A love song for a sassy, veiled girl in Karachi; an ode to Bilqis Bano, a victim of genocidal communal violence in Gujarat, and to three young men killed for standing up against corruption—the nine songs in Rabbi’s second album, Avengi ja Nahin, are eclectic and poignant, much like those in his first album.
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The song Bulla ki Jana, a fresh interpretation of the poetry of Sufi saint-poet Bulleh Shah, hit the airwaves three years ago, making the self-described “singer, song-writer and guitar-player” a household name overnight. Bulla was part of the self-taught musician’s debut album, Rabbi, an eclectic and inspiring fusion of Punjabi-Sufi-Rock-Pop that made him the discovery of the season and established him as a serious and sensitive artist. Sufi scholar Madan Gopal Singh famously called him “Punjabi music’s true urban balladeer”.
With lyrics from 17th century verse that resonated with a postmodern sense of disconnect, Bulla ki Jaana struck a chord. The other numbers in his debut album were celebratory songs of love and happiness, as well as odes and lyrical ballads, all of which together reflected a rich and diverse variety of composition styles. In Gill te Guitar, he looked back nostalgically at old friendships, missing old friends who had migrated to other parts of the world—his strong, carefree and fearless friend Sanga confessed that his evenings in exile were lonely and empty. Jugni was a subtle but powerful social and political commentary on Kashmir, and on the greed and maliciousness of Delhi and Mumbai.
Timeless themes: Loss, pain and unrequited love feature in both albums (Photo by: Manoj Verma / Mint)
Avengi ja Nahin (Yash Raj Music), released on 19 June, was much anticipated. “I am not consciously trying to create a new sound or create a thematic collection, but I try to enjoy different sounds; the album is composed of these spontaneous musings, reflecting eclectic influences,” says Shergill. Chhalla is his revisitation of the popular Punjabi folk song. Love songs in the album, Mein Bolia, Avengi ja Nahin and Ballo, address themes such as unrequited love, the impossibility of union and occasionally, the hope that “in time, we shall be together”. Bilqis is a striking number in which Shergill takes the voice of contemporary victims and martyrs—of Bilqis Bano, and of Satyendra Dubey, Shanmughan Manjunath, and Navleen Kumar, three young men who fought corruption at the cost of their lives.
While the riffs of rock music inform his musical thought—he idolizes Bruce Springsteen —Shergill’s music is essentially Punjabi. The rhythms and cadences of the Punjabi language, and folk and Sufi musical forms are reflected in his original compositions. He feels strongly about language as a vehicle for thought—the bastardization of the Punjabi language and its homogenization, brought about by mass culture, upsets him. “Homogenizing language is tantamount to homogenizing thought,” says the 33-year-old, adding that using his own language—a dialect of Punjabi spoken in the Majha region, that he was exposed to as a child—is for him a form of protest against the homogenization of the beautiful, rich and diverse Punjabi language. Language, then, is a focal point in understanding and appreciating Shergill’s music.
Pain, a tragic mindset and a sense of loss have been the mainstays of Punjab’s musical heritage, reflecting the vagaries of a land so often ravaged by strife and war. These elements are integral to Shergill’s music, connecting him to the rich heritage of Punjab’s musical expression. Even his most joyous songs and celebrations are tinged with tender notes of sadness, melancholy, nostalgia and longing. Shergill feels that this is only natural, especially since the legendary Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936-1973), who was known as “Birah da Sultan” (the emperor of longing), is a major influence.
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In fact, age-old forms and ideas are transformed by Shergill’s touch, exemplifying the continuity and change that is typical of Indian performing arts traditions. While there is no gainsaying the fact that Shergill is deeply rooted in his tradition and language, it is also equally true that he is one of those very rare musicians who is making music that is absolutely contemporary, in a manner that is never superficial, but soulful and full of force.
Shergill feels that India is in a flux; a loose assortment of disrupted cultures foisted with an artificial unity imposed by the idea of nationhood. He feels that the onus is on the artist to make sense of what is happening and to resist the dumbing down of our mass culture. But he says there is hardly anyone on the Indian popular music scene who is addressing this, and creating new and radical spaces.
Avengi ja Nahin:
Yash Raj Music,
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