Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Raag over bilateral dialogue

As I prepared to write this column, I must confess to nursing a nagging worry that I might yet again be branded anti-national, this time for committing the cardinal sin of enjoying the sound of a unique, expressive voice that belongs to a young Pakistani singer. Oh well, while the trolls are busy bashing Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson and minister of parliament Chandan Mitra for running them down during a television debate, and as our minister for external affairs announces that it is time to resume bilateral dialogue with Pakistan, I may as well be out with it and declare how much I enjoyed hearing Pakistani singer-writer-columnist Ali Sethi’s rendition of “Umraan Langiyaan" on Season 8 of the popular Coke Studio Pakistan series.

Originally recorded several decades ago for PTV in the voice of one of Pakistan’s leading vocalists Asad Amanat Ali Khan, the song was written in 1973 by poet Mazhar Tirmazi and composed by Hasan Latif. Asad Amanat Ali Khan was the son of Patiala gharana doyen Amanat Ali Khan, but young music lovers in India may be more familiar with his youngest brother Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan who has delivered several Bollywood chart busters in the recent past. Decades after Asad Amanat Ali Khan first recorded Umraan Langiyaan successfully, turning into a classic, Ali Sethi included the track on a set of ghazals and Punjabi songs that he sent to the producers of the Coke Studio series for which he had been invited to sing. Ghazal gayaki being his forte, Sethi would personally have preferred to sing a ghazal in Urdu, but it was the Punjabi Umraan Langiyaan that was ultimately selected by the producers. Sethi’s voice bears the unmistakable signs of taaleem and riyaaz, that is, of being both well-trained and well-rehearsed. But it is the bit of heart-break in his voice that makes his singing sit apart for me. This is not an attribute that can be imparted by training. Neither can it be carefully cultivated. It really is an inexplicable quality that a singer is lucky to be gifted with. Going by this track, Ali Sethi is generously gifted in this regard.

Based for the most part on a pentatonic melodic structure that corresponds roughly with the pentatonic Deshkar raag, Umraan Langiyaan is a song of longing and separation, a yearning so intense that it darkens and blackens the rosy hue of flowers in bloom. Ali Sethi sings of this yearning with a delicacy of expression that makes generous use of dynamics, and of his sustained training over the last eight years with Naseeruddin Sami, one of Pakistan’s ustads of classical music. Sethi’s ease and familiarity with Punjabi and the Saraiki dialect, as well as with literature make his enunciation of Tirmazi’s lyrics interlaced with Khwaja Ghulam Fareed’s verses delightfully expressive.

Well into the track, Ali Sethi’s voice is juxtaposed with that of young Nabeel Shaukat (winner of the Sur Kshetra contest featuring Indian and Pakistani singers) singing a different composition, one of love fulfilled, creating a contrast with the longing expressed by Ali Sethi. Both young men present songs with lyrics that employ a feminine identity, both sing with exquisite delicacy, reminding one that music can and always has transcended all boundaries.

Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal

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