Of the many “filmy” tracks of 2014, few have shown artistic renewal. But away from formula-driven item numbers, French musician Mathias Duplessy attempted some serious genre-bending pieces. The bouncy Flamenco-tinged title song Fanny re from Homi Adajania’s film, Finding Fanny (2014), traced its bloodline to the melodies of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). The Spanish guitar had an odd flourish, but the moment the accordion and the banjo joined in along with qawwal Mir Mukhtiyar Ali’s voice, the song found a different direction. Never had we heard Punjabi folk alongside Spanish arrangements with such an impeccable sense of delivery. “It sounded crazy to me too. I’m an illiterate man and do not understand English or French. Mathias can’t get Hindi. But we just jammed together and this song came out of nowhere. We understand each other through music,” says Ali, who performed at Samanvay – IHC Indian Languages Festival held last week.
Ali is not your average playback singer. A musician from the Mirasi community, singers for over 800 years, from Pugal, Rajasthan, Ali has spent most of his life singing at weddings and jaagrans. “When TV became big, no one bothered about smaller musicians like us, so to remain alive I sang at jaagrans. I had already tried farming and rearing animals. But one day, I decided to get back to music and earn whatever little I could,” says Ali. He was soon discovered by Shabnam Virmani during the filming of her documentary on Kabir. Virmani’s assistant suggested Ali’s name to Duplessy.
In his performance at the festival, Ali stuck to the poetry by Amir Khusrau and Kabir amid trademark wahs and much appreciation from the audience. “I live on the border of India and Pakistan, a place where Baba Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid and Shah Hussain propagated their philosophies. I’m the happiest when I’m singing them. The Hindus and Muslims of our area sing at dargahs and mandirs alike,” says Ali. He isn’t keen that his children take up music in Bollywood. In a world of self promotion and hunger to break into the big league, Ali seems to have renounced it all. “I need my tradition to continue. Money won’t give the satisfaction an artist needs,” says Ali.
He isn’t pleased with the kind of music that plays on his boxy radio in his pucca house in Pugal. “Aajkal ka gaana hum nahi ga sakte. It’s not something that I was born to do. So I’m back to singing what I do best — the qalams of Amir Khusrau, the dohas of Kabir and poetry left behind by the saints. There are many who can sing in Bollywood. I don’t care much about that. I am in search of the soul. I get a whiff of it in the music I perform,” says Ali.
This story appeared in print with the headline The Wandering Minstrel