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S.P. Balasubrahmanyam’s music: What makes a great voice?

The Spirit of Enquiry by Carnatic vocalist and writer T.M. Krishna has a spectacular piece on the legendary singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam that highlights the range and depth in SP’s music and how his brilliance came from being musically selfless. Read on for a glimpse!


SPB happens!

SPB was in love, surprised, joyous, excited, fearful, sad, contemptuous and disgusted. He was the father, son, lover, brother, friend, villain and hero. He was the voice of the privileged and the questioning voice of the oppressed and marginalized. He was an urbanite, a villager and could belong to any era. In his voice we found every social, cultural and aesthetic possibility. This allowed every individual, irrespective of their sociopolitical location, to find himself/herself within his voice at one time or another. This self identification gave SPB a universalism that has eluded every other Indian playback singer. And I would like to stress with extra emphasis that no other ‘voice’ in Indian film history has belonged to such a diverse cross-section of Indian society.

SPB came from a certain social construction and to be able to debaggage that in his work would have been impossible, unless he was able to leave S.P. Balasubrahmanyam the person behind the moment

he stood in front of the mike. SPB had an instinctive way of tapping into various cultures and demographics. This is emotional insight of the highest order and difficult to explain. For all other singers, there was and is a social-range limit to their voice.

There is one possible answer to this mystery. Great musicians are those who listen carefully, attentively and receive with respect. Listening is not limited to music; it is as much about accent, dialect and pronunciation. It is beyond listening in the sonic sense; it includes learning varied body languages, internalizing social contexts and realities. SPB seems to have been able to absorb this from all that he witnessed in life. In other words, he let life imbue his musicality. Therefore, when he sang a song, it had a larger story to tell; not just the one being communicated by the director, music director, cinematographer or actor. SPB’s voice became the voice of the idea. He abstracted the song from the specificity of the film and made it a human calling.

If there is one indicator of the nuance in his listening, it is in the way he enunciated the words in a song. Most people do not realize that pronouncing a word is entirely different from singing it. As a part of music, the word becomes a musical body and its highs, lows, elongation and emphasis undergo a subtle but crucial transformation. Only if these happen will the music flow. Added to this complication is the fact that these alterations are language-, dialect- and culture specific. In other words, depending on the character SPB was singing for, the musical word had a specific etched acoustic form. And SPB gave every musical word, phrase and line the social, political and aesthetic identity it demanded.

Front cover of The Spirit of Enquiry
The Spirit of Enquiry || T.M. Krishna

Such a person had to be selfless, musically. This comes from a realization of one’s role that as a musician, one is a catalyst and not an originator. When you are a bridge between people, ideas and feelings, ‘I’—the individual identity—has to become invisible. This sounds very close to an actor’s reality, but is actually much harder to accomplish. The actor enters the secondary reality of the film using the character he is playing, separating himself from the role. The two realities are clearly demarcated.

On the other hand, the playback singer comes in momentarily to lend his voice. In the studio, away from any semblance of the cinematic reality, he needs to give life to an idea, keeping in mind the described context, the actor’s image and the music director’s composition. And while adhering to all these requirements, he needs to somehow find his own bearings.

SPB lived selflessly, transcending the imagination of all these people but yet put aside the craving for the ‘spotlight’. He realized that the ‘self’ is established when it forgets its own presence.


For the first time, T.M. Krishna’s key writings have been put together in this extraordinary collection. The Spirit of Enquiry: Dissent as an Art Form draws from his rich body of work, thematically divided into five key sections: art and artistes; the nation state; the theatre of secularism; savage inequalities; and in memoriam.


A curated playlist of Ravi Shankar’s music

We often think of the serious artist as one who is difficult or contrary, who struggles in anonymity. Ravi Shankar does not fit this description: he was a charismatic extrovert who earned and loved the limelight, a polished performer who brought a new professionalism to Indian music. There was something irresistible about him, as millions of fans (and dozens of lovers) would attest.

– Oliver Craske 


Oliver Craske’s captivating biography Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar is a labour of love. Born out of over 130 new interviews and unparalleled research and access into the legendary musician’s life and works, this is the first biography of Pt. Ravi Shankar. It immortalises an already unforgettable man by transposing his mesmerizing body of work and the rhythms of his life into the written word. Going a step further, Craske has also curated a playlist of Pt. Ravi Shankar’s work, a combination of short and long pieces that enhance our insight into the maestro through the medium of his genius – music. Here are Craske’s notes on some of these tracks, explaining in his own words why he chose these particular pieces:  


An Introduction to Indian Music [from Sounds of India (1957)] 

A short spoken introduction, with demonstrations on sitar, tanpura and tabla. Recorded on Ravi’s first US album. Gives us a sense of how earnestly and engagingly he played the role of pioneer, educating his new audiences but trusting them to listen with open minds. (4:08) 


Dhun Kafi [from In London (1962)] 

Kafi is a springtime raga, associated with the Holi festival and the romance between the gods Krishna and Radha, a favourite theme of Ravi’s. Here he plays it in the light classical thumri style, with tabla accompaniment by Kanai LalThis recording, one of Ravi’s own favourites, is the likely inspiration for George Harrison’s Beatles song Love You To (on Revolver), which was based on the same raga and recorded shortly before the two met in 1966. Both tracks open with an arpeggio on the sitar’s sympathetic strings, and the melodic resemblance is closest between 2:30 and 3:05 here. (12:38) 


Tabla Dhwani [from Portrait of Genius (1965)] 

This album Portrait of Genius is a fine example of how Ravi raised the profile of percussionists, previously the poor relations of Indian classical music. Under Ravi’s directionTabla-Dhwani features three tabla players, the masterful Alla Rakha taking the lead and improvising freely, with flute accompaniment by Paul Horn. Absorbing in its deceptive simplicity. (4:53) 


Raga Kedara [from The Living Room Sessions, Part 1 (2012)] 

Aged 91, he recorded his last two albums at home, fooling around on sitar along with Tanmoy Bose, latterly his regular touring tabla accompanist. The result was an intimate, close-miked snapshot of his late-period inventiveness, the fruits of a lifetime. His fingers may not have moved quite as adroitly as in his heyday, but this playful rendition of Raga Kedara, from the Grammy-winning first volume, shows how fertile his mind was to the last. (4:47) 


Dhun [from Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival (1967)] 

Playing Monterey Pop in 1967 marked the arrival of Indian music into the Western mainstream. Ravi’s three-hour set, accompanied on tabla by Alla Rakha, closed with this dhun in one of his own ragas, Pancham Se Gara. It has an emotional crescendo and such an ecstatic climax that when D. A. Pennebaker cut his famous documentary of the festival, he realised that the only place to put this sequence was at the end of the film. Nothing could follow it. (19:41) 


Front cover of Indian Sun
Indian Sun || Oliver Craske


What Ravi Shankar has left behind is inimitable and irreplaceableThrough his magnificent literary homage, Oliver Craske ensures that the genius lives on through the pages of history.  

The full playlist is available here.

Why Did Gulzar Write ‘Dil Hoom Hoom Kare’ and Not ‘Dil Dhak Dhak Kare’?

“Dil hoom hoom kare” is a famous song from the film Rudaali (1993). The song beautifully captures the longing the woman feels for her lover. In the song, she describes how his love has rejuvenated her and asks him how can she hide the love which the society forbids. The sound ‘hoom hoom’ is supposed to denote the beating of the heart.
Here is why Gulzar used “hoom hoom” to denote the heartbeat against the commonly used “dhak dhak”, as told by him in the book 100 Lyrics.
The heart makes many a demand, but only one sound: ‘dhak-dhak’. Be it the heart of Madhuri Dixit, or of Shammi Kapoor. The language has kept changing with the times but the heart’s sound has always remained the same in our film songs. Particularly Hindi film songs.
Suddenly I came across this Assamese folk song where the sound the heart makes is described as ‘hoom-hoom’. I just loved it. It is much more romantic than ‘dhak-dhak’. There were some apprehensions but I insisted on using the phrase ‘hoom-hoom’ in this song, since the entire tune was based on the same Assamese folk song, only the lines changed according to the situation.
Dil hoom hoom kare (Rudaali, 1993)
Dil hoom hoom kare, ghabraaye
Ghan dham dham kare, darr jaaye
Ek boond kabhi paani ki mori ankhiyon se barsaaye
Dil hoom hoom kare, ghabraaye

Teri jhori daaroon sab sukhe paat jo aaye
Tera chhua laage, meri sukhi daar hariyaaye
Dil hoom hoom kare, ghabraaye
Jis tan ko chhua tune, us tan ko chhupaaoon
Jis man ko laage naina, voh kisko dikhaaoon

O more chandrama, teri chaandni ang jalaaye
Teri oonchi ataari maine pankh liye katwaaye
Dil hoom hoom kare, ghabraaye
Ghan dham dham kare, darr jaaye
Ek boond kabhi paani ki mori ankhiyon se barsaaye

Dil hoom hoom kare, ghabraaye…

The heart rumbles and mumbles
dark clouds of worries roar and thunder
and yet I keep yearning
for even a single drop of tears
to burst forth from my eyes
I know your touch can sprout life
in these shrivelled stumps of my existence
and in this hope I gather and preserve
all the wilted leaves of my life
Your love
that has touched my body
is difficult to hide
but your touch
that has impinged itself on my soul—
how do I bare it to you?
You are my moon, and yet
your soothing rays scorch my skin
your perch is high
and my wings freshly clipped
the heart rumbles and mumbles . . .
—Translated by Sunjoy Shekhar

Celebrating Cinema: 5 Reasons You Should Know About this Pioneer of New Wave

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a name synonymous with revolutionising not just Malayalam cinema, but Indian cinema, was born in Kerala’s Travancore on July 3, 1941. Gopalakrishnan is a Padma Shri, Padma Vibhushan awardee, a Dadasaheb Phalke recipient, 16 times winner of the National Award, 17 times winner of the Kerala State Film Awards, a recipient of Legion of Honour by the French government, and many more.
Here are five more things to learn about the contributions made by this pioneer of New Wave to cinema:
Adoor Gopalakrishnan is an alumnus of the Pune Film Institute (now known as the Film and Television Institute of India). He applied for the ‘screenplay writing and direction’ course in the year 1962.
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The filmmaker’s growing passion for cinema urged him to start a film society. In the year 1966, the fifth ‘All India Writers’ Conference’ held in Kerala’s Alwaye gave him the perfect opportunity to establish a film society.
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Koodiyattam is the oldest living theatre in the world (2000 years old). Gopalakrishnan fought hard to gain access to the inner sanctums of the koothambalam or the premises of Koodiyattam’s performance to ultimately make a three-hour long documentary on this art form.
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Adoor Gopalakrishnan has experimented with sound and silence in his films in ways that were unthinkable. Gopalakrishnan writes a separate script for sound, he would record natural sounds from different sources, like the train tracks, chatter of young college goers, the pouring rain to be used in his films.
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Adoor Gopalakrishnan is known to include animals and birds as characters in his films. Our friends from the wild are not the ones to be directed and this, Gopalakrishnan treats, as a creative challenge. In his film Elippathayam, rats play an important and parallel role to the protagonist and his family.
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Fascinated by the facts? Read more about the legend of cinema in Gautaman Bhaskaran’s Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema.

5 Momentous Performances of Sonal Mansingh

At the tender age of 18, Sonal Mansingh began dancing professionally. In a  career of fifty-five years, she has given many mesmerizing performances in Bharatnatyam, Odissi, and Chhau.
Mansingh has travelled the world for her dance and won many accolades. Here are five momentous performances by her that make us want to go back in time and witness them.
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Read more about her illustrious dance career in Sonal Mansingh: A Life Like No Other.
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Master on the Doyens of Indian Classical Music

Veteran musician and sarod maestro, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, in his Master on Masters, writes a deeply personal book about the lives and times of some of the greatest icons of Indian classical music. Having known these stalwarts personally, he recalls anecdotes and details about their individual musical styles, bringing them alive.
In writing about them, the maestro transcends the Gharana and north-south divide and presents portraits of these great artists that are drawn with affection, humour and warmth.
Have you heard these legends before?

What Aurangzeb Loved: 6 Things that Moved His Heart

Aurangzeb was an enigmatic king. To quote Khafi Khan, the laudatory eighteenth-century historian of Aurangzeb’s reign, who, comparing Aurangzeb to the Persian ruler Jamshid said, “To attempt a summary of the major events of a fifty-year reign of an emperor the equal of Jamshid is to measure the ocean’s water with a pitcher.”
There were many layers to Aurangzeb, many things that inspired and moved his heart.
Here are six instances from Aurangzeb’s life that reveal his loves and passions!
He had a passion to carry the Mughal legacy forward and building a great career
He had a deep love for literature and poetry
Few know about Aurangzeb’s whirlwind romance
Leisure and music moved his heart
He had a passion for justice
And he loved mangoes!
Fascinated? Looking to read more about this Indian emperor who is often misunderstood? Get Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth here!

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