Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Begum Akhtar


Begum Akhtar

How does music affect us? A question that is very difficult to answer. The answers must be different for different people. But one thing on which many may agree is that music, great music, often takes both the musician and the listener beyond time and space. This is especially true of devotional music, where the singer sings of and for God, as we say. Sufi music possibly tends to do this precisely, leading the performer and the listener towards ‘fana’, dissolution, or annihilation of the self. Here are a few lines from a Sufi poet (I don’t know who) that say something similar, though in a different context:

The more I polish the mirror of my heart
The less I see myself
The shadow becomes brighter and brighter
Until it disappears

I don’t know whether worldly music also affects its listeners  in the same way, but from the vast audiences that are held mesmerized by the modern performers one may conclude that something similar may also be happening there. Perhaps it’s the intrinsic power of music, the purity of notes and beats and their range, sequence, repetition, the tempo, the rise and fall, harmony and counterpoint combined with the performer’s passion that is more important than anything else. The experience  of ‘submergence’ must be universal, whatever one believes or does not believe in. And, Begum Akhtar, who sings mostly of worldly love and its pain and joy, can also affect one in the same way.

Here are two of my poems that try to capture this kind of experience of listening to music.


In this mortal world
Full of grim struggle
Where every human act
Chops time into tiny bits
The continuous flow of melody
From your lips
Heals all lacerations
And knits the disjointed time
Into a seamless whole.
The ethereal smile
Floating on your lips
Like a cumulous cloud
Binds us into a mesmeric trance
While the heavens sway
To the queenly sway of your head.


The singer
A plump mass of flesh
Surrounded by her accompanists
Sat there on the stage
On her haunches, legs folded into each other
Her ethereal voice radiating through the air

She sang with such passion
It seemed her body was melting
Losing its fleshliness
Imperceptibly dissolving into a melody
That seeped through the bounds of the auditorium
Into the air beyond
Into the sky, and the infinite space
Across the solar system and the neighbouring stars
Submerging one galaxy after another
Until it permeated the whole universe
And then
There was neither the lady nor the accompanists
Neither the auditorium nor the audience
Neither the earth nor the sky
Neither the stars nor the galaxies
Neither the universe nor the melody