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Whither Odia Ghazal?

Recently, I came across this newly-released Odia album titled Ghazal Gajaratie. The album features eight songs written by well-known lyricists of Odisha—the likes of Devdas Chhotray, Mohit Chakraborty and Arun Mantri—set to tune by noted composer Lakshmi Kanta Palit. All the songs have been rendered by Mitali Chinara, one of the most mature voices in contemporary Odia music.

The album is the latest example of a trend in Odia music being seen in the last few years: experimentation by a few musicians who are challenging creative limits without an overtly commercial consideration—combining some of the finest lyrics with matching music, that goes beyond the ‘formula’. I wrote about the trend in this blog more than three years back. A lot has happened since then, though.

Most of the songs in the album, Ghazal Gajaratie, are clearly above the ordinary. The composer’s stubborn refusal to succumb to today’s dominant trend—excessive orchestration—contributes immensely to make the album stand out. Two songs—the title song, Ghazal gajaratiye and Mo gajara mahakigala—are extremely sensuous. Most of the lyrics are not overtly heavy and can appeal to both common listeners and connoisseurs. In short, Ghazal Gajaratie is an excellent addition to the genre of Odia experimental music.

The only issue: it is not a ghazal album. Seven out of the eight songs in the album are not ghazals, the only exception being Katha thila dine,  penned by Devdas Chhotray, the seventh song in the album.

The lyrics are great, the music is superb, rendition is heart touching; the songs would have sounded as good, even if the album was known by any other name. I do not understand what was the incentive to use the word ghazal in the title. Does the word sell more? By ‘sell’, I am not necessarily referring to commercial sales of the album but broadly the perception about the quality/stature of the work. Does it sound more artistic or intellectual?

I guess so.

Some time back, I had come across another Odia album in YouTube, called Ghazal Sandhya, sung by an artiste, Sangram Mishra, who happens to be the sole lyricist in the album. Unlike Ghazal Gajaratie, the music, lyrics and rendering are all below average, to put it mildly.

Yet, there is something that is common between the two albums: the attempt to label non-ghazals as ghazals.

What is so fascinating about calling some songs ghazals, when they are clearly not?

For the uninitiated, ghazal is NOT a form of music; it is a form of poetry with clearly defined rules. Though all poets have not followed all the rules all the times, there are some basic requirements that must be met to call a poem a ghazal.

In short, a ghazal is a collection of sher‘s of equal behr. A sher is a two line poem. Behr is the meter. It must satisfy some rules to be called a ghazal. In a ghazal, there are one/more common words that are repeated in both the lines of the first couplet (sher) and then in the second line of each subsequent couplet. These common word(s) are called radiff. There’s one more requirement. The word preceding the radiff in each couplet must rhyme. This is called kafiya. The first sher is called matla. The last sher usually contains the pen name (taqallus)of the poet. This is called maqta. The shers must independently stand on their own, though some time together they may express one central idea.

Anyone desirous of understanding it with illustration, can refer to this very good explanation here, which uses Ghalib’s famous ghazal Koi umeed bar nahin aati to illustrate. Later in the text, I will illustrate the rules using an Odia ghazal as example.

The above is a very brief description of the basic rules of poetic form. Then, of course, is the theme. Usually, ghazals are pessimistic and are a male expression. This is in contrast to thumris in Indian classical music, which are female expressions, and though often they are complaints against the beloved—as in many Radha-Krishna themed thumris—they are not pessimistic. There’s always a craving for reunion; never hopelessness.

The third element is singing style, ghazal gayaki. That is dependent on culture and while Urdu ghazals have evolved in a particular manner which has impacted its singing style, I feel there is no reason why ghazals in other language should overtly follow that. But that is another debate, for another day. For the present discussion, I will not venture into that territory.

My idea here is to factually present some lesser known facts about Odia ghazal singing, a sort of quick history.

The history of ghazal in Odisha is not too old. And not surprisingly, the experimentation was started by the one name that we associate most experiments in modern Odia music and dance with: Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik. He included a ghazal in one of his plays, way back in 1925. But I will not get too much into ghazal writing here. Some researchers like Mohammed Ayub Kabuli have written extensively on that. The subject has also been dealt with by eminent Odia poet Haraprasad Das.

I will try to keep myself to some info on ghazal singing in Odia, though ghazal writing and singing cannot be completely separated. The person who really consciously pursued writing and singing ghazal in Odia was none other than the king of all experimentation: Akshaya Mohanty. He and some of his accompanying lyricists, most notably Devdas Chhotray, did experiment a lot with ghazal writing. For some strange reasons, Khoka Bhai (as Mohanty was popularly known) recorded only a handful of his own written ghazals. He published a book of ghazals called Geeti in 1968. In 2001, a little before his death, many of his ghazals published in Geeti as well as some new ghazals were published in a book, Madhushala, edited by Dr Renubala Mishra.

But from the 50 ghazals that find a place in Madhushala,  I could locate public recording of only three, two of which I could find in YouTube and have included the links. The link for the third, Maribaku thila, is to Saregama site where one can buy the song, after a short preview. I could not locate it on YouTube.

In addition, this is another one of his own written ghazal, which is not included in Madhushala.

He has recorded a few more for All India Radio, which are not available publicly. Some such ghazals include Tuma pare ki rakhibi bahrasa muhin, Ama duhinka marame dashichhi and Dukha mo rahichhi.

Interestingly, his last recorded album brought out by Sarthak Music, too contained a ghazal, though it was not written by him. The lyricist is Devdas Chhotray. Here is a link

Akshaya Mohanty has rendered quite a few ghazals written by Devdas Chhotray, including a couple of them in movies such as Badhu Nirupama and Papa Punya. Here is one from Papa Punya, which the lyricist wrote as a poem named Umrao Jaan, which was later used by Khoka Bhai in the movie. It is rendered by Haimanti Shukla.

Though Akshaya Mohanty willingly flouted some rules of the ghazal—such as using the radiff in both the lines of the matla or using a rhyming kafiya—he stuck to the basic rules of behr and radiff. I am using his Kalankita ei nayaka akhiru to illustrate. Though in terms of poetic quality, this is not among the best of his 50 ghazals in Madhushala, I have taken this because this is by far the most popular among his ghazals and this, unlike many other, conforms to the basic rules of the ghazal more than many others.

Kalankita ei nayaka

In this, the first sher, Kalankita ei…is the matla. He has not used the same radiff in both the lines. But thereafter, he keeps to the rules, with ‘kari‘ as the radiff and rhyming kafiyas such as papa, gapa, mapa and dipa. Yes, one can repeat a kafiya. The use of maqta is evident. In all his ghazals, he uses his own name Akshaya instead of another taqallus. Interestingly, this is the most commonly flouted rule of ghazal. In filmi ghazals for example, there is little scope for the lyricist to use a maqta. So, usually you do not find maqtas in film ghazals, though someone like Khoka Bhai, with such a high self-esteem has never missed on this element. In many of his ghazals, he does not keep to the kafiya rule; i.e there are no rhyming kafiya but this one clearly has it. The sole ghazal by Devdas Chhotray in the new album Ghazal Gajaratiye that I referred to in the beginning, does not have kafiya.

Beyond the basic poetic construction, Akshaya Mohanty has always kept his ghazals in the true spirit of ghazal. They are always pessimistic, defeatist, hopeless, self-blaming…in the classic tradition of Urdu ghazals.

It is really a pity that most of his ghazals are not available in recorded form. Recordings of some of his private sessions prop up here and there and listening to them convinces one how much he internalized even ghazal gayaki. It is intriguing why he did not record them for public.

After Khoka Bhai, the real good ghazal album that was released for public after long was by Subhash Dash. Simply called Odia Ghazals, this album, based on songs penned by  poet Laxmidhar Nayak, was released by Saregama. Dash sang all the songs that were taken from poet Nayak’s ghazal compilation book, Ghazal Jharna. You can find all the songs here, though because of some technical error in Saregama site, some Sambalpuri songs of Fakir Patnaik are also shown as being part of this album.

The trio of Devdas Chhotray, composer Om Prakash Mohanty and Susmita Das, who have set a trend in Odia experimental music, have their share of contribution to Odia ghazals too. In 2008, they released an album, Hati Saja Kara, which contained two ghazals: Janha achhi aau bijuli bi achhi and Sneha ta bahuta milila jibane. Two years later, they released another album, Nua Luha Puruna Luha, which was, by far, a full-fledged ghazal album, with most songs being ghazals, though many of them did not have kafiya and same radiff, instead setting for a rhyming radiff like many of Akshaya Mohanty’s ghazals. Songs like Mu ki janithili mu nije ete sundari boli, the first song, belongs to that category; but the reason it stands out is that it explicitly refers to the shayar with a feminine adjective, a rarity in ghazal. Other ghazals include Diena sneha tike je, Mu ta bhala thili mora eka eka, Mora thila sabu bhul mu manuchi, Tume luchauchha shaha pare shaha, Chahini magini janini kemiti, Jibaku thila duraku tenu bahana khojinela, Se dinara chhabi sabu, and Dukhara dhari hata

I believe some of the ghazals of Devdas Chhotray have been rendered by other artistes too but I do not find them online anywhere.

Haraprasad Das has written some nice ghazals which, to the best of my knowledge, have not been recorded. The fascination for the word ‘ghazal’ by Odia musicians means there is a perceived value seen in ghazals. Unfortunately, few work consciously towards popularizing the genre.

I am sure there are lots of poets in Odia who have been writing ghazals. A ghazal compilation with the selection from Khoka Bhai’s ghazals as well as others down all these years, recorded in the voices of leading singers of Odisha, would be a great addition to Odia modern music.

Devdas Chhotray, as the most notable living ghazal writer in Odia; the most important personality in this new experimentation wave in Odia music; and above all, the bridge between the generation of Akshaya Mohanty and of today, could arguably be the best person to drive such a project.

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Heartening News: Experimentation is Back in Odia Music

Some time back, I had read an essay by Sarat Kumar Mohanty, one of the most prominent essayists of Odisha, about the crisis of talent in contemporary Odisha (this was most probably in late 90s or early 200s). He had argued how there has been a gradual decline in talent and experimentation from the 60s and 70s in all the areas of creativity—citing explicitly the example of a young Akshaya Mohanty cycling around Cuttack with new tunes on his lips.

For at least three decades—60s to 80s—Akshaya Mohanty stood for all that was new in Odia music. While there were other popular singers and composers—such as Prafulla kar and Bhikari Bal—anything that was innovative and experimentative emanated from the mind of Khoka Bhai, the way Mohanty was popularly called. His music combined the nativeness of Odissa in all its forms—folk, classical, or the newly emerging urban culture of Odisha—with inspiration from across the world—in form, style, and content. While Harry Belafonte’s There’s a hole in the bucket  became a highly odia-ized Mathiare gote kana, Bachchan’s poem Laao laao piya nadiya se son machhari became Dhibara re anide anide mote suna Ilishi. In some others, he used khanti (pure) Odia content to try new forms. Such an experimentation is Odisha’s all time favorite Kanchi Abhijaaana.

For a long time, that experimentation has been missing. It is heartening to see there is some effort, of late. And not surprisingly, leading it from the front is Devdas Chhotray, one of the most prominent lyricists of the Akshaya era, whose other identities include a noted civil servant, educationist and writer. To most Odias, though, it would suffice to say that he wrote songs such as  Paradesi bandhu tume, Kainchi kakudi nalita pitaMate Saila Saila Nakara Guna, and Rupa Shagadire Suna Kania

I first picked up an album called Maya Darpan a little more than a year back from Time N Sound in Bapuji Nagar, Bhubaneswar, a shop I religiously visit on each of my trip to Odisha. When I picked up the CD, what impressed me were both the idea and the guts. It was the poetry of Mayadhar Mansing, something that exhilerated (and to be honest, scandalized) us in our school days. No other poet who was considered a great by our parents generation had anything close to what Mansingh offered. I also felt the exprimentation was particularly adventurous, as both the composer, Om Prakash Mohanty and singer, Susmita Das were unknown names to me, though I must admit that I have hardly kept up with Odia music in the last two decades. “Devdas Chhotray presents” on the top of the cover was  reassuring, though. But when I listened to it, I knew here was a classic. Unfortunately, none of my friends who listen to Odia music had heard about the album, let alone listening to it. I too could not find much in the usual places on the Internet to forward a link.

So, while I was appreciative, I was sceptical too about the continuation of that experimentation. That is, till a few months back, I picked up two more by the same trio—this time the lyricist being Devdas Chhotray himself. One called Hati Saja Kara, was taken from the name of a poem (and a book which I had happened to read) by Chhotray. The other, called Nua Luha Puruna Luha decribed itself as a collection of songs that were introspective and nostalgic—and which claimed that it was inspired by Ghazal and sufi poetry. And both these albums impressed again, though I would confess that I found the Nua Luha…to be a little heavier in terms of lyrics, with melody failing to catch up. That apart, all the three were great experimentation, largely successful. This time, I could get some info on the web about the composer and the artiste.

All the three are released by a label, Mitu’s Music, owned by singer Susmita. I wrote to her and got a prompt reply. The good news is that the songs are available in her website, susmitadas.in, and anyone can listen to these. By the way, some of them are available in Youtube as well such as Dekha hela kimpa from Maya Darpana and Hati saja kara from Hati Saja Kara. 

Better news is that their experimentation continues and in the offing are two more albums: one, Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam, and two, some old radio songs of Akshaya Mohanty, which are no longer available.

I will surely post more on the topic, if I manage to speak to the trio in near future.

While with three albums out and two more in pipeline, this trio lead the experimentation wave, there are some other notable efforts as well. One is an album of Akshaya Mohanty’s unsung lyrics sung by an artiste Namrata Mohanty, called Deepa Jale Deepa Libhe, released again by the artiste’s own label, set to music by the same composer, Om Prakash Mohanty.

Another is recital of Sriradha, arguably the best long poem written in Odia in the last 50 years, by Rabi Satapathy, again released by some unknown label. This is an even bolder experimentation. And while Satapathy does a fairly good job, I would recommend it only to someone who has no other way of reading the poem. The voice is uniform throughout and surely the poem is not. Nevertheless, here I am talking of experimentation and am not into reviewing the work.

One last example I would like to cite would probably not fall in this category—as it is not really a creative experimentation but a commercial one—but nevertheless made me hopeful. It was a collection of children songs such as Jhool re hati jhool, Chaka chaka bhaunri, Dho re baya dho, Itikili mitikili, and Aa aa re bai chadhei. The songs were accompanied by some below average animation, but nevertheless, this is the only Odia CD that I have bought for my five year old son so far, though he has more than 100 CDs of Hindi and English cartoom movies, songs and so on. This, too was released by an unknown label with a Mumbai address. And since then, in each of my visit, I have inquired if there is a second one but unfortunately I have always heard a no.

On one hand, the wave of experimentation makes one hopeful and reassured. On the other, the fact that very little is known about these albums to people who would have loved to lap them up, makes one a little apprehensive. None of them are released by any of the major labels—neither the Saregamas and the Sonys, nor even the JEs and the Sarthaks. In case of Susmita, she admitted that their marketing has been anything but extraordinary.

I just hope that increasingly the new medium of web would be used creatively and effectively by both the artistes and the fans to reach out to the market that may just be waiting in San Francisco, Dallas, London, Bangalore or New Delhi. I promise to keep a watch.

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7 Writers I Would Like to See in JLF

So, the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 is finally over. While this year’s festival will be remembered for the controversies that it generated because of participation/non-participation/video participation/video non-participation/… of Salman Rushdie, most of the sessions were excellent. Many were refreshing too.

However, I missed some aspects of literature. I have already articulated that in my earlier post, An Open Letter to the Organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Here I go more specific with the seven writers/poets that I would like to listen to in JLF, ideally in 2013. I have taken care not to include anyone who has already participated, not to suggest that I do not like them. But these names that have still not featured in JLF.

#1 Devdas Chhotray

His name figures on top because the list is alphabetical. But I won’t be surprised if many people, even in his home state, Odisha, ask Devdas who? But hum a couple of lyrics by him and you get the association. That is the tragedy of being a lyricist. The singer gets all the credit. The composer gets some of it. And the lyricist is rarely acknowledged. But it is not just as a lyricist that he excels. He is a distinguished civil servant, educationist, poet, and story teller. In association with Odisha’s most popular singer of all times, Late Akshaya Mohanty, he has created work, that has had the most lasting impact on the state’s popular culture post independence. He is both articulate and interesting—the kind of people that audience would love to listen to.

#2 Jayanta Mahapatra

Arguably the most important living English poet in India, Mahapatra calls himself an Odia poet who happens to write in English. Yet critics call him “finest multicultural poet”. That old-fashioned ethos of poetry with extra modernist touches is exactly what makes his work more appreciated outside India than within the country. Not to have him once will remain as a permanent vacuum for JLF.

#3 Makarand Paranjpe

In an alphabetical list, it is a coincidence that the two of the most well-known Indian poets in English come one after another. While Mahapatra is the quintessential post modern experimentalist who wrote mostly on personal experiences, memories, nostalgia, and doubts, Paranjpe is a respected critic as well. In fact, many consider him to be, alongwith Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, the two most important poet-critics. Mehrotra was there in JLF 2012.

#4 Manoj Das

I am really surprised how Manoj Das has not yet attended JLF. At least, I did not find his name. Though he is versatile as a writer, his use of legends, fables, and myths and presenting them in a modern context to subtly but emphatically stress human values is an art by itself which has no parallel. A radical in his youth days who turned spiritual later, Das is exactly the kind of writer who would provide a balance in JLF which has got a little too much of literature of protest, identity, and conflict.

#5 Mary Kinzie

I hardly knew of Mary Kinzie but discovered about her work while doing some research on poetics. A full fledged session on poetics is a must at JLF and the author of A Poet’s Guide to Poetry can surely be the best to anchor it.

#6 Michael Lewis

If non-fiction is taken as literature, as it definitely is—in fact, there was a session in JLF 2012 called Journalism as Literature—then, one of the celebrity writers should be Micheal Lewis. Whether it is baseball or Wall Street madness, Silicon Valley of the 90s or the subprime crisis of the last decade, if you want to read the inside story, Michael Lewis is the man to turn to. I am sure an interview with him—and not a discussion in which is one among three/four panelists—would be great stuff for audience. Who knows, he may just decide his next book to be on JLF?

#7 Robert S Boynton

If we cannot have Tom Wolfe, let us have Boynton at least. The journalism professor and the author of New, New Journalism is the best person to analyze the art of non-fiction in America, about which, most of India knows very little—if it is not on globalization (war/international politics/IT/offshoring). Boynton will not just be able to talk about the craft but much about the kind of subjects that interests the current and past generations of American non-fiction writers and the role played by publications such as New Yorker or Rolling Stone.

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