Inherent in the power of music is its intrinsic ability to communicate as few other mediums can. You could be a complete stranger to a musician, and yet their music will touch and move those depths of your being that you have so carefully hidden for years. It will often bring down a virtual dam of reserve and composure that has taken a lifetime to put in place.
Saida Begum’s voice can do just that to me. I do not know who she is, what language she speaks, or even who she learnt her lessons in music from. Yet when she sings Dum Dhola on the album Rabba Mereya: Sufi Music of Punjab, I have to struggle to retain my composure.
Pure notes: Saida Begum.
Hers isn’t the conventionally pure, clear, pretty voice that cloaks its listeners with peace and piety. On the contrary, this is a voice full of painful shards and torn edges, hissing, spitting and smouldering away. It traverses difficult leaps and jumps with the ease that is so typical of singers from Punjab, but falters slightly at times when resting on notes. So it maintains a fair distance from perfection and yet, it is able to speak to the listener with tremendous strength and power.
It seems strange to be writing about a piece of music that many a reader might not have heard. With this in mind, I requested De Kulture Music, producers and publishers of the album Rabba Mereya, to share the track in question for readers of Lounge. They responded generously with the following link: http://soundcloud.com/de-kulture-music/dum-dhola
I invite readers to savour the sense of anguish and longing that Saida Begum manages to convey rather effortlessly with Dum Dhola.
In some ways it is not an unusual example of a love song, with commonly used metaphors and images for love, longing and separation—a lover wilting away, singed by the fiery pangs of viraha or separation, the radiance of the beloved’s countenance rendering the sun and the stars pale in comparison, and reminders that promises of togetherness must be fulfilled.
Nothing that is unique or different from countless other love songs of India. Even Dum Dhola, the attractive main motif of the song, has been used repeatedly in Sufi verses to signify the chanting of the beloved with each breath that the devotee takes, constant and unbroken till the breath ceases in death. What makes it different then?
I’d have to say it is Saida Begum’s expressive and unbridled voice that transforms the song from being any other song into one that you definitely want to hear again and again, even with its imperfections.
Do I want to hear more from Saida Begum? Of course, I do. I’m yearning for more. But not if her voice comes packaged for television evangelists and saviours of folk music, who strut around claiming to have “found” or “discovered” forgotten voices of India. Neither do I want the so-called New-Age crusaders of Cola-backed, liquor-laced, surrogate advertising campaigns packaged as music initiatives to touch her voice with their shallow ideas of contemporaneity.
Give me the real Saida Begum any day, with a voice that is for and of the wounded.
Write to Shubha at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns