Perhaps it is only appropriate that I begin my review of an album that seems to channel just about every significant Hindi musical genre from the film industry's (now mostly dead) past, with the track featuring the central figure in Hindi filmdom: Noor is a fifty-second declamation by Amitabh Bachchan, preaching a neo-Sufi message of loving God by loving those around us. It would be a mistake to approach this track as simply an opportunity to listen to Bachchan's legendary voice in action; rather, the man is an actor, and this track only makes sense in the context of the role he is playing -- evidently that of a genial, old-world figure whose ideas seem at once high minded and noble, but perhaps also a tad quaint. Bachchan "acts" wonderfully here (aided by Prasoon Joshi's lyrics, of course), etching all this in under a minute in a manner worthy of a radio play. But the very existence of this track itself took me down memory lane -- back to a time when film soundtracks often featured dialogs from the film as well (and certainly, the likes of Sanjeev Kumar, Pran, and of course Bachchan, had voices crying out to be heard). Joshi isn't kidding when he has a lyric in one of this album's other tracks say "ye sheher nahin mehfil hai" -- for Mehra, and thus Rahman and Joshi, seems to be paying tribute not just to a place, but to a state of mind, perhaps even a way of being.
Aarti (Tumre Bhavan Mein) is a reminder, if any were needed, that Rahman is perhaps the last composer in the Hindi film industry who produces anything like a devotional song. Hindi cinema's rather rich tradition of qawwalis and filmi bhajans has dwindled almost to one, which makes one treasure every such offering from Rahman like a jewel (it certainly is far rarer than the bling bling that dominates so many Hindi film music videos these days). And this Aarti is indeed gem-like in its perfection, its ability to invoke beauty with great economy, and its delicate size (at just about three minutes). Yet, like the equally perfect Alai Payuthey from the film of the same name, its pleasures are not cold ones: the quavering, neo-Carnatic-style vocals Rahman has Rekha Bharadwaj, Kishori Gowariker, Shraddha Pandit, and Sujata Majumdar employ here, combined with the sharp throb they manage to compress into the word "ambAA", ensures that this track tugs at the heartsrings. Indeed, the contrast between the intimacy of the vocals and the traditional-yet-impersonal instrumental backdrop, illustrates the loneliness of the endeavor: organized religion might not be understandable except as a communitarian program; but devotion is a solitary enterprise. It is clearly this solitude, and its fragility, that interests Rahman in this delicate, oddly forlorn song. In an era when perhaps nothing is so endangered by the re-casting of religion as a political project above all else, as the space of a personal religiosity that seeks the freedom to duck the political projects of the day, perhaps the song's sad tone isn't odd at all. But Rahman's own attachment to the quiet devotional song, and his many contributions to that tradition, are also grounds for optimism. The tradition won't die out if Rahman can help it, and "little" numbers like the Aarti here might yet prove indestructible: the maestro may cast himself in the role of supplicant in these songs, but one would do well to remember that Lord Shiva too wandered in rags.
Bhor Bhaye is another sensational bit of traditional wizardry, but as unlike the Aarti as any two tracks could be: this semi-classical number appears to sample the voice of the late Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan with the very contemporary Shreya Goshal. My amateur ear was blown away by Goshal serving as a foil to the legend of Hindustani classical music; coming just a few months after her wanton turn in Ghajini's Lattoo, this track confirms that Goshal possesses versatility and range her contemporaries do not. And her voice appears to be getting better with age, every year losing more of the generic sweetness that marred her early work. The master of ceremonies is of course Rahman, who manages to pay tribute to both the "classical" as well as the "popular" traditions by deftly integrating Goshal's efforts into this dense pattern of tabla and other traditional instruments, and the Ustad's voice. This synthesis is key to any appreciation of even Rahman's "traditional" music -- he has always been a renewer, not a disciple; promiscuous, not monkish in his musical proclivities.
Genda Phool is the third stop in Rahman's tour of traditional musical forms that seem to be dying out in Hindi film music: if the two songs above represented Carnatic and Hindustani classical idioms, respectively, Genda Phool (credited to both Rahman and Rajat Dholakia) is squarely in the tradition of North Indian folk/wedding songs. This isn't a first for Rahman, who seemed to hew quite closely to the traditional paradigm in Banno Rani (1947: Earth); but scratch the surface and it is Genda Phool that perhaps more authentically represents the tradition, largely by way of Rekha Bharadwaj's singular voice, which could manage to suffuse both sex and sorrow into an advertising jingle (to be fair, Banno Rani didn't need to do much more than juxtapose the incongruity of the lyrics with the horrible child-old man marriage that occasioned the song). Combined with the simulated horns and street calls that punctuate this song, it seems Mehra doesn't have an idyllic wedding celebration in mind, but one in which the world has already intruded. This shouldn't surprise us, given the amount of world-weariness, perhaps even cynicism, the traditional wedding ditty has long managed to pack in -- the epic inter-family struggles and romantic trials and tribulations these songs testify to are a world removed from the greeting card romances much of Bollywood has, for some years now, insisted on peddling as the summa of Indian "family" traditions. Rahman can do both puerile and adult with great gusto, but no-one selects Rekha Bharadwaj for anything infantile; one can only hope for more extended collaborations between the two (at under three minutes, this one simply whets the appetite).
The qawwali is one of the few traditional forms that is doing quite well for itself in these times, partly due to Rahman's own interventions, and partly because the rhythms and energy of certain qawwali traditions are easily transposed in bastardized form into more contemporary film music forms. But the specific kind of qawwali Arziyan pays homage to -- more reflective, and specific to the Gangetic plain (as opposed to, for instance Punjab; recognizing that these are both rather sweeping generalizations that conceal a variety of differences) -- has never found much of a following in Hindi cinema, except through the rather diluted medium of (admittedly splendid) songs like Na To Karavaan Ki Talaash Hai/Ye Ishq Ishq (Barsaat Ki Raat). And as with Bhor Bhaye, Rahman wishes to keep both poles in mind: this Janus-like approach is reflected in Arziyan by the use of both Jawaid Ali and Kailash Kher, with the former (wittingly or unwittingly) paying tribute to the sublime Rafi, and Kher's muscular voice reminding us why he might just be the most soulful singer in Hindi today. Over the last year or so, Rahman's qawwali-style numbers have taken a turn for the quieter and more mellow, and Arziyan is certainly in the tradition of Marhaba Ya Mustafa (Ar-Risalah) and Khwaja Mere Khwaja (Jodha-Akbar). Where it is richer than either of those is in its length (over eight-and-a-half minutes), which enables the singers to "take time" to get through to the listener, relatively unconstrained by a four or five minute straitjacket; and in the fact that it goes through several tunes, akin to a "true" qawwali, including an unusual (albeit disappointing) rendition of "Mora Piya Ghar Aaya" (disappointing because Rahman seems to have drained all the intensity and passion from this masterpiece, leaving mere catchiness). But no such charge can be laid against the central "Maula Mere Maula" motif, quietly urgent and straining to get at the Lord. Arziyan is unlikely to be my favorite track from this album -- it lacks the intricacy and freshness of this album's other offerings; as well as the wounding sentiment of Marhaba Ya Mustafa -- but it might be the most complete musical experience this album offers: it does so many things, and in a gentle manner that envelops the listener (as opposed to bludgeoning him into submission), that one feels a sense of loss when the song is done: the silence is deafening.
When Ash King began crooning "Dil Mera... Dil Mera", my heart sank at the rather pedestrian beginning to Dil Gira Daffatan, a song I had heard was one of the album's highlights. I needn't have worried: at around the forty-second mark Rahman jettisons the generic lovelorn song in favor of some glittering stringed arrangements; when Ash King's vocals return, it is with a stunning love song that is lean, yet not so much minimal as imbued with the sort of precision we heard in Ye Haseen Vaadiyan (Roja). In both songs Rahman allows the words the freedom to be surrounded by an instant of silence that is just a shade longer than expected -- the effect is that of notes hanging on the winter air, their meaning amplified. While not as laser-like as the masterfully orchestrated Tu Bin Bataaye (Rang De Basanti), the pleasures of Dil Gira Daffatan are less abstract, more accessible: the former impresses you with its balance and its unsettling mood; the song from Roja has no equal for evoking the wide mountain spaces the song's lyrics evoke; but this is a song that embraces one, melting fiddler strains, romantic lyrics, and a chorus tune that is simply ravishing (all the more so when King's "Dil...gira kaheen, daffatan" is accompanied by Chinmayee's "Kyun goonj rahee hai dhadkan?"). The tempo of the vocals is slower than the background music, heightening the auditory effect of an intricate structure that might well be on the verge of collapse: the slowness marked by the genteel vocals does not seem sustainable in the long run, not in the face of the velocity of the passion invoked here.
If Delhi-6 is going to have a signature tune, it is bound to be Mohit Chauhan's drunken, wandering Masakalli, bringing a much needed whiff of the street to this album, and (if the film's previews are anything to go by) charmingly choreographed by Vaibhavi Merchant. The song begins with an unmistakable "NRI hero" signature, Rahmanized: Yashraj-style "Hey hey" vocals that quickly give way to a simple harmonica strain that catches you and won't let go, not least because it is tantalizingly brief. Soon Chauhan unleashes his ode to a pigeon. The whole concoction sits lightly on the listener, without ever being trivial (the robust "udiyo, na dariyo / kar manmaani manmaani manmaani" refrain is too strident to be dismissed lightly; one would do well to remember that pigeons were traditionally serious business, as both aristocratic sport and gambling opportunities, and the kabootar-baaz respected for his skill); rather, if Delhi-6 were a meal, this surely would be the souffle at the end. It is early days yet for this album, but on the strength of the day or two I have spent living with it, Masakalli is a charmer, and I suspect its attractions will stand the test of time.
Hey Kaala Bandar is quite obviously the weak link in this album -- so obvious, in fact, that it merits some closer attention. Beginning with its lyrics, which aren't the upbeat banality of something like Paathshaala (Rang de Basanti); instead, by making light of the "Monkey Man" hysteria that swept Delhi some years, the song appears to be mocking both our propensity for hysteria ("It wasn't me, I swear / Everyone's looking for the monkey out there"), as well as our complicity ("hamaam mein hum saaray nangay"). Slowly, the song's refrain ("Hey kaala kaala kaala bandar / Baahar hai ya andar") begins to make sense: the dreaded monkey isn't out there but in here. And he evidently has his uses, enabling both greater outlays on security, and the creation of a common purpose for the community. Ultimately, the song's lyrics take on a chilling tone, invoking our political, blood-stained traumas ("Aao hum sheesha dekhen / Us mein sandesha dekhen / Apna ghaayal hissa dekhen / Apna asli qissa dekhen"), and the contrast between these lyrics and the song's cheerful, almost inane, tempo, is unsettling. This is manifestly a "situational" song, and it is difficult to "read" outside of the context of the film. While hardly a musical tour de force, the mournful strains interrupting the seeming revelry, and Prasoon Joshi's satirical lyrics, mark it out as the conscience of the album, a reminder, perhaps, that the Delhi Mehra seeks to invoke in his film is not simply an exercise in nostalgia; not something that is dying so much as being killed.
Rehna Tu is the sort of jazzy song that at first blush sounds like it should have been the centerpiece of Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (perhaps even in place of the title song of that album), but just when you begin to think that Rahman has deprived Abbas Tyrewala's directorial debut of the pick of the maestro's recent jazzy numbers, you feel Rahman's vocals prick at you, especially when he croons "thoda resham, tu humdum/ thoda sa khurdura / kabhi to adhja, ya ladhja ...", and straight away you know nothing so poignant, so evocative of loss, could have been appropriate for a film about happily resolved puppy love. In Delhi-6 this belongs, and its combination of seamlessness -- Rahman's vocals have perhaps never been smoother, and seem of the music, not an accompaniment to it -- and limpid sorrow, maddens me at points, bringing to mind every lost love, almost a re-enactment of every loss. As with more than one Rahman-Mehra collaboration, Rehna Tu is not musically groundbreaking: Rakeysh Mehra prefers a music of tone and nuance, and like Rang de Basanti's Tu Bin Bataaye, this too is a masterpiece of tone and mood. The song knows it too, and ends by abandoning all vocals in a mellow instrumental finale that wends well over a minute, a movement that would -- with a shift in mood -- not be out of place in Talvin Singh's Ha (specifically, in the sublime It's Not Over). That extended conclusion enables -- even forces -- the listener to contemplate the song that has preceded it; the conclusion is not so much music as afterglow. By the time the album gives way to the next song, we get it: Rehna Tu pricks because its mellow music knows that the lyrics, about one's beloved always remaining the same, are not so much a lie as a tragic impossibility. Only the loss of what is, slipping away even as one contemplates it, confers meaning. Contemplation of the beloved is simply remembrance.
I'm not sure which of the three female vocalists credited for Ye Delhi Hai Mere Yaar is responsible for the refrain that wafts across as if from a radio (think of that other Delhi Rahman song crackling over the airwaves, Ae Ajnabee from Dil Se), or even a dream, but my money is on Tanvi: "Ye Dilli Hai Mere Yaar," the voice not so much singing as insinuating into your ear, as if to say you're better off asleep, your memories those of the body, a sense of smell, a gesture, an angle, but no less ephemeral for all that: she will be there when you wake up, but receding. Yet wake up you must, because the one who tantalizes you is, in this song, a lover, and also a city. Rahman is in tune with that dissonance -- between the intimate reverie you want to return to, and the public clamor of the city you cannot forget and can never return to simply by travelling there -- and rudely jolts us with Benny Dayal's and Blaaze's neo-rap that is at once irritating and necessary for the song to achieve the desired effect. Rarely have I encountered a song that is so brief (barely over three and a half minutes) and that seems to traverse such a distance, from the bedroom's rumpled sheets to Connaught Place (and a detour by way of the French lyrics of Rahman's last Tamil album, Sakkarakatti). Or perhaps no distance at all: it ends as it began, with the faint mockery of "ye Delhi hai mere yaar" hanging in the air, "bas ishq, muhabbat, pyar." "Bas": you want to go back to sleep now, not to escape, but to try and return.