago, she sang playback for a child actor in a Kannada film (the title song in Chinna Ninna Muddaduve) under her father's baton; her voice hasn't acquired a very mature timbre.

Mahalakshmi's Beeti raina is more pop than even Anatara's song, and does nothing to add to Shantanu's track record of good tunes. Breakthrough believes popular culture can be used to increase awareness about women's rights and social justice, and this seems to be a step in that direction.

Shantanu Moitra arranges (and probably computer-edits) his orchestra with a fine sense of colour. He is unencumbered by the popular film style of say, a Jatin Lalit or Anu Malik, yet the keyboard tones he uses fill you with a feeling of deja vu. More acoustic instruments may perhaps provide solidity to his creative efforts.

Everything on this album may not appeal to your taste, but some tracks are sure not to leave you alone -- they will certainly haunt you.

S Suchitra Lata

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