‘I wondered why we weren’t singing such fabulous poetry from Bhakti movement with our ragas’: S Anand

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Back in the 14th century, Sant Soyarabai was writing and singing abhangs about Vitthal, her god whom she could not visit in a temple because of her Dalit identity. Her abhangs were not just proclamations of her predilections towards god, they were also lessons in understanding caste hierarchy and the pain that was caused by untouchability and Brahminical systems. S Anand, co-founder of Delhi-based publishing house Navayana and author, came across Soyarabai through The Ant Who Swallowed the Sun, a book by musician Neela Bhagwat and author Jerry Pinto, which translates and explains poetry by 10 women saints of Maharashtra from the Bhakti movement. Kiti kiti bolu deva, kiti Karu aata heva (O god how much more do I plead|The jealousy I must bear till you heed ||) Anand uses Jaijaivanti, a raga from Guru Granth Sahab that’s mostly represented as a combination of joy and sorrow, to convey this abhang, which talks of a god who does not care for her, but does for all the others. Soyarabai says, why should she protest at the doors of his temple to be let in. “People who are kept out of the temples can sing the best songs for the gods that they cannot visit. What can be more nirgun than this,” says Anand, 49, who will perform the abhang at India International Centre in the Capital today.

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In a concert titled “A Lamp to the Sun”, Anand will explore poetry from six languages, including a Sangam-era Tamil poem, a sutta in Pali, a ghazal in Urdu, a nirgun bhajan in Braj, a vachana in Kannada besides the Soyarabai bhajan, and involve the classical ragas for the rendition.

For Anand, belated discovery of the anti-caste ideas of BR Ambedkar has been significant in his life, putting him on the path of Buddhism. “But the discovery that Ambedkar was fond of abhangs and used them in the newspapers that he published, had me delve more into them and other similar poetry,” says Anand, who is currently a student of dhrupad exponent Ut Wasifuddin Dagar. A photographer of Ambedkar will be placed at the concert.

Anand grew up in Hyderabad in a Tamil Brahmin home and began learning music at about 12. After learning Carnatic music for a few years, he began questioning the poetry in the music that he was singing. There were the sublime compositions from the 19th century by Tyagaraja, but these were disenchanting due to some of the casteist references and poetry that objectified women. So he stopped singing. “When I stopped singing Carnatic music, I didn’t stop listening,” says Anand, who turned to the world of Hindustani classical, where the poetry was trite, dealing with saas and nanand, even in case of some of the finest bandishes, which were musically brilliant, but were speaking of saas and nanand. In Hindustani classical music, the lyrics haven’t been of much consequence. They are generally words to delineate a raga and expand on its melodic work. “I wondered why we weren’t singing such fabulous poetry from the Bhakti movement, which existed in so many languages, in these ragas,” says Anand, who then turned to dhrupad, a form that was more abstract and often works with syllables that don’t have a literal meaning. He went to Ut Wasifuddin Dagar, who took him on as a student about four years ago. “This concert is the coming together of my two passions – music and poetry. It’s an effort to combine this very interesting poetry with our ragas,” says Anand.

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