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Rain and the smell of Indian earth

Ab Ke Sawan
Shubha Mudgal
Rs 65

There are many reasons I like this album. Shubha Mudgal's voice, bold, vigorous, undaunted by silly ideas of how a woman's voice ought to sound. The words by Prasoon Joshi and Jaideep Sahni, talking about love, life, the rain, not in cliches but with warmth and wisdom. Shantanu Moitra's music, which gallantly refuses to sacrifice authentic Indian elements at the altar of mass appeal. This is pop brought home, and it's original.

Shubha is a trained classical vocalist famous for her thumri singing. Perhaps what a 100-metre sprint is to a marathon runner, pop is to a classical vocalist! Here Shubha adapts her expansive classical expertise to the miniature art of pop. What this album offers is not ragas set to pop rhythms but new tunes drawing strength from raga music.

Nazia Hassan's Disco Deewane and Alisha's Made in India did not draw from Indian ragas. Neither singer was rooted in raga music. Biddu, who composed the music for both, was strongly influenced by disco, a musical style shaped by the requirements of the dance floor. Indian elements, when he chose to introduce them, sounded exotic. Even the video for Made in India, with its lavishly bedecked princess, elephants and snake charmers, derives from a false and now much denounced Western notion of India. Ab ke Sawan's musical language, by contrast, is Indian. It draws from our ragas, from our mendicant music, and combines with pop rhythms without being submerged by them.

The title track, which has been on the music channels, welcomes the monsoon and all the happy thoughts it brings (This is no season of distance/ where's my lover now?) Shubha unleashes raw musical energy, and is backed up by a rock band, with its heavy drumming, distortion guitar runs and bass riffs. At times you feel Shubha's rendering was exhilarating enough and didn't need all that noise in the background. The tune is a bit repetitive, the other tunes are not.

Ab ke Sawan revels in rain images and comes up with fresh poetic expressions. "Let me drink the rain; it'll make my heart verdant" is a particularly striking line. The rain fulfils an inner need, and singer is not at all bothered that the dowpour is draining away the colours of her chunari! The video shows the rain descending on a small lane. It inspires an impromptu fusion between a rehearsing rock band and a reluctant Shubha. The video refreshingly shows a streetful of ordinary people; it breaks away from the music video obsession with anorexic, mechanically swaying bodies.

Side A opens with Dere dere, an energetic love song. A brass ensemble makes up the interludes, and a bit of the samba mixes with Shubha's sargams.

Usne kahan is an intelligent mix of styles: rap beat, choral bits, a church organ. Its religious overtones is reminiscent of the songs of Enigma. Shubha's voice waxes and wanes stylishly on a lovely lilt. In the middle, she sings some tarana syllables.

Seekho na is a love song with a very Indian melody. There is again an almost pious, old-worldly lyricism in the words, expressed elegantly in raga Khamaj. "Learn the language of the eyes; this silence speaks to you," it says. The sarangi (Murad Ali) opens the song with a restrained phrase, and plays haunting ghazal-style interludes.

Bhai re is inspired by Bengali mendicant music. A Baul (Narottam Das) sings a few introductory phrases, and there's a lot of the wandering mendicant in the tune too. Its rhythm track is full of deep, lively sounds, supplemented by a drone and the twang of an ektaar. The poem talks about the difficulty of relationships, of the need for space, of love that accepts without destroying: You have your song, and she has hers.

Hai pyar to musafir is again a philosophical meditation on love. Love here is "a traveller who comes and goes when he pleases". It's so human it gets angry, walks away, refuses to meet people who wait a lifetime, and surprises others by arriving unexpectedly at the door! Shubha at times sings on a parallel track, taking off on spontaneous alap flights.

Is pal, an Ovidian celebration of the present, is a relatively tame song. It acquires some life towards the end, when Shubha sings sargams in raga Kalavati, supported by an African-style harmonised chorus.

Bairi chain is soft as a lullaby, and wonders where peace is lost, and when it will come back. Shubha sings wistfully in the beginning, and then flings herself into anguished phrases for the refrain Bairi chain. There are baroque pipe and violin bits, but the European gives way soon enough to the very Indian musings of Shubha and the sarangi.
Ab ke Sawan is fresh with the smells of the Indian earth. In its melodies, its poetry and its attitude, it redefines Indian pop.

S R Ramakrishna

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