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The choice is ours: 10 songs of reason that could show the way if we choose to listen

Rupam Islam is questioning the self, Swarathama is lampooning the politician, Imphal Talkies is sounding a wake-up call with a lullaby as Amyt Datta, Lou Majaw, Indian Ocean, Easy Riders, Bodhisattwa Trio seek out the long lost voice of reason

Shantanu Datta Published 30.05.24, 02:06 PM

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By now, all but some of us have made our choice in this season of choices. In no time, we will know which way the wind blows. Some would say that’s a no-brainer. The choice was always clear, after which there will be nothing left to choose. Others believe the wind might just change course, albeit slightly, who knows.

While we wait for the denouement, Telegraph Online puts together ten songs by independent musicians of India and its neighbours that might help show the way, remind us who we were, who we have become and where we are going; and may be even point to where we should be heading to in case anyone cares to listen.


‘Who Am I?’| Rupam Islam

Framed as a rock anthem, Rupam’s probing of the times starts with the self. The song, a version released on YouTube as recently as in February 2024, talks of the person we see in the mirror. Guilty or innocent? I have turned into ash, he says; hence, unable to get burnt. Who am I, he asks amid flamboyant guitar chords, going on to raise several other posers. Look hard, the answers are not difficult to find. Yet we fight shy. A sing-along feel adds a light touch to what is serious business, a violin when you least expect it pushes the song several notches higher. What feels like a head-banger morphs itself into a quieter search within. Face it. Ask yourself, urges the indefatigable singer-songwriter and Fossils frontman whose ouvre springs from a wellspring of humanity.

‘Topiwalleh’ | Swarathma

The mischievously questioning violin in this old track from Bangalore’s band of conscience meshes in brilliantly with reggae, unspooling a rhythm that is deceptively brutal in the way it unmasks and lampoons the politician. Bend down and touch their feet for sure, but do take care to watch your precious derriere, they say. My my! This is voting season. Be careful. Your feet may auto-tap, and you may feel like doing a jig. But don’t you dare. No one knows who’s winning as yet. Just remember: Saar pe haath daale, khaali peth maare, Topiwalleh, says Swarathma and signs off, Yehi to raajneeti hai bhaiya, bole meri maiyya. Before that there’s a wry reminder though about the old hack of trading in flags: Dhanda hai ye jhanda, jhanda ke hai batwaara, khel wahi hai purana ha ha ha.

‘Lullaby’ | Imphal Talkies & The Howlers

The youth of Manipur look to him for a voice when they seem to have lost theirs. Ronidkumar Chinganbam, or Akhu, as he’s widely known, is buoyantly uninhibited, exuding a childlike innocence that he retains in his poetry and song. Akhu and his band sing for peace, have stuff to say. He doesn’t mince his words. In Lullaby, a brutally honest exposition on loss and longing, and what it is to be born in a troubled state like his own, he lays it bare: Blood soaked streets, that’s my ground, that’s where I play around. Sound of gunshots, that’s my song, that’s my lulla-lullaby… . And when he strums his guitar and belts out each and every word, in natural sync with a heart-warming tune, it strikes you that this lullaby is a wake-up call. Dedicated to “all the children around the world in conflict zones”, a group of local kids fills in with a chorus in their native tongue as the song unspools unhurried, to heart-stopping thuds of a single drum beat. Akhu is addressing all of us, articulating universal sentiments for both the ruled and the rulers. When will we listen? When will they listen?

‘Sea of Sorrow’ | Lou Majaw

Lou Majaw is as old as India. He’s just wrapped up the latest edition of his annual ritual: a concert to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday on May 24 in Shillong. Aside from celebrating the music of the Tambourine Man, Majaw has written songs for over 50 years, his ouvre showcased as a compilation on Spotify this year with the title, Lou Majaw @75. Sea of Sorrow, the first track, is the self-taught singer-songwriter’s biography. I’ve known hunger since I was ten, loneliness is my good friend. I’ve learnt to smile when I feel sad, when I see good times turning bad. I am on the other side now, across the sea of sorrow. Yes I can see the light now, I know where the wind blows. This song, transparent and translucent in its disarming honesty, has had many takers, forged many unspoken bonds. For all his followers, therefore, Sea of Sorrow could well be the nation’s song too. Lou, after all, is as old as India.

‘Bandeh’ | Indian Ocean

Are ruk ja re bandhe are thum ja re bandhe ki kudrat has padegi ho. Kise kafir kahega kise kayar kahega, teri kab tak chalegi ho. Kise kafir kahega kise kayar kahega, Teri kab tak chalegi ho... This one’s a call to cease. Pause. Stop. Used to compelling effect in Black Friday, Anurag Kashyap’s epical film of 2004 (released in theatres three years later) on the 1993 Mumbai blasts based on Hussain Zaidi’s book, Bandeh (prison) is based on Sufi saint Bulleh Shah’s poem. Who are you calling a traitor? How long will you allow this to go on, it asks in a fervent appeal, beseeching us to hear and head the voice of reason and embrace amity and unity, the two potent weapons against divisive forces that lurk among us and unsuspectingly spread hate and destruction in the name of progress. It was a less than an eight-minute slow burn when released, but has, over the years, morphed into extended versions in live shows by the band. Rahul Ram’s rendition is a wail from the heart, playing alongside is an incisive guitar that adds immediacy to the tune that sets your soul on fire. Listen. Think. Decide.

‘Yusra’ | Amyt Datta

The two sisters swam for hours while attached to their overcrowded dinghy that was sinking in the Aegean Sea. They managed to save the lives of 18 fellow Syrian refugees. In their journey out of a war-torn country, Yusra and Sara were also able to fulfil a dream: Yusra competed in two Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team, while Sara now works for the betterment of refugees. Even before their story came to Netflix (Swimmers), this guitar guru had recorded an instrumental for them. Yusra starts slow, mirroring the sadness of war and the scared befuddlement of kids born into violence. After some brooding chords play to the seductive calm of an endless ocean, Amyt’s acoustic guitar shuffles into action signifying the upheaval in the girls’ lives; the drums burst forth in the background only to allow the tune to perch itself again on a slow but steady lilt. Layered with guitar harmonies and peppered with intricate jazz flourishes, this is an engrossing tune, deep and contemplative; as though a beautiful painting that’s stunning in its gradual revelations at closer look. Featured in Amyt’s 2021 album, Red Plant, what Yusra celebrates is what the sisters are telling us. Forge ahead no matter the circumstances. Help and stand by others, make your life worthwhile. No one can take that away from you.

‘Even When We Are Gone’ | Easy Riders

Beginning ominously with a weather report warning of a debilitating heat wave, this pile driver of a jagged-edged rock song is dystopian in its reportage of the present. …I know they will still be burning up the Earth even when we’re gone, it prophesies as heavy-metal guitar jabs punctuate what is a devastating take on the present leading up to the horrors of a not-so-distant future. In feel, tone and tenor this song took me back to Time For Bedlam (Deep Purple) and Dark Ages (Jethro Tull) the first time I heard it. All three confront similar concerns with exploitation of nature’s bounty as preamble. Yet they all have something more to say. Not surprising, given Easy Riders’ roots as a fiercely independent jam band of significant vintage, schooled as they are in the ethos of classic rock improvisation. The guitar solo shadows the tune after which the song pulls no punches, calling out those that kill in the name of God and drum up the past as they ruin all our futures. This gut punch of a statement is out on the Easy Riders Bandcamp page with the Kolkata band having already performed it to aplomb at several live gigs.

‘Final Frontier’ | The Bodhisattwa Trio with Mimica Orchestra

Final Frontier cries out for reason and hope. It is the last track of the concept album, Frontier, an episodic conversation between astronauts fleeing apocalypse on earth and the forces of outer space that help the hapless humans with refuge. The Kolkata trio unveiled it last year, a musical project of outsized ambition in collaboration with the orchestra from Zagreb, Croatia. The end result is a sophisticated amalgamation of diverse genres, from in-your-face guitar improvisation to R&B and western classical music. Serving as denouement, this tune reprises a familiar strain of Raag Bhairavi. The guitar, alternating between delicate frills to bold undertones, bites into each note as if time has stopped, to ultimately signal the heralding of a new dawn. The raga riffs instantly transport us to the familiar strains of Dekho Re (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne), in which two village bumpkins sing and drum to welcome a new morning, the scene from Ray’s film that signposts our lives. Look at the light of day. See how it clears the darkness of prejudice and hate. But do we see? Do we even listen?

‘Karar Oi Louho Kopat’ | Arnob, Emon Chowdhury, Hasib; Coke Studio Bangla

Nazrul Islam’s timeless anthem of revolt gets a beat and some lovely lead guitar in this interpretation by Arnob, Emon and Hasib. The arrangements are just right, not overdone with embellishments that Coke Studio offerings often get trapped into doing. The juxtaposition of male and female vocals invokes the power of a chorus that this song is sung in, right from the days of the freedom struggle. Break open the shackles of the lockup is what Nazrul says. Today, the song is also addressing the inhibiting shackles of greed and graft in public life, asking good citizens to break them.

‘Hum Dekhenge’ | Coke Studio Season 11

An apt coda to this compilation, Iqbal Banu’s song resonates with the subcontinent and beyond for its historical significance and the elegance of its determined defiance. She sang it in a stadium full of people in Lahore to protest the incarceration of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, wearing a black sari in contravention of General Zia-ul Haq’s ban on the attire. Her definitive rendition was a seminal moment, exemplifying the power of song in the fight against injustice, transcending geographical boundaries. It made a resurgence during the 2019 anti-CAA (Citizens Amendment Act) protests at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi where men and women adopted it as an anthem. The 2019 Coke Studio version, featuring a stellar cast of singers, bands and rap artistes of Pakistan (including Ali Azmat and the legendary Abida Parveen), frames the song as a qawwali, the genial beat bestowing on it a buoyancy to reflect a renewed sense of urgency to forge unity of purpose. An all-time classic, Hum Dekhenge will be sung for centuries to come.

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