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Word and sur

Is music at best a vehicle that should facilitate the main thrust of the communication extended by words?

Word and sur

The Nobel Committee returned to its more conventional ways when it awarded this year’s prize to Kazuo Ishiguro. Last year when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, there was a barrage of criticism. He was considered by most to be only a lyricist and not a poet.

Words have been used for the exposition of music because music in itself is totally abstract and defies any connotation, or a ready connotation. It is the prerogative of word and through it literature. It is generally assumed that a lyricist means his words or poetry to be sung and so is a level below that of music.

To begin with, and for the layman, words are a ready source of communication. It is generally assumed that music at best is a vehicle that should facilitate the main thrust of the communication extended by words. For the ordinary listener, words are important and in recalling a composition it is always the words or the lyrics that are remembered and identified. Music is, as if behind the line operator, casting a decisive influence but is not seen or appreciated and hence goes unnoticed.

In a culture that is becoming polyglot and eclectic due to the bombardment of influences, forms have been either collapsing or are being merged or considered side by side. In this environment, perhaps the word and the sur do not coalesce but exist side by side or just coexist.

The most famous of the most outstanding poet who also was able to score well as a lyricist in the subcontinent was Sahir Ludhianvi. He was recognised early as pure potential but, somewhere in the early 1950s, he decided to write freely for the huge film industry of India and was remarkably successful in doing so. It was said of him that he did not compromise on his abilities as a poet in penning lyrics for the films — they have to compromise with music and then to the situation in the film.

There may be others too in India like Anand Bakhshi and Gulzar who qualify to be great lyricists, perhaps more prolific than Sahir. But it is questionable whether they are seen to be as great as him, if judged purely on the merit of poetry.

Mostly poets who had sympathies with the left — Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi — took to writing for the films. This was a part of their overall mission of reaching out to the people at large. Films as a medium was accessible to the common man. In a society that is hugely illiterate or too poor to indulge in the habit of reading or listening to poetry per se, the message had a greater chance of reaching them by putting it in the garb of entertainment.

In the West this connection between poetry and singing is not that insistent as it is here in our culture. Most forms of poetry are also the forms of music like ghazal, kaafi, wai, geet, tappa, mahiya. But not all are — like kheyal, dhrupad, thumri, dadra in music and mussasdas, masnavi, qasida, rubai in poetry. Though any poetical text can be used freely and without strictures in qawwali, and other lok forms. When vocalist improvises, it is not only with the raags but also with the poetry. The qawwals/folk singers move from one form to another, from one poet to the other, depending on the ability to improvise and find connections.

Nazm, as we know it today, derived from blank or free verse had no prototype for its musical rendition. So some or many have experimented with it to varying degrees. Probably Iqbal Bano’s rendition of Mehdi Zaheer’s bandish of Faiz’s Dasht e Tanhai Main can be considered an example where the experiment succeeded among many others that have failed.

In the classical forms, like the kheyal and dhrupad, the stress is wholly on the significance of the sur and its intonation; so words are purely incidental. It is striving for the purity of the sur or sound in its pure manifestation, with words considered being a hindrance in the path of total immersion.

In the West, probably stricken by the intrusion of word in the music scheme, the great composers abandoned the words and the voice to move on to music that was purely instrumental. The great classical tradition from the sixteenth to the late nineteenth century categorised the two streams clearly and word was forsaken for the note.

There is always a pitfall of being lured by an easy way out — in vocal rendition, being enticed by the word instead of accepting the challenge of reaching out through the sur.

In a culture that is becoming polyglot and eclectic due to the bombardment of influences, forms have been either collapsing or are being merged or considered side by side. In this environment, perhaps the word and the sur do not coalesce but exist side by side or just coexist, like sculpture and painting coexist or mix media exists despite the individual difference. The environment might be more conducive for the two, sur and sher, to coexist without becoming one.

It can be assumed that, in the absence of an overarching vision, purity is being put on the backburner, and finding similarity in diversity, howsoever small, is the quest of contemporary expression. Bob Dylan is representative of the age where most understand, no matter how little, and are content with the minimum that they receive.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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