The word and the vocals

November 12, 2023

The poets and the singers have always relied on each other for fame and fortune

The word and the vocals


here has always been a controversy regarding the kalam of major poets that has been sung. The poets complain that their kalam is sometimes distorted on the pretext of musical necessity. Sometimes the composers and the vocalist are accused of lacking education necessary to understand and appreciate the niceties of the poetical diction, metrical patterns and rhythmic stresses. The vocalists on the other hand claim that the great popularity of the poets is in one way or another linked to the musical rendition of the kalam. The musical rendition, they say, is what takes the lyrics to the farthest edges of the society and allows it to be appreciated even by those not necessarily worried about the poetic niceties.

Iqbal was a popular poet in his lifetime. His Saray jehan say acha Hindustan hamara was on everybody’s lips. Even Gandhi appreciated it. However, much later the same composition was sung by Lata Mangeshkar at the Indian parliament on the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence.

It is possible that the composition was based on an actual recitation by Iqbal himself. We know that he used to recite his poems, and whenever he appeared in a mushaira there was much expectation of him rendering his poems in tarrunnum. This has been the reason for many a poet’s popularity. He was very fond of music and made attempts to sing and even master an instrument. It is said that he played the sitar under the tutelage of an ustad but gave it up in frustration on realizing that he could not reach the level he desired. It was only at the end of his life, when he had problems with his throat that he gave up mushaira appearances, as he could no longer comply with the demands for rendering his poetry in tarrunnum.

It appears from Ravi Shanker’s account that these lines had been sung earlier and that he was asked to recompose the song. One wonders what the original composition was like and who had sung it. One also wonders whether a recording has survived. Ravi Shanker found the existing composition long and drawn out. He felt that the song had been sung like a dirge and did not have the strength befitting a popular national song. So he composed it in a catchy tune and gave it a brighter look. It was picked up by the All India Radio and became hugely popular after independence. It still features in local gatherings and Beating of the Retreat Parade in Delhi every year on Republic Day.

The word and the vocals

It appeared from Ravi Shanker’s account that these lines were sung and he was asked to recompose the song. One wonders what the original composition was like and who had sung it. One also wonders whether a recording has survived.

In Pakistan, this composition is hardly sung. The poem too is hardly even mentioned though it was one of Iqbal’s most famous poems while he lived. It is not hard to surmise that it has been ignored for political reasons. But Iqbal’s poetry was broadcast on the radio frequently enough for Khawaja Muenuddin to lampoon it in his play Ta’leem-i-Balighan.

Iftikhar Arif is reported to have said that he may have remained on the margins had his poetry not been suing by Noor Jehan. Faiz Ahmed Faiz too might have been cloistered in the ivory tower of Urdu poetry’s connoisseurs had muhj say pehli si mohabbat meray mehboob na mang not been sung and popularized among the working classes. Its rendition by Noor Jehan took it to the urban back streets. People who otherwise would not have much to do with poetry or cared about finer aspects of the arts hummed it and placed it within the ambit if their emotional requirements.

In Pakistan, the first vocalists to capitalise on Iqbal’s poetry and name were the qawwals. It was also considered safe and sanitised by the Radio authorities which were the main platform for the promotion of music in the first three decades of an independent Pakistan. Mubarak Al and Fateh Ali made Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa composed in darbari one of the standard numbers in their repertoire.

Keeping with the tradition, Iqbal’s poetry has been sung and composed by some of the best-known artistes. All the leading vocalists of Pakistan have sung Iqbal. It is difficult to pinpoint however whether any truly outstanding piece of music has been created. Noor Jehan, Medhi Hassan, Fareeda Khanum, Ghulam Ali, Malika Pukhraj, Pervez Mehdi, Hamid Ali Khan, Naheed Akhter, Asif Javed, Nayyara Noor, Suraiya Khanum, Gul Bahar Bano, A Nayyar, Shabnam Majeed, Rahat Fateh Ali and Shafqat Amanat Ali, have all attempted valiantly. Contemporary vocalists and groups like Hina Nasrullah , Abrar-ul Haq, Junaid Jamshed, Hadiqa Kiyani, Jawwad Ahmed, Ali Azmat and Shahzad Roy, too, have rendered him.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

The word and the vocals