There was a time not so long ago when I would enthusiastically follow Hindi film music and hum along when I discovered a song that appealed to my personal taste. But amid the near-manic and often unimaginative tracks featuring sundry Munnis, Sheilas, Razias and Lailas that are fast becoming Bollywood music staples, I am no longer able to smile politely and respond obligingly when people ask which hit song I am listening to currently. So a track like Rangrez by singer-composer Krsna comes as an enormous relief.

Sparkling: Rangrez, by the Wadali Brothers, is influenced by qawwali. Wikimedia Commons

The album offers two versions of the song, one rendered by music director Krsna, and the other by the Wadali Brothers. The composition is undoubtedly influenced by qawwali, and the arrangement reflects this influence. You can hear multiple layers of the tabla and dholak spit and crackle in the rhythm section, accompanied by the characteristic clapping that is typical of conventional qawwalis. There is also enough use of the smart, rhythmic play with words and phrases used by qawwali singers as a device for spotlighting a specific part of the song text.

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For an example, check the all-too-brief but effective Rang rang de, rang de chunri pi ke rang mein about 1.09 minutes into the track. Happily, the composer provides both versions of the track and the lyrics on his site

However, qawwali is essentially a form where a lead singer (or at times a duo) steers a group of singers who present the refrain or specific phrases allotted to them on the spot by the lead singer. This creates a unique collage of voices with different timbres creating unexpected harmonies, tensions, ebbs and tides. I find this to be one of the most compelling and riveting aspects of qawwali.

Krsna sings the lead and the chorus and refrains himself, layering his voice on multiple tracks to create the chorus effect. But the collage of voices is missing even though he uses his voice with abandon and power. When he tells me in a telephonic interview that he has been studying Hindustani classical music in Mumbai for several years from Mehboob Khan, I am not surprised to learn that he first came to Mumbai with the desire to be a singer.

Going back to the Rangrez track, the version by the famed Wadali brothers does retain some semblance of the collage of voices by virtue of the two very different voices criss-crossing and weaving into each other. While one voice sings the song text, the other shoots off a taan or an alaap in a different interpretation of the track. The melodic motifs and interludes on Krsna’s version are played on the sarangi and shehnai, but the Wadali version has some really sparkling harmonium pieces played with a flair that makes you want to know who dubbed them. Sadly the album cover provides no clues because no one thought it necessary to acknowledge the musicians. And it is only during my interview with Krsna that I am told it is Feroz Shah who plays the harmonium.

Bollywood does have a way of first luring the most talented of people to its vast threshold, and then slowly sucking them into a vicious circle of formulaic and unimaginative working styles.

Krsna will have to be a clever and resolute rangrez (a Farsi term for dyer) to ensure that he does not permit himself to be stained by the humdrum colours of the industry. May his talent and creativity give him due strength to do so.

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