Saturday, June 9, 2012

Madonna, Mehdi Hassan and Mornings

I'm happy to report that I started this weekend as I should all weekends - with a cuppa, a newspaper and FM radio. Switching between stations, I stumbled upon a protracted homage to the late 80s - early 90s school of pop music. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Olivia Newton-John, Mariah Carey among others. And I realized that I like pop music. A lot. Not in an ironic, wry, tongue-in-cheek, it's-so-bad-it's-good way. But in a genuine, head-nodding, silly-smile-on-face sort of way.

Great pop music (and yes, naysayers, there is such a thing) is incredibly earnest, not in the least self-conscious, filled with love, ideas for changing the world and a little bit of angst and doubt - all set to sugary and frothy notes. It's easy listening, and with taxes and the traffic increasing the way they are, easy listening is just what we need. I'd written about jazz earlier, comparing it to a witch's brew - all chocolaty bitterness, knowing and grown-up. But pop music is the spiritual antithesis of jazz. It's got more heart than head, and this heart almost always stays stuck between the ages of sixteen and twenty. There's nothing knowing about pop. Pop is still figuring out the world - dressed in T-shirt and shorts, sipping on a big glass of sweet pink something while she does so. Hers isn't the life unexamined, just the life more responded to than understood.

I would stretch this analogy to classical and semi-classical music in the Indian tradition if I could retain even the slightest semblance of intellectual honesty while doing so. I can't, so I won't. But I will say that there's an interesting symmetry here that merits thought.

I watched my first ghazal performance last evening, after years of listening to Hindustani and (a little bit of) Carnatic classical music. Purists can be skeptical about ghazals - they are often structurally loose, technically unsound, and performed in informal settings and modes. Ghazal greats will agree - many of them have classical training and ability, but the skills of the ghazal singer are very different. Ghazals are much more about the couplets, the poetry, the give and take between performer and audience.

The few ghazals I've heard put me in mind of a polished poetic dandyism - and I say this with the greatest respect. Ghazals are elegant, stylized, filled with verbal and visual flourishes. Of course there's a great deal of soul underneath the poetry. Which is why ghazals are best sung not just in a certain kind of voice, but by a certain kind of person - someone who's seen the world, has had his heart broken and actually enjoys the idea of being heart broken because it lends depth to his witticisms. When I think of ghazals, I think of handsome men in sherwanis and churidaars, with flowers in their buttonholes.

Classical music, in my opinion, is less about the personality of the performer, and more about her intellect. It's beautiful and sophisticated and also more rarefied. The bandishs are important, but words matter less than they do in ghazals. Classical music sets a mood and a tone, it can move and delight a listener - but in order to do this, the performer must be intelligent, sensitive, innovative and very, very accomplished. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that classical music is less forgiving of its performers. They have to be brilliant before they can be personalities.     

If only music could really make the world go round. It's not often that I think about jazz, pop, ghazals and gayaki. Like I said, there's probably no better way to start the day.      

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