A harmonium prelude in the pentatonic raag Kalavati, played along rhythmic handclaps and a groovy theka on the tabla and dholak, opens a piece that reminds one of the world of qawwali. Soon, the vocalists begin the verses and continue with the refrain. In terms of its opening presentation, the sound has the transgressive quality, a sense of rapture synonymous with qawwali. In terms of the lyrics of the piece, those singing aren’t crooning the phrases by Rumi, Bullshah or Amir Khusrau — the bedrock of devotional Sufi pieces that have come to be presented as qawwali.
Instead, they are singing a famed piece written by James Lord Pierpont, titled On a one horse open sleigh, known to be the world’s most famous Christmas carol. So Jingle bells, jingle all the way meets the interjections of sargams and a slew of alaaps in an interesting fusion of genres and sounds.The composition moves in the pathos-filled Charukeshi, to the light and playful Jhinjhoti, to a combination of Jaijaivanti and Miyan Malhar.
“It began as a fun thing. The idea of some Hindu boys getting together and singing a Muslim form of music for a Christian holiday was quite interesting. It wasn’t or isn’t a political statement. But, when I did get the idea to treat the famed carol differently, it was so interesting that I just couldn’t resist,” says percussionist Mayookh Bhaumik, 37, who helms the piece. He has called it a “Christmas qawwali”. Bhaumik, who divides his time between Kolkata and New York, has made an amateur video of “this jam session in the living room.”
During this Christmas qawwali, Bhaumik divides his role between being a tabla player and a harmonium player. The piece moves like a qawwali does, with improvisations, building in tempo as one goes further. The improvised variation of the famed Christmas song was released online recently. What’s interesting about the piece is that, while the basic, main melody is in the familiar territory, the directions it finds with the mainstays of qawwali not only hum with collaborative energy and eloquent climaxes, they don’t sound forcefully placed, a risk any fusion project comes with.
“But music is about conversation, exchange of ideas. I look at it as the basic science concept we studied in high school — the difference between a mixture and a compound. I can make a compound, where the individual elements combine and become something new, with an identity of its own. The change of bond happens and what matters is what it has become,” says Bhaumik, who in the past has integrated EDM with Indian classical. One of his well-known projects is Requiem for a Thillana, an ode to Clint Mansell’s iconic theme from Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.
He has also won a National Award for Best Background Score for Kaushik Ganguly’s Laptop (2012) Growing up in the US, Bhaumik’s tryst with music happened when he was about two and taken to Ut Ali Akbar Khan. “I was placed before a tabla and I put my hands on it in the perfectly right position, which is something beginner tabla learners master initially,” says Bhaumik. The sarod maestro suggested that the family should train Bhaumik in India and they moved and began training in Kolkata. Bhaumik has trained under Ut Sabir Khan and now trains under Ut Zakir Hussain.
He met Ut Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at the age of 17. “I was asked to record with him. A friend, who was working with him, told me they needed a tabla player,” says Bhaumik, who recorded with the qawwali giant on a version of the famous Halka halka suroor and two Punjabi pieces in Los Angeles. The songs never came out as Nusrat died shortly after that. “But when I was sitting in front of him, I was overawed by the greatness,” says Bhaumik. It was Nusrat’s popular Saanso ki mala pe — a Meera bhajan sung like a qawwali — that made Bhaumik attempt the Christmas qawwali. “It’s a pure qawwali. The presence of Jingle bells is incidental and interesting,” says Bhaumik.