Monday, October 08, 2007

And in my veins flows the Ganges....

"Sabki ragon mein lahoo bahein hain, hamri ragon mein Ganga maiyya"

(Blood flows in people's veins, and in mine flows the Ganges)

What a strange thought! Yet that line from the perky song "Hum to aise hain bhaiyya" (We are like this) from the soon-to-be-released Pradeep Sarkar film Laaga Chunari Mein Daag brought back a lot of memories.

Actually, just a disclaimer: this is not really a music review, even though I have been listening to some of the songs over and over again. Along with the quoted song, there are really only two other songs that make this album lovely enough to be worth blogging. And primarily that is because I can't remember the last time Hindi cinema managed to pay such sincere homage to Banaras.

The first song - Hum to aise hain bhaiyya - is a surprising but long delayed ode to Banaras - the first notes are laden with the smells and sounds of early mornings in the city of my childhood: the clanging bells in temples, the rhythmic splashing of the Ganges waters against wooden boats, the masti powered by bhang or simply life itself. The song catches the spirit of the ancient but lively city I grew up in - not the city that tourists and pilgrims see but the one that is reserved for its inhabitants. Banaras has always been a city full of fun, laughter, wit, music; it has long been a city of masti!

The first time I heard the song, I ended up with a lapful of memories, wondering how and when I lost those magical times: those early morning walks to Assi ghat to watch the dawn; the chattering of teeth when we finally emerged from playing in the water; those delicious breakfasts of hot kale channe ki ghughri and jalebis dunked in glassfuls of hot milk.

Similar nostalgia came with the Meeta Vashisht and Shubha Mudgal's lounge-style version of the title song. Mudgal's voice and training has rarely been used so well by commercial cinema. The lyrics - in klishth Hindi - as spoken by Vashisht took me back to hot June afternoons when the sky would turn brown and gold with clouds of dust and then the aandhis would race down the emptied streets. And over that storm, Mudgal's voice flows as gently as the Ganges, and just as relentlessly.

I remember growing up in a city where women were always tougher than the men - and far more rebellious. There is a sense of innate confidence and a sankipanaa about Banarasi women that I have yet to find elsewhere. My grandmother could swim across the entire Ganges, and not even the flood water would faze her. My mother and aunts seemed to have walked to unheard beats of a different drummer from all others. Even cousins seemed madly rebellious; there were a memorably fashionable bunch who scandalised Banaras by wearing Zeenat Aman-style mini-dresses (this was back in the 70s!). And there was that fabulous - unnamed - woman who drove to the university every morning, past our house, on a massive Enfield! They were all individual storm winds - some who faded into the galis while others have swept through the world, changing and transforming it in their wakes. And Mudgal/Vashisht just brought all those long forgotten aandhis back into the light.

Finally, there is Rekha Bhardawaj's song that has been classified by reviewers as a traditional mujra number. What a shame! Its so much more...The song reminds me of sitting on a rooftop at dawn, watching as the Ganges turns the into miles of red and orange and yellow silk, like so many tanchois spread out for miles. And from somewhere far away comes the faint sound of riyaaz.

On warm summer nights, we would sleep on the chhat. The preparations would begin as soon as the sun went down, with water being sprinkled over the cement rooftops. Steam rose hissing and spluttering like so many cobras as the first drops hit the cement. Waves of heat would rise up - vicious, vindictive - and had to be drowned out by water for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the roof would be left to dry in the summer night. We would wait up there soaking up the sondhi fragrance of water on hot ground mingling with sweet guava and early jasmine blossoms. After dinner, we would gather up there to hear the sounds of the city - voices raised in conversation, the final aartis in the temples all around us, and then much later, voices playing antakshari. Sometimes the game would turn into an impromptu contest across the rooftops in the lane; not for long but enough to make song and laughter create a sense of community.

And sometimes you could hear far off sounds of music. Thumri perhaps, or the strains of a sitar. Was it magic? Was it even real? Or just nostalgia polishing the materially constrained circumstance that we know we faced back then? Does it matter? Especially Bhardawaj's marvellously disciplined voice can recreate that magical nostalgia with such ease.

With each listening, the album takes me right back to the Banaras I knew and grew up in - full of laughter, love, hope and masti. In fact each time I am shocked at the ease with which I can transport myself back to that magical land, erasing all that has intervened since, as if none of the distance, time or experience matters.

Perhaps the song is a born and bred Banarasi, may be the Ganges - not blood - does flow in my veins!

PS: The final shot is by Tarun Vishwa. I don't even know if that is Banaras but it seems to bring back every memory of the place.