A Wonder Called Dr. Madan Gopal

Dr Madan Gopal is one of the most charismatic multi talented person, he is not only eminent Sufi Singer but also a music composer, actor, screenwriter, film theorist, lyricist, journalist and presently he is teaches English at Satyawati Collage in Delhi.

In conversation with Samrat Mukherjee unveiling what made Dr Gopal a prolific composer, actor, screenwriter, film theorist, lyricist and editor.

SM: Please tell us about your initial training.
MG: I was born in Amritsar in my maternal grandparents’ house. Our house was barely a street away from the Golden Temple. The strains of the spiritual music could be clearly heard especially in the early hours of the day. I was born in the fifties at a time when people felt distinctly connected to one another not just culturally but far more significantly cross culturally as well. I was brought up in Delhi in a house surrounded by an incredibly large range of books spanning from world art and literature to anthropology and philosophy. My father, late Harbhajan Singh, in addition to being a celebrated poet (winner of Sahitya Academy, Kabir and Saraswati Sanmans, he retired as professor emeritus from Delhi University) was an intuitively inspired singer. I secretly picked up my first KL Sehgal, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi songs from him. He was a great admirer of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan Sahib, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Salamat Ali. He also admired some the legendary Sikh Gurbani kirtankars. Some of this rubbed off on me as well. Like him, I too did not have formal training in music even though I was sent to Prof GS Sardar ñ the elder brother of the Singh Bandhus. Much later I tried, unsuccessfully of course, to become a disciple of the Sitar maestro, Ustad Shaid Parvez Khan.

SM: Who are your inspirations?
MG: In music, I was influenced by a range of singers and singing styles. These are too numerous to count here. I will try nonetheless to name a few whose influence on me has been seminal. I adored Mohammed Rafi ñ especially the songs he sang under the baton of SD Burman and OP Nayyar. Subsequently, I became enamoured of classical musicians such as Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur and Pandit Kumar Gandharv. This led me deeper into musical appreciation and an increasing fascination with Gangubai Hangal, Girija Devi, Kishori Amonkar. I also greatly admire MD Ramanathan and, in the lighter version, Aruna Sairam. The music of Jyotirindra Moitra, especially his music for Ritwik Ghatak’s films, moves me profoundly.

Amongst the Sufi singers, Nusrat Fateh Ali and his father-uncle duo Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali, Ustad Tufail Niazi, Ustad Jafar Husain of Badaun, Pathane Khan, Sharif Ghazanavi, Allan Faqir, Bhitshah Faqirs, Bunger Khan Mangniars, Sher Ali Mehar Ali, Zuhoor Sain, Sanatan Baul and Kanhai Baul inspired me hugely.

As for the international music, I was lucky to travel through the Persian landscape with the legendary Shahram Nazeri singing from town to town. I greatly admire the singing of Alim and Farghana Qasimov.

The music of Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann (with whom I have had the privilege of singing in San Caesario, Italy), John Lennon and Paul MacCartney, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, remains dear to me.

SM: What is Sufi Music according to you? How is it different form other genres of music?
MG: It is wrong to attribute a singular, homogenous identity to Sufi music globally. There is no such thing as Sufi music generically identifiable universally as being similar in musical structure. The musical existence of various kinds of Sufi music is primarily culture/ area specific. The Sufi music of the African subcontinent, for instance, may have little similarity to the Sufi music we get to hear in India. Within the Indian subcontinent, there are major variants of Sufiana qalaam, clearly identifiable in the Kashmir, the Indus valley and the Gangetic plains. If indeed, we take into account the faqiri singers from Kushtia, we have yet another hugely vibrant form of the Sufiana qalaam. Sufi music, as such, is not a monolithic construct even if it is apprehended as such in the public perception. Popular music has, for instance, created a set of, what I call, ‘body-types’ that masquerade sounds that are readily consumed as Sufi sounds. People like Himesh Reshammiya have thrived on such a facile understanding of Sufi music. Anand Raj Anand is another example. However, we do have examples such as AR Rehman’s where the same music seems to develop into potentially new and exciting domains.

SM: In recent years, Sufi music gained a lot of popularity and is also labelled as ‘drawing room’ music. What do you have to say about it? How do you think the trend is swinging?
MG: One of the major mistakes we make in addressing the Sufi music is that we tend to look at its various manifestations as something frozen in time. This is far from true. Like all other forms of music, the Sufi music has continued to grow and change with times. The crisis visiting the contemporary classical music is precisely this ñ it has stopped growing for over fifty years now. It is going nowhere. Sufi music mercifully hasn’t followed the same path. Moreover, modern electronic technologies and the adjunct technologies of dissemination (radio, tv, internet etc) have brought about major changes within the melodic content of Sufi music and its wider reception. And it is not always a sign of regression ñ although in some cases it is unambiguously so.

What is most fascinating about the contemporary Sufi music in the Indian subcontinent is that it has been brought out of the khanquahs and dargahs. It has found a vibrant space within the ‘secular’ concert circuits. It has at times led to situations where the Sufi music has found itself becoming increasingly alienated from the truly emotionally driven devotees for whom it was originally created and getting aggressively appropriated by the inhabitants of the lifestyle pages and modules. This has brought in its wake designers’ Sufi singers and impressarios who would sing anywhere for a price. Sufism has been thus far not only a music of love and protest (against injustice and social evils), it has also been a kind of expression unflinchingly espousing the cause of communal harmony, peaceful coexistence. It has been a kind of a carnival of sharing adhering to the finest ethos of our syncretic culture. The modern day designers’ sufi are willing to go anywhere for a price. This is violative of the Sufi spirit.

SM: Do you write Sufiyana kalam? Whose Poetry do you like to sing most?
MG: I am not a practising Sufi. In fact, I am not a religious person at all. But I do write poetry engaging in an imagined dialogue with other important poets including the Sufis.

I have composed and sung the poetry of Rumi, Shah Husain, Sultan Bahu and Bulle Shah and enjoyed doing that immensely. But I have also translated contemporary poets such as Bertolt Brecht, Lorca and even John Lennon ñ especially his Imagine which I translated into Hindustani – and sung them extensively.

SM: Tell us about your association with film industry?
MG: I am primarily a scholar of film and cultural studies and hold perhaps India’s first Ph.D in film studies. I wrote a film on the doyen of Jaipur Atrauli Gharana, Pt Mallikarjun Mansur (Rasayatra, directed by Nandan Kudhyadi). It won the President’s award for the best short film in the mid-90s. I wrote another film on the legendary Bengali filmmaker, Ritwik Ghatak, (Name of a River, directed by Anup Singh) which went on to win the award for best direction at the Zanzibar film festival. I also composed music for the now celebrated Pakistani film, Khamosh Pani, which has won international awards too numerous to count.

Samrat Mukherjee

Photographer, ardent music lover, and journalist, Samrat joined an adventure travel company ‘Questrails’, where he organises and guides Himalayan adventure trips.

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1 Comment
  1. annapurna Murthy

    Congrats Madan!!!! You are truely a genius!! When are you making your next trip to bangalore to sing?? I am ready with kerayaneeranu kerege challi

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