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The Genius of Piyush Mishra

When my mother was growing up in the Fifties, her parents disapproved of their children listening to Hindi music. It was considered vulgar. She listened to Binaca Geet Mala on the sly on a neighbour’s radio. When I was about ten, I was glued to the radio too. I tuned into all kinds of shows […]

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When my mother was growing up in the Fifties, her parents disapproved of their children listening to Hindi music. It was considered vulgar. She listened to Binaca Geet Mala on the sly on a neighbour’s radio.

When I was about ten, I was glued to the radio too. I tuned into all kinds of shows on various radio stations from Vividh Bharti and AIR Bombay to Voice of America, BBC and Radio Australia. As a naturally bilingual Indian, I didn’t think twice about this ability to tune into the pop music of two cultures: one Western, one desi.

I still sense a divide though between those into Western music and those who listen to Bollywood. Many Indian bands singing in English will say: Bollywood doesn’t do it for me. They will never put it on their iPods. It’s a deep-rooted prejudice, like that based on caste or race.

Partly Bollywood is to blame because it has rarely felt the need to go beyond formulaic love songs or dance numbers. The Eighties were an especially bad time; there were gems of alienation like ”˜So Gayan Yeh Jahaan’ from Tezaab but these were few and far between. There were rarities like Om Dar Badar’s ”˜Terrorist Tadpole’ but until YouTube arrived most of us didn’t have access to these songs. You would never hear them on radio.

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The last decade has been better. There’s a new generation of filmmakers who have been giving attention to the song as an art form. Anurag Kashyap is one and the Gulal soundtrack (lyrics and music by Piyush Mishra) is nothing short of a landmark. While the music relies on a folk idiom, the lyrics are profoundly modern, often talking about alienation in chilling terms.
”˜Ranaji’ mixes politics and love, the belligerence of a feudal lord being compared with that of George Bush’s America: “Jaise har ek baat pe democracy me lagne lag gaya ban/Jaise door desh ke tower mein ghus jaaye re aeroplane/Jaise sare aam Iraq mein jaa kar jam gaye Uncle Sam/Jaise bina baat Afghanistan ka baj gaya bhaiya band.” Along the way there is a clever reference to the English language and the aspirations that are tied to it. This is kitsch as truth and no one can do it like Piyush Mishra, “Sajni ko dear bole/Tharre ko beer bole/Maange hai English boli/Maange hai English choli/Maange hai English Jaipur, English Bikaner/Jaise Bisleri ki botal pee ke ban gaye Englishman.”

Desolation and fear hang over a sleeping city in ”˜Jab Shahar Hamara Sota Hai’. Mishra is at his storytelling best in this eerie ode to the night, “Sanataa viraana khamoshi anjaani/Zindagi leti hai karwate toofani.” And then the finely-observed and telling detail, “Kahin pe hai jhingur ki aawazen/Kahin pe wo nalke ki tap tap hai/Kahin pe wo kaali si khidki hai/Kahin wo andheri si chimni hai.”

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In ”˜Raat Ke Musafir,’ Rahul Ram sounds out a warning in a wonderfully haunting world-weary voice, distanced yet impassioned at the same time. Feel your hands getting clammy as these loaded words sail over some spare acoustic chords, “Dekh teri thokar se raah ka wo patthar/Maathe pe tere kas ke lag jaaye naa uchal ke.”

Mishra is a far-thinking genius who dares to think beyond the obvious. May more demons lurk in the dark alleyways of his mind.

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