Thursday, August 18, 2005

Plasticising The Universe
Two recent releases conform to the norm

Every succeeding generation finds marketing gimmicks and hype more pronounced than what it was before. But when it starts to affect the choices being made as far as the consumer is concerned, it can get really sad. Like two new albums do – Piya Basanti by Ustad Sultan Khan and Chitra (Sony Music) and The Complete Bhupen Hazarika – a tribute to Hazarika’s tunes (Virgin).

These two recent non-film releases (which, strangely, qualifies as pop in India, by default) by two venerable artists have rightfully received media attention. First and foremost, and we should get this out of the way, both these albums are worth listening to.

In Piya Basanti, sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan’s vocal chords are a revelation. His voice has a lived-in earthy character, besides the technical excellence being a follower of legendary khayal singer Ustad Amir Khan has bestowed upon him. The accomplished South Indian playback singer Chitra provides a sweet counterpoint to the Ustad’s ostensible gruffness and it all works quite nicely. Santosh Shandilya’s compositions are, not unexpectedly, the weak spot. The songs are pleasant and hummable, but not exactly unforgettable. For the most part, they could easily be film songs and not even the most memorable on that score (the title track and “Shaam Dhale” are impressive though). The arrangements are sometimes experimental – like the two solo Ustad Sultan Khan tracks. In “Koi Pyaar Se”, a ghazal is set to jazz-like rhythms; in “Dhee More”, the Ustad’s semi-classical flourishes are punctuated by Braz Gonsalves’ breezy saxophone, as languid jazz rhythms wash over conventional Indian arrangements (including sarangi). Interesting perhaps because of the novelty, but a forgettable hodge-podge at the end of the day. Overall, all this reduces Piya Basanti to an easy-listening album, which is sad, considering the opportunities it presented to produce a mature, meaningful work. To have a voice like Ustad Sultan Khan’s singing love duets that Sonu Nigam could have sung too is a bit of a travesty. Maybe, if the Ustad’s own compositions were given a shot rather than exercising the “commercial” (and safer) option of using Shandilya’s tunes, who knows what magic could have happened? Certainly, we’d have a more interesting set of songs where the Ustad would have sung his age. However, the only truly sickening thing about the album is its packaging, which is dominated by the models from the slick video of the title track, with small mug-shots of the artists and the composer tucked away in the corner. This is typically shallow thinking from the marketing team and the ad agency involved in its design of the jacket – but then again, we’ve come to expect such displays of sad taste from this lot.

This plasticisation, unfortunately, spills into the music in The Complete Bhupen Hazarika. Though Hazarika himself sings three full tracks in the album, his absence from the vocal booth is conspicuously missed. Fine artists like Hariharan, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Shaan, Hema Sardesai and others sing most of the tracks and they do so competently, but magnificence isn’t about competence. The character and soul of Hazarika’s voice would have lent an edge to the songs that is palpable in the songs he does sing, like “Ganga” and “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare” - easily the best songs on the album. However, those who are familiar with the stunning “Ganga” (inspired by a Paul Robson song, where he castigated the Mississippi river for flowing on peacefully despite the travails of humankind) will shake their heads ruefully. The electricity of the song has been diluted considerably by this jazzed-up, ersatz version, doubtlessly to have it cater to the “younger generation”. Yet, such is the inherent power of the song that it is still the highlight of the album and Hazarika’s singing contributes to that. Allowing Hazarika’s personal expressions over interpretations would have made more sense, one feels. But hey, since when have sensitivity and quality become the top priorities in our Pop Industry?

Both these albums, though pleasant and with merits, suffer from the same thing – the absence of the singer-songwriter in full bloom. Ultimately, the Indian pop industry is very similar to the Indian film industry – excellent voices, talented actors but very few quality songwriters, very few worthwhile scriptwriters. Are the myriad business interests in between stifling that talent? Rhetorical question.

October 2000


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