Amrita Pritam was one of the foremost Indian literary voices of the 20th century. Her centenary was celebrated on August 31 this year and perhaps the best tribute she could be given was provided by singer Kavita Seth in the form of an album.
Seth released the latest installment in her album/live concert series called Main Kavita Hoon last month. Having worked on putting the poems of Mirza Ghalib and Wasim Barelvi to music, this most recent addition sees Seth take on Pritam’s poems. Her work honours Pritam’s legacy by blending Pritam’s words with her voice and music.
“She was such a fearless writer. She was just so ahead of her time. Her way of living, how she behaved, her manner of writing, all of it was unique,” Kavita Seth said.
Putting words someone else has written to music can be incredibly challenging. Seth spent days coming up with melodies that fit the mood, and rhythms that fit the meter of the poem. Inspiration would strike at random and Seth spent late nights recording something she had just come up with.
Kavita Seth spoke to indianexpress.com about the inspiration behind her work, the state of the music industry, and artistic pursuits.
Excerpts from the conversation:
How has the response to your last album been?
It’s been going well. I have been doing one thing after another. I have only just shared the Amrita Pritam album with an audience and I feel pretty good. I have taken a break and have come to Port Blair because it is finally out. I had been wanting to do this project for some time. She is (Pritam) such a well regarded and talented poet. Working on this felt right. I had also done a live concert series where I performed the songs I had adapted. First I worked on Wasim (Barelvi) sir’s album and wanted to do that justice. After that, I moved on to working on the Amrita Pritam album. We were in the studio and spent a good deal of time recording. I look at it this way -you can think of me as a mediator or a bridge- am working to bring together the poet and the audience through my work. I am digitizing their work in music so that it can reach even more people. And the listeners seem to be enjoying it! I hope that I can do good work for poetry. In addition to digitizing the work, I also want to perform their work live whenever I can.
Why specifically Amrita Pritam? Why not some other poet?
She was such a fearless writer. She was just so ahead of her time. Her way of living, how she behaved, her manner of writing, all of it was unique. Also for her to be in a live-in relationship during her time was huge. This is quite common now but at that time it was unheard of. As a woman, I found all of this inspiring. I wanted to create something with her work. After reading her poems over and over, I just felt that I should do something amazing with this. I also feel that as a creative person, sometimes you just take a liking to something and you want to do it. I felt that her poems heard me, not the other way around. I became a medium for her work.
What was the process behind putting the poems to music? How did you decide what a poem should sound like?
This was the part that took time. Everything has its rhythm and tying it all together was difficult. I would read the poems, try to think of a tune bit by bit. Slowly it all came together. It was on my mind all the time. You never knew when the inspiration to make the final piece fit would strike you. Sometimes it would happen at two in the morning and I would record it. It was quite an interesting journey because I was never sure if it would work out in the end. Each song has its own story. It was quite a great experience. Sometimes I would imagine sitting with the poet right there and watching them while I tried to write.
It’s interesting though because the times have changed quite a bit. People are all releasing singles these days but I still decided to make an album. But people seem to be enjoying it!
How do you balance Bollywood and your projects?
Well, I am mostly doing my projects right now. There are very few Bollywood projects. But if that comes my way, I will do that too. I have one project that will be coming out next year. But, it’s always enjoyable to be able to do what it is you want to do. I am enjoying every minute of every day doing what I do. There’s a long list of things to still be done though. A lot of work still left to do.
Do you think Sufi music is seeing a slump in Bollywood?
I don’t think that’s the case. For example, I had to finish this project, so I was focusing all my energy on it. Now that I have finished it I would want to do something new. Everything has a phase. When Gully Boy released there was a lot of attention given to rap. When the next thing comes out, it’ll be that. I feel like I am slow-moving that way. I do what draws me to it and not what’s having a moment right now.
Do you think the shelf life of music has become shorter these days?
Yes. It has gone down quite a lot. Also, it used to be that music would take time to make. One music director would work with multiple people to make just one song. All of it would take time. Nowadays all the work is done by different people in different places. There’s no connection between anyone involved either. Any song can become popular. There’s no soul behind the work. There is little value behind the music itself. One way out of this could be to look to independent artistes. They put in a lot of hard work behind their music.
In such a scenario, do you think there is room for genres like Sufi to even grow?
Absolutely. I think the more soul there is behind the work, the more something has the potential to shine. You can sing Sufi, rap, or whatever. So long as the music is connected, it will do well.
Do you have any plans to tour for Main Kavita Hoon?
Yes! October onwards I’ll be doing a pan-India tour with this album. I want to take it to as many places as I possibly can.