We own the night: The Wadali Brothers in concert
It was a cold January night in Sirpur, Chhattisgarh, when I saw the Wadali Brothers live for the first time. It was the second night of the 2nd edition of the Sirpur Dance and Music Festival in 2014, and the brothers were the closing act for the night. After an evening’s worth of entertainment involving tribal dance and music performances from the state and elsewhere, as well as several classical dance performances, when the brothers finally arrived on the stage, set next to the stunning 7th century Lakshmana Temple, a huge roar went up from the audience.
Pyarelal and his elder brother Puranchand, cut genially avuncular figures, dressed in crisp kurtas and accompanied by a group of five instrumentalists. Sitting down next to his brother, Pyarelal said, “Thanks for inviting us to this lovely town.” He then added, a tad mischievously, “I hope you like us, although we’re not classical enough.” Puranchand smiled at that, while the audience guffawed.
What followed was two hours of mesmerising ensemble jugalbandis, with a surefire repertoire of hits, their songs moving from kafi songs of Bulleh Shah, to ghazals and bhajans. They interspersed the music with well-honed repartee, poking fun at each other and sometimes even at the audience. At one point, Pyarelal referred to Puranchand’s early career as a wrestler and expressed great astonishment, tongue firmly in cheek, that a man from the akhara could sing so beautifully. Puranchand grinned indulgently and reminded Pyarelal about the time when the younger brother would go around playing Krishna in the local village raasleelas.
The one great highlight of that show was the brothers’ deconstruction of the evergreen hit Dama Dam Mast Qalandar. Puranchand started off by announcing that the brothers would perform the one song from the rich musical landscape of Sindh and Punjab that everyone knows. Pyarelal chimed in and pointed out that everybody sings the song wrong. “Too popular,” said Puranchand, shaking his head ruefully. “But,” exclaimed Pyarelal, “We will teach you the correct way to sing it tonight!” And so they did, for the next 15 minutes, beginning with a short history lesson on the subject of the song, the 12th century Sufi pir, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Then they just spoke the lyrics of the song, explaining the nuance of each word. In all this, Puranchand played the role of a serious older brother, while Pyarelal acted as his irreverent sidekick. Then they began to sing, their two distinct voices melding and parting, soaring and falling, like two birds in flight, swooping back again and again to the chorus, Dama dam mast qalandar, ali da paila number.
In a column from 2011 in Lounge, singer Shubha Mudgal had described the singing technique of the Wadali Brothers thus, “…two very distinct voices criss-crossing and weaving into each other. While one voice sings the song text, the other shoots off a taan or an alaap…”. That night at Sirpur, the brothers pulled out the stops, throwing in some excellent harmonium-playing into the mix. They would slow the song down, then speed it up. They’d stop suddenly, deliver a brief bit of exposition about the lyric they were singing, and then launch into the song again. At one point it was a qawwali. At another point it was a kafi. When they finally ended with a flourish, the brothers were sweating under the lights, grinning like happy children. The crowd had gone nuts, and there was a rush from the VVIP stands for autographs.
When I heard of the passing of Pyarelal Wadali, at the age of 75, that night of ecstatic musicality came back in a flash. I would see them again in Delhi the next year, at the Siri Fort Auditorium, but it was a more controlled performance, professional and precise. That night in Sirpur, Pyarelal and Puranchand had given a taste of their musical tradition as it must have been performed at village gatherings when the duo had started out as performers in the mid-70s. I remain thankful for having witnessed it.