Aamad: Sameer Rahat unearths new metaphors of loss in this ravishing debut album

An experiment in exploring ideas of loss and losing along-with Sameer Rahat’s debut album ‘Aamad’.

Known for his Urdu Blues, Sameer Rahat’s debut album Aamad delves into various shades of the human experience — sounds, ideas and words that now give respite from the grief and loss that comes with a pandemic

Music, like cinema, has the power to upturn the conventional ideas of society. And that is why this album is here to stay. This might sound like the end of a review, but we are all about subverting things here. Let’s go backwards.

Consider this scenario — a visual that is played out in movies, probably in American ‘rom-coms’ and may be in your own lives too:

It feels like the end of everything. It looks like the end of everything. You are holding a box of several items — except now they are no longer yours. Heavy-hearted but somewhere there is relief — that box has to go. And there is the swap: you return those once cherished items, tokens of love, once belonging to you, back to their owner, the love you have just lost.

This seems a familiar gesture that comes with the loss of love. In the literal sense, tokens and objects that were once gestures of love are snatched back at the end of love, or returned more than willingly.

Why is this a rite of passage for love lost? What is this ritual that helps one move on? The immediate answer coming to mind is to get rid of the pain, not so much the love so-to-speak. Does one need a clean slate in order to start anew?

But what if we can look at the pain, feel it differently? What if loss need not be a fresh start but an acceptance (‘aamad’ after all means ‘arrival’), even celebration, of all that is renewed in its loss: a celebration of the self, what it has gained in its losing, or what it has evolved to be, because loss, and love — the two being different sides of a coin — is more complex than that. Perhaps then the predictability of symbolic rituals is a deliberate diversion from the messy business of human experience and living.

Aamad album art courtesy of Tanmay Saxena

Sameer Rahat’s epic solo debut album Aamad, released early this year, provides a space to make sense of the messiness andcomplexity, through its poetry of loss. And what better place to explore this than through music and the world of Urdu poetry, a poetic tradition rich in its history of documenting the travails of the world and at its prime center, the human heart.

Aamad shows us different ways of experiencing loss, what becomes in loss: it shows that loss is not necessarily losing.

It is as if you are the protagonist in the movie that is this album, and Rahat lays out the canvas for us. And that is why I allude to cinema while talking music. Aamad is extremely cinematic in its depiction of loss, love and living.

The album is also elaborate in its execution and style, and in the scope of the narrative. One can say it is a folk-rock opera in Urdu! The songstrace the different shades of the self, the heart, the continuous negotiations and reconciliations with our selves as well as the other.

‘Jo Bhi Hai’ by Sameer Rahat

Jo Bhi Hai

In my mind, the first track ‘Jo Bhi Hai’, a beautiful poem written and recited by Sameer is at the center of this narrative.

In keeping with the cultural metaphor of the gesture of giveaways — what if those tokens of love are not something you part with? They are now yours, even part of your identity. In Rahat’s poem:

darwaaze or khidkiyan
ghul gaye hai deewaron mein
aur chat par yadoon ka daera hai
jo bhi hai, mera hai

‘Jo Bhi Hai’ is an alternate philosophy of loss with a new cultural metaphor for the all too familiar motions that come with losing love. Here all that is lost is now yours to keep with ‘jo bhi hai mera hai’.

But this is not to be mistaken for that which is selfish or egotistical, a deluded perusal of the object of love. Far from it; on the contrary, the refrain alludes to the realm of the intangible, memories and experience.

Perhaps then the symbols and rituals have some meaning after all; they are not just crude gestures. They make tangible the pain, where the material world of possessions and physical matter is the very manifestation of loss. But the poem subverts the very idea of possession in love, which changes the very experience of loss itself: jo bhi hai mera hai.

There is something gained in loss and love; pain is held and confronted, cherished; where the material world of shared lived experience now turns to memory, your memories; where memory is loss but as keepsake.

It is a compassionate take on loss and an empowering idea, when loss of any kind can leave one broken, doubtful and helpless. This philosophy of loss is also to say: you still have your own heart!

Rahat at his Baqsa Studios in Mumbai. Image courtesy of the artist

This idea of abundance in loss is carried throughout the album through the rich, cinematic orchestral arrangement. Here, loss is that vessel that holds the entirety of the experience of love, life and its meaning.

The oud-sounding resonator guitar used in the tracks expresses that absence and longing; but there is a warmth to that instrument, the notes, that again express the presence in absence; the gain in loss. In a sense, the album is a journey of loss, with its many realisations and reconciliations.

Time

With loss comes pain and that is why the album is not entirely an easy listen. It is also not a ‘one-time-listen’ — presuming we sometimes respond to a piece of music in the same way one might to a movie one doesn’t like. It took a couple of times, dipping in and out of the songs, before I listened to the entire album at a stretch.

The process of this album also took about a decade the artist has said. In a way then, in its exploration of pain, the album is also an investigation on time and change and its relation with the self.

It is almost as if the process of listening and creating this album is the time it takes in moving on, step by step, with each song. And not caving in to the pressures of fast output of single releasesAamad gives testimony to the artistic process, a hat-tip to the age-old album release.

The idea that love and loss is not a neat transaction is once again seen in ‘Khat’ where endings are not necessarily the clean cuts that we’d like them to be. Endings can be left messy or open-ended; it might not be a perfect exchange, an expectation met, or even a mutual farewell. Sometimes, it can be a half-finished letter, or an unsent one: ‘Yeh khat… yeh akhari hai, yeh hai adhura…’

Find Aamad on Spotify

There is another line in ‘Khat’ that goes ‘ban gaye jaise koi aur hi’. ‘Hum Kaun Thae’, a musical adaptation of the poem by the famous Urdu poet Jaun Eliya, reminisces, perhaps even mourns, who or what you were before it all.

‘Hum kaun thae’ is a nuanced track where the self mourns that which is not only something that is outside of oneself but also mourning yourself and who you were.

Those single notes of the piano towards the end are faint traces of you were, are, and still becoming. But there is also an acceptance in change, the foregoing of a self, making you new, with the playful and repeated refrains at the end of the song. This is another compassionate take on loss, making way for hope and possibilities.

‘Chehre Gehre’ from the album

Chehre Gehre

There is comfort in Aamad’s world, in spite of the knowledge of the world’s unfairness. And true to Urdu poetry’s subversions and challenging societal norms, ‘Chehre Gehre’ questions the conventions and rituals of the world:

duniya, shartein,
rasmein, dushman hai tere…

kaise jiyega ladega akele

While there are rituals and traditions and norms, there is poetry, which provides a deep space for investigation of human emotion and experience. Aamad holds that mirror up for you.

Why do human beings shy away from looking in the mirror — the aina being yet another metaphor, like poetry — evading their own existence? It is here that Aamad shows deep compassion:

mukhtalif hai… aina bhi
mukhtalif hai… har koi

Loss, and on a deeper level, existence is not an individualistic experience. Just like ‘Jo Bhi Hai’ there are myriad faces, lives, interactions, traces of memory that make you whole in spite of loss. ‘Chehre Gehre’ is about the faces that linger on, not leaving you entirely alone:

yadon ke thaele
gham bhi sare
mil kar hai jhaele

‘Mukhtalif hai har koi’ is the last line of this song made further brilliant with the outstanding orchestral arrangement. But it is these multitudes [mukhtalif, ‘different’] that keep you whole: ‘yadoon ke gehre’.

This song embodies the collective enterprise of grief that is this album. It is a collective mourning but also a celebration of the human experience, of oneself as well as the other — with deep caring and compassion.

The journey of loss that the album traverses leads to ‘aamad’: and we are back at the beginning, the very title of the album. ‘Aamad’ is both the closing and opening of a door; it is arrival and departure; past and future; it is both loss and gain: it is where you are now.


Rahat in this intimate set-up performs some of the songs from his album. (Performed in order of sequence: Jo Bhi Hai; Tassali; Hum Kaun Thae; and Khat)

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu: art, desire, and a love for ideas

‘People are excited by ideas. Cinema is about having desire for ideas and the fact that those ideas can create new desires, I think, is a beautiful dynamic.’ – Celine Sciamma, réalisatrice française (French director).

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait a Lady on Fire) is the perfect film to watch within the presently confined portrait of our lives. It is one of the most beautiful films I have watched, made by one of the best of French cinema, Celine Sciamma, inspiring me to even learn French! (It’s my ninth month learning the language.)

We have heard the phrase ‘slow-burn’ used for thriller movies. Portrait is a slow-burn love story between two women set in 17th century Brittany. Marianne is an artist commissioned to paint a marriage portrait of the sheltered and reticent, yet passionate Heloïse.

The film explores desire as well as the artist at work: both curious subjects. Every scene with its subtle movements — a breath or a step, whether taken or withheld – crafts desire.

The film is also an artistic collaboration with audience and viewer. I trace the desires and ideas this film creates. For that is the film: desire and a love/play — I use those words interchangeably — with ideas, extending beyond the reels of cinema.

Film Poster: Portrait of a lady on fire; Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Poet’s Choice

 ‘Do all lovers feel like they are inventing something?’

Can you separate artist from lover? Poets have long relied on the moon for the creation of art. The moon symbolizes distance and the distance from the moon becomes the distance from the Beloved. The moon becomes the object of affection, and the artist falls in love with the moon so to speak. The moon is also the artist’s consort.  Art emerges from this distance and space of love.

Distance, creation, art and love have its alchemy in this film as well. Sciamma weaves the myth of Orpheus into the film, mirroring love and loss for the characters.

In the myth of Eurydice, Orpheus ventures into the underworld to get his wife back from the dead. He is promised her return but for one condition: he must not turn around to look at her until they have stepped out of the underworld. It is not surprising to learn that impatient and doubtful, just as they are about to reach the threshold, Orpheus turns his head.

Orpheus, in breaking his promise and looking back, loses his wife for the second time. One’s obvious reaction is to think it is the most foolish thing to do. He was told not to look!

But Marianne explains in the film that maybe he chose that: in choosing the memory of her, he makes the poet’s choice, not the lover’s. Maybe Orpheus is never meant to unite with Eurydice: turning back was fatal but also vital – for his art. Orpheus goes on to remember his love through his music. His art emerges from the distance from his beloved.

Don’t regret, remember,’ says Marianne as she too is haunted by Heloïse’s fading visage throughout the film. And we know from the beginning that Heloïse and Marianne have Orpheus’ fate, all making the poet’s choice. In both the film as well as Orpheus’ story, we see that in loving there is losing, and so in choosing love, in turning around, there is loss; but what they lose they gain in art, by loving in art.

Heloïse remembers and experiences her love again through the music at that spectacular end of the film (this love story has no music score!) And so maybe it is not just artists that rely on art. Because love is also experienced through art: art is the medium for love, experienced only in distance and loss. Heloïse says perhaps it was Eurydice who said ‘retourne-toi’, turn around.  

But in the film, which is the artist’s gaze and which is the lover’s? Are they one and the same? Do they merge into one another? Is love inevitable? There is a three-way between love, art and artist. Love is art and art is love, a symbiotic relation: So do you have to fall in love to make art? Does art make you fall in love? Does that make all lovers artists? Are all artists lovers?

A scene from the film: a reading of the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus

Underneath the canvas

The canvas is what we see: it is what is in front of us, like the stage. It is what an audience consumes. But what leads to the spectacle is often a mystery. The stage curtain might be one of the reasons there is a mystical or mysterious angle about it: what is behind it? Maybe the mystique is also why we easily ordain the word ‘genius’ to artists, especially men, since they largely occupy the metaphorical stage.

The film busts these myths as well as the idea of the muse, which is central to the mythic creative, in exploring and depicting the creative process: through what is behind the scenes. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a study on the creative process, processes that are ordinarily unseen, hidden from the viewer.

One gets a glimpse of the layered processes of creating art as well as falling in love and the two lines are blurred. In an interview, Sciamma stresses on patience, and how even as director she has to exercise much restraint: ‘you have to hold it back… it is a bit like love, you have to show it but also hold it…’ It even takes more than half the film before the two protagonists warm up to each other.

Sciamma also talks of believing in delay and the pleasure of taking your time, not going too fast, all the way too soon; and how delay and frustration, as well as the uncertainty of it, are a good tension, like a falling-in-love tension.

Marianne’s is also not an easy task either as it takes her more than one attempt at painting Heloïse’s portrait. It is a meticulous, frustrating, yet rewarding process. One gets to see the tricks to the trade and how the magic of creation is in fact rooted in earthly praxis.

Art and love in the mundane – a still from the film. Image Courtesy of h-france.net

In another conversation, Sciamma talks of the ‘horizontal collaboration’ between the characters, as opposed to vertical domination. The idea of the muse, disguised as something spiritual, unearthly and angelic, stems from this unequal domain of vertical domination.

Heloïse picks up Marianne’s brushes, playfully mixing the paints. We see her being inventive, in an intimate moment with Marianne as she looks on. The gaze is reversed and Marianne becomes her canvas. She says ‘if you look at me and who do I look at?’ turning the basic conventions of subject and object on their head.

In horizontal collaboration there is friendship, camaraderie, equality, where collaboration takes precedence rather than domination. Joy, love friendship, creativity and invention stems from this space. While Marianne is seasoned in both love and art, Heloïse is an amateur. This doesn’t stop them from collaborating in both art and love. The word amateur itself stems from the Latin root amare ‘to love’. 

Horizontal collaboration: a scene reminiscent of French painter Renoir – a dialogue with art and homage to artists as colleagues. Image courtesy of The New Yorker

Life and love within the portrait of our lives

Heloïse’s passionate nature is constrained and confined by society and its conventions. Heloïse is the portrait of a lady on fire. Her passion consumes her from within the frames of the canvas; she has a desire to feel and live life deeply. And so she is not one to hesitate to try something new – she lives life, all she can, from within the frame.

She loses Marianne, but in loving she learns to love art (poet’s choice) and in loving art and life, she learns to love. She shows that life is not somewhere far away, but right here, within the portrait of her life.

This way of being can stand well for us in the time of a pandemic.

Note: This film has no music score save for the end of the film, but the (be)coming alive that comes from art, love, and living, is depicted in the following song ( I don’t care much for the music video) that can represent and can go well with this film! And this mixing of cultures is a lot of fun pairing this French film set in Brittany with a song of Indic sensibilites! Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jY8mAWdQFOA

Ghazal | dil jalane ki baat | Javed Qureshi | Ali Sethi

Here is my musical cover of the ghazal ‘dil jalane ki baat’ , penned by Javed Qureshi and rendered musically by Ali Sethi.

But before, Ali Sethi talks about the image problem of the ghazal and how, contrary to common thinking, the ghazal has historically always been a ‘young people’s genre’ and not an ‘uncle/auntie’s genre’, full of existential angst and love!

And now on to exploring the terrain of the ghazal that is the heart: dil jalane ki baat

Link to my rendition, sound better with earphones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvHrykwWMKQ

For more on the multifarious ghazal, watch!

Spring-time Sonata: a composition

Composed this around the same time last year. A rough cut of the composition presented below.

self portrait \ august 2019

As dark winter gives way to the soft blooming of flowers and colours of spring.

dekho to
kya hai yahaan
ek ansunii Dastaan

Look around
what do you see?
an unsung melody

a composition and a theory of songwriting

The idea was to compile all my work — music and writing from 2019. This is the last of it, a nazm I wrote, composed, recorded and sang, as well as translated. From this I also present to you a theory of songwriting.

I wrote this song in June 2019 as I was learning Urdu. My delight for the Urdu ghazal is the bedrock of this nazm. But there is not only the absence-presence of beloved-lover that is central to the ghazal; there are other dynamics at play: there is a tussle or kheencha-taani ‘a tug of war’ between the absent Beloved and present lover, while underlying the fact that human relationships, contrary to common belief, cannot be fulfilled, fully filled.

Human relationships evolve, bloom, diminish, change, around the core of this fact. This is also epitomised by intezaar ‘endless, infinite wait’ in Urdu. Intezaar encompasses both the potentiality and impossibility of whole, complete, fulfilling relationships. The ghazal wouldn’t exist without intezaar nor any modern songwriting without intezaar for ‘you’. Indeed ‘you’ are why and for whom poets write; it is central to the creative process, making for a poetics or a theory of songwriting:

Poets write from this space of distance, longing, separation, and imbalance. And so the moon becomes the object of the poet-lover’s affection. Consider the countless works of art, poetry based on the moon. The moon is the poet’s consort –

“wasl ki raat to chaand ke paas hai/ tera mujhse raabta mahtaab hai…” (‘WordsofAlif’)

I long for night’s union/ I can see you in the moonlight

Sometimes I’d rather contemplate the moon than do the worldly business of making art.

The lines from this song ‘Kora Kaagaz’ from the movie Aradhna, penned by lyricist Anand Bakshi epitomises this theory of songwriting:

kora kaagaz tha man yeh mera / My mind was a blank page
likh liya naam ispe tera / I wrote your name on it

Renoir ‘Young Girls at the Piano’

Now on to my song! Here is a simple phone recording of my song followed by lyrics and a translation.

Bhool Ja

aur rukein saari baatein
aur rukiin hamesha
tanhaiyon
ko bhool ja
savalon ke peeche uljhe
khamoshiyon
ko bhool ja

waqt gham hai
teri yaadon ki zubaan
pukare mujhe din raat

sunaein puri shaam
kahaniyon
ko bhool ja
alfaazon ke peeche uljhe
gumnamiyon ko bhool ja

palkein jhukiin si
aahen dabi si
aur intezaar

baaton baaton mein uljhe
aur savaal

. . .

Forget it all

All the talking
has stopped
and all the loneliness
forget it all
those silences tangled behind
every question
forget them all

Time is sorrow
the language of memories
they call out to me night and day

Those retellings
forget them all!
whose voice lingers behind
those words?
Forget it all

those downcast eyes
suppressed sighs
and infinity

Questions tangle behind
words unseen

Astronaut Allen Bean walks on the moon, image Quartz

chaand par chalna kaunsi badi baat hai / So he walked on the moon!
aashiqon ne barson se yahaan chaand jaana hai / We have made love to the moon

How the Urdu Ghazal Becomes ‘Therapy’ for Me

Being free can be an act of rebellion against a sick society


Part of my healing and recovery process, which in my case is managing my anxiety and learning coping skills, is finding new forms of therapy for myself. This is not an alternative to clinical therapy; by ‘therapy’ here, I mean self-care.

Clinical therapy is also a form of self-care and a safe space to reclaim agency and dignity. It was definitely a good place to start the process for myself. To my pleasant surprise, one of the little pockets of self-care, apart from the frequent hour-long visits to my therapist, became the Urdu ghazal.

I recently started learning how to read and write Urdu in order to learn some aspects of the historical and literary culture of the Indus subcontinent. But I won’t get into that. In Urdu as a language, however, I found in my mind another safe space to go to; it was a space away from the numerous thoughts in my head. Urdu became a space for ishq ‘love’, compassion and understanding, and a natural antidote to worry and anxiety.

My interest veered towards the Urdu ghazal. Its literary elements helped make the ghazal ‘therapy’ for me. I won’t get into jargon; the ghazal is after all simply about human character and relationships, the heart and its motivations.

The ghazal gave me the perfect template, much like clinical therapy to explore my emotions. It gave validation to my feelings, provided me with a mirror to look at myself closely and compassionately, and made my mental experience —the part of our lives that is hidden from the world but is almost our entire world— feel ‘real’; just by being physically out there.

It also made me feel less alone. Even two lines of a couplet could shut off that inner critic and the multiple voices. Each couplet is a world unto itself with endless possibilities and dynamics. It was a welcome shift from a cluttered mind to the safest and truest space of all: the heart. And as I said, the ghazal is all heart.

A background to the ghazal

Despite my disdain for fixed formulas, there is a helpful template of sorts to understand the ghazal. This template comprises the formal elements that make the ghazal what it is. Simply put, it is what characterises the ghazal. Much like the laid out boundaries and rules of the clinic, the ghazal’s formal aspects and rules provide me with a basis for ‘therapy’. It is the ground in which I can explore and investigate my thoughts and emotions.

The world of the ghazal is an unfair and imperfect one. It consists of two permanent protagonists: the pining, grieving, committed lover, and the elusive, absent Beloved. Firaq and furqat, or separation, is the constant, inevitable reality of/in the ghazal world: ‘aa phir se mujhe chod ke jaane ke liye aa…’ (Come here again to leave me again…)

The very structure of the ghazal relies on the fact that there can never be qurbat or a union of the two. It is from within this template of absence and presence of the lover and beloved that human relationships and character is explored.

One of the ways this is done is through dialogue and grievance towards the beloved. That is why the beloved is often likened to a tyrant or oppressor, and paradoxically called the enemy/ oppressor or zaalim. There is jafaa or the tyranny of the beloved. You will find these popular tropes in Bollywood too: the crazed lover is paagal, mad, or deewana/ deewani, kamali, and so on. The passion and ‘madness’ of the lover is also likened to a malady that no doctor can cure.

In a couplet by the 16th century poet Muhammad Afzal from his long poem Bikat Kahani, a lover finds himself isolated by his fellowmen because he is too sick from love and has gone crazy. The stigma of love! [read: mental health] The grieving lover is also found seeking ‘counsel’ from a sakhi ‘friend’, baaji ‘elder sister’, naseh ‘a counsellor and advisor’, or a gham-khvar ‘consoler and sympathiser’.

And that is why, in the Urdu ghazal, I have come across so many different words for pain. Urdu has a wealth of words describing a range of emotions for pain and its variants. One can create an Urdu dictionary of pain!

Jo dil qabu mein ho

Take this couplet by one of my favourite poets Dagh Dehlvi, poet-laureate of Delhi:

جو دل قابو میں ہو تو کوئی رسوائے جہاں کیوں ہو
خلش کیوں ہو تپش کیوں ہو قلق کیوں ہو فغاں کیوں ہو

jo dil qaabū meñ ho to koī rusvā-e-jahāñ kyuuñ ho
ḳhalish kyuuñ ho tapish kyuuñ ho qalaq kyuuñ ho fuġhāñ kyuuñ ho

Dagh’s couplet describes the many shades of a troubled heart. But it is a heart that co-exists with seemingly contrary states: a heart that is steadfast is also incredibly insecure. One state does not and maybe cannot be independent of the other.

And maybe the heart will remain a complex, misunderstood object, even misunderstood by one’s own self. Or it might suggest that human emotion is transient and fleeting: at times, it is just when you feel secure, that the heart in its unpredictability turns the other way. It also tells me to be open to getting hurt.

The rest of the ghazal goes on to explore this complexity and contradictions of human behavior and the heart.

intezaar…

It is in this pain and grief-stricken world of the ghazal that I am able to take solace. The ghazal is my gham-khvar. Contrary to my ‘desire’ for perfection —because the ghazal is all about desire— the ghazal demands intezaar ‘an endless, infinite waiting’. For the forlorn lover, intezaar is the desperation for union with the beloved. The beloved is also signified as God, bringing the ghazal a spiritual angle.

The beloved can be interpreted in many other different various ways. At times, the beloved is my desire for accomplishment and that elusive signpost ‘success’. Or I am both lover and beloved as I learn to accept and come home to ‘me’. It reminds me that healing is a process and that mental health, or any aspect of living is a spectrum. It is a state forever influx and never a perfect goal.

It is the realisation that things take time and that all it takes (at least for me) is a little bit of faith, though hard to come by. Intezaar needs acute patience, but there is also the joy, desire, pain, and hope in waiting. Ishq —the central theme and concept of the ghazal— is here in the waiting, in spite of the waiting, and the pain and agony that comes with it. It is also about sitting with the discomfort of it.

But this is not a pessimistic or nihilistic viewpoint. It is not to say your story is doomed from the start. It is the acknowledgement that just as it is for the forlorn lover, life is love (ishq), but also immense hurt and pain. And that is where the ghazal shows compassion.

A sick society

The ghazal world mirrors our world. It is not only rooted in human lives and day-to-day ‘earthly’ living. It also depicts the kind of society we live in. If Foucault and Derrida taught me one way to question society, the ghazal too makes me question myself as well as society and its problems; but with compassion and kindness.

The ghazal is unconventional in that it goes against tradition and the conventional notions of society. (Dehlvi’s poetry especially does that.) It makes me question my own internalisation of warped social norms and dare to break the rules.

Take these lines, sung beautifully here by the Lahore based musician and academic Ali Sethi. From the ghazal ‘Dil jalane ki baat’ by Javed Qureshi:

todni hai hamein jahaan ki rasm
tum nibhaane ki baat karte ho

I want to break all the rules and conventions
And you here talk about following them

Or this couplet:

saari duniya ke ranj-o-gham de kar
muskuraane ki baat karte ho

You have given me all the grief of the world
What is this talk of happiness?

If society itself is sick, as these couplets establish, what is the stigma surrounding mental health about? One can then question the notion of wellness itself. Can anyone truly be well in a sick society? No wonder the lover doesn’t have any ‘dava’ or ‘daaru’ for cure.

It also tells that mental health is not just placed at a personal, individual level, but is also deeply structural and societal. But maybe healing and living your truest life, being free can be an act of rebellion against a sick society.

Journey to love and light

If fear and worry is one side of the coin, the other side is life and love. Why do you think when ridden with anxiety, one is asked to breathe and focus on one’s breath? It is the very source of life. The other source of life is love/ishq. In that sense, the lover lives life in the truest sense of the word. Ishq is the daru and dava that both kills and sustains the lover, a bit like life itself.

Similarly, ‘ishq’ is a loaded term in this song; it is not merely romantic love, as the ghazal has established. Here it can be a metaphor of coming out of depression and coming back home to the self, but not being quite there yet. It is not an easy path but there is healing; the kind of coexistence we see in Dagh’s couplet:

gum hue jo raaste
mera pata dene lagein

Those familiar trodden paths are now calling back to me

Or this beautiful couplet:

ek mein tha aur thi tanhaii
kaat kaat ke bhi kat nahin payi

It is from isolation and losing one’s way that one emerges on to the path of light and love. Another of my favourite musicians, guitarist Bhrigu Sahni said, “It is only when one is lost that one finds something new.” I have interpreted this philosophy in one of my own songs:

and when the lights go
that’s all I see
the ocean about me
’takes me where I need to be



Note: I am not endorsing the ghazal as an alternative to clinical therapy.
I have not gone into exploring the depths of poetry in the couplets but given a cursory understanding of the ghazal.

Word meanings in order of appearance in couplets
qabu: control
rusva e jahan: disgraced in the world
khalish: state of unease
tapish: agitated and restless
qalaq: troubled and anxious
fughan: lamentation, cry of distress
rasm: coded conventions
ranj o gham: grief and sorrow


First published in The Health Collective

A Nazm for Kashmir

Wrote this in August, after the meddling of Article 370. It is a ballad. But a ballad where nothing happens; no beginning, no end, only suffering, endless waiting and anxiety.

Kashmiris run for cover as Indian security forces (unseen) fire teargas shells during clashes, after scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, August 30, 2019. REUTERS / DANISH ISMAIL’

waqt guzarta gaya
din guzarte gaye
khoon ki chingariyon mein
sooraj dhalta gaya

kaun kahe waqt ko kya pata
bas ek aahat si
aur dil mein
ek shor sa

dhalte sooraj se tum puccho
kal kya dikhlaoge?
tham kar behthe hai hum
ghamon ko pal rahe hai sabhi

duniya ki duniyadari
se tang aa chuke
maut ke chehre se bhi
vaaqif hum hai yahaan

sheher ke sadkon se tum puccho
aur kitna seh paaoge?
tumhari chuppi ki chhupi niraashi
pehchane hai sabhi

dum ghutkar
ghut chuka hai
raah dekhkar banaaenge
hum raasta


In solidarity and love, for the land and people of Kashmir

The View Backstage With Sameer Rahat: In Conversation With the Artist

Sameer Rahat has been an active member of the independent music scene for years now. Formerly a part of the progressive-rock Urdu band Joshish, he is also a music producer and film composer. But it’s his conception of the Urdu blues and his soulful renditions and interactive performances that catch all ears. With his debut album close to release, Rahat talks genre, ghazals, making music, the independent scene in India and more.

First off, what is Urdu blues?

Urdu blues, simply put, is blues music which is sung in Urdu. I compose poems and ghazals by classical and contemporary Urdu poets in the blues genre. Sometimes I write them too.

What drew you to the blues?

Blues music has always been around me since I was a child. My nana (grandfather) would listen to a lot of music on his record player and you could hear music being played daily in our home — from the morning right until we went to bed, except during afternoon naps.

There is a distinct influence of blues and jazz in a lot of old Indian film music, even in ghazals. In fact I recently heard one of my mother’s poems that she had composed and written in the early 80s, and it is entirely based on the blues pentatonic scale.

Last year she passed on all of my nana’s records and I discovered a lot of blues albums. Now that I’ve started writing songs in the genre, it has only made me grow fonder of this incredibly vast and beautiful musical space.


Blues as ghazal

Longing and pain is a central element in both the forms of blues and the ghazal. Urdu as a language itself has so many different words for pain. Did you consciously decide on this union? What is your relationship with each?

The ghazal is a whole different world in itself, both as a form of writing and singing. In terms of having a theme, the ghazal covers many topics in each of its couplets or sher. On the other hand, the majority of blues songs will revolve around a certain idea or story. But they still go very well together.

Longing and pain is definitely central to both blues music and ghazal singing. The ghazal and the blues might feel like they are poles apart, but that is the beauty of this writing form, and the fluidity of blues music in the ways it comes together.

I have to find a melody and a vibe that caters to the couplets I’ve chosen. That is difficult.

When I write an Urdu-blues song, I usually pick two or three couplets from a ghazal that are similar in mood or theme; these become my verses. There are also times I sing entirely different themes within each song. I have done this in ‘Kya Lena’, one of my first Urdu-blues songs.

Sameer Rahat sings ‘Kya Lena’

I didn’t consciously make this eccentric union at all. I have been surrounded by literature all my life, more so than any other household because my parents are writers. Although I only began reading intensively in my late teens, I was writing a lot of songs for my band.

But I never wrote ghazals. That requires another level of artistry if all the ghazal’s rules are to be followed.

I started writing nazms in my mid-twenties and I was still far away from attempting a ghazal. But I was always reading them and I started composing my favourite ones into blues.

After having made a couple of these adaptations, I decided to perform them to a small audience. Initially at house gigs to my friends and colleagues but as these sessions got popular, audience members told me that what I was doing was ‘Urdu-blues’. That is the genesis of the story and the best is yet to come.

Sameer Rahat performs ‘Hum Kaun Thae’ live in Mumbai

Blues and the modern condition

Somehow the blues is able to express the complexities of modern life today. The ghazal is also contemporary in the way it explores human beings, the heart and its motivations. And this is not modernity in opposition to something, but a complex lived existence of various elements. Urdu-blues in a way embodies this complex identity. There is also something in modernity that’s yearning for something lost, that isn’t there. One can feel this in your rendition of Jaun Eliya’s ‘Hum Kaun Thae’ or your single ‘Gyaan’.

Urdu poetry has always grasped the complexities of life, from the time of the Mughals and their court poetry to today’s indie scene in India with open mics and intimate concerts. And blues music is not only contemporary but its history explores human beings, their emotions and revolutions. It is what has revolutionised this genre worldwide.

So one might experience Urdu-blues through the lens of a postcolonial identity, or a present day increasingly Hindutva reality, alluding to a language and culture that is sidelined, even attacked by various political forces.

Can you also tell us about your single and latest music video ‘Gyaan’?

‘Gyaan’ talks about a modern state that is supposed to be Indian democracy. The song is a simple take on how conveniently information and news is being spread about religion, the economy, war and politics to cater to certain agendas.

Gyaan simply means free wisdom, propaganda in this case. The music video has a central character that goes around the city distributing our country’s (and its leader’s) favourite drink — chai, with biscuits of gyaan to go with it for free. I decided to release this before the last election. Hopefully it will reach enough people before the next one.

At Baqsa Studio

You are also a music producer and film composer — do these allow for the creative freedoms that you might get from your individual side projects? How does each inform your experience of music?

Yes, I’m primarily a film music composer and I produce music in my studio in Bombay. It is called Baqsa Studios. I also write lyrics for other composers and musicians. I enjoy juggling all of these and I’ve finally found myself getting back on stage and performing for people. That quenches my soul.

I started performing with my band at the age of 16 and that is how I got into this profession. Later on film music entered the picture and became a big part of my life. I’m glad for that because music production has really helped me shape my songwriting and the scale of production in my indie project. So in my upcoming debut album I have not compromised on the quality of the sound, sonically and in terms of its overall production. I also recently contributed to the production of Parvaaz’s newly released album Kun.

In terms of getting creative freedom as a film composer and music producer, one has to remember that someone is telling their story with the help of your skillset as an artist. You have to become a part of the narrative and add to the sole voice of the story, but one that is not really yours.


Unpacking the independent music scene

One can interpret the ‘independent’ in independent music in various ways: it is set apart from the force that is Bollywood music; the language of independent music, which is largely English; the niche audiences; societal norms that consider music as an unconventional field to pursue…

But then we also see the ‘mainstream’ playing out within this field: the dearth of female instrumentals is striking, for example. In that sense, what role can independent music play to challenge the status quo? Does its mere existence do that? How can the independent music scene push boundaries and raise difficult questions, seeing it is already placed in a unique position? Is the independent music scene playing it safe, seeing the enormous creative freedoms it does enjoy by virtue of being ‘independent’?

What do you think is ‘independent’ in the independent music scene?


The ‘independent’ music scene in India is still young and it is ageing slowly in spite of the emergence of the internet and social media. There are several reasons for this: one is the Goliath that is the Indian film industry. There are still few people listening to the David of the music industry. Thankfully that is changing slowly and just like the tale, the underdog will shine through in the end.

Of late we also see the two joining hands and collaborating. Indie artists are getting their music synced in films, ‘Gully Boy’ being the latest example of that.

In terms of language, I think we have really come a long way. English is no longer the language of the indie scene. If you look at the country’s top bands right now, they sing or even rap in Urdu and other Indian languages. There are artists such as Harpreet Singh, Osho Jain, Advaita, Swarathma, Avial, Indian Ocean, Joshish and Parvaaz, to name a few.

In terms of the involvement of women in the Indie scene, I can see it improving, though it still is marginal as far as the male-female ratio is concerned.

The existence of the indie scene is a beautiful blessing. I think indie musicians are aware of the power of their voice; their conscience is alive otherwise they wouldn’t be pursuing this in the first place. The degree to which they want to raise their voice and what matters to them may differ.

I want to talk about human emotions, relations, love and freedom. What happens in my country, to the environment, and to people around the world also deeply affects me and so, I will time and again, keep making songs like ‘Gyaan’. I will keep sending a message, a wake up call to whoever listens to my music and hope that it might ignite something in them one day.


What advice would you give a young musician trying to enter what is now becoming a competitive and flourishing music scene?

I would ask all the young musicians out there to be patient. It will take time, sometimes longer than your favourite band told you. Keep at it. Practice. Read books. It will change your life and the art you are pursuing.

You will not have regular eight to ten hour workdays; they will be longer, because you enjoy what you do and you chose this.

Art chose you too. So please take care of your health, exercise or meditate. Collaborate with people you love and look up to, who have more experience than you. Let them guide you, there is no shame in learning from others. And be humble, please be humble.

Sameer Rahat’s latest single ‘Gyaan’


What can we look forward to in your upcoming debut album and when are you looking to release it?

My debut solo album should be out in December. It contains songs I wrote a decade ago, even a poem I wrote last month. It has been a long journey of contemplation and learning about myself, and life around me.

The album is essentially about relationships and people post their separation. It has eight tracks and it is not an Urdu-blues album but a well-produced singer-songwriter album. All the songs are original compositions and it will also feature my adaptation of Jaun Elia’s ‘Hum Kaun Thae’, which has received a lot of love in my concerts lately.

The album has been under production for three months and it is co-produced by Mir Kashif Iqbal from Parvaaz among various other collaborations. I would love to talk about it at length once it is out and I hope we do that soon.

First published on The Citizen.

On Love and Mourning

عجب سی تھی یے داستاں
دور دور چلے نا ساتھ
کیو کیو نبھانا سکے ساتھ

Ajab si thi yeh dastaan… duur duur chale na saath/ kyun kyun nibhana sake saath…

Tr: What a strange tale… We travelled far and wide apart/ Why couldn’t we be together?

— ‘Khamoshi’ by Pakistani band Uraan


I lost two loved ones in the span of one week: my first personal loss and a close proximity with death. Maybe this is the beginning of a new friendship… till I can “greet death as an old friend.” (I realised how deeply profound that snippet is in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.) Though I feel like we’ve been friends for a while; that sudden realisation when you feel like you’re in love. Death, loss, love are close cousins, maybe twins. Love is ruin from its origin. And origin, beginning, not as something pure, but a ruin from the start, in its finitude, prefiguration of the end. Love ends in its start.

If love is an experience precarious in its fragility, what are we afraid of anyway?

We use the phrase ‘fulfilling relationship’ in common speech. We’d like to have fulfilling relationships, to fully fill it (with love there is also a sense of duty.) We use this phrase in everyday language, without thinking; it is common speech after all. The word ‘nibhana’ in the above quote also means to fulfil. We generally don’t dwell much on the obvious or commonsensical. But this phrase sets us up for perfection, its commonness (I might say dangerously) engrained in our psyche.

Maybe relationships can never be fulfilled, fully filled; there will always be lack. Death is in this lack. We are already well versed with it in our relationships, as we try hard to fully fill it. And yet it is still painful, as still as death itself.

When we mourn a person, we mourn what was and its passing; but that passing was already predestined from the start. We are only made aware of its passing ‘now’. We also mourn the lack that couldn’t be filled, fulfilled, fully filled. And hence the numerous ‘what ifs’ , guilt, alternate possibilities etc; lack is possibility. That way we also mourn ourselves, and the space we couldn’t fill; our inability to fill the gap, fully fill a relationship. (Writing this is also an attempt to fill some of the gap/lack.) We mourn the (im)possibility of a fulfilling relationship. We of course also mourn what was but is no longer. But I mourn me in mourning you; it predestines me as mortal and a reminder/sign to live. Ironically, death tells you to live, even when relationships cannot be fulfilled and you don’t have the capacity to fully fill it. But you love, and live, inspite of it.

Holding a funeral, burial, rites according to the deceased’s wishes — all this is out attempt to fulfil…

But You cannot be measured, you are far beyond any attempts to fulfil.

There is lack everywhere (losses and what ifs of all kinds), so hold on to what you’ve got, but not too tight, because that will go too at some point.


The above quote in the beginning of this piece is from a song I came across surfing You Tube. It is from the song ‘Khamoshi’ performed by the Pakistani band Uraan in the show Pepsi Battle of the Bands (Season 4).

‘When Law is Lawlessness’ on Kashmir Times

Happy to see my blog post ‘When Law is Lawlessness’ on the injustice of law (droit) published on Kashmir Times. These ideas can be explored particularly in relation to the ongoing horrors inflicted by the Indian State in Kashmir. You can access the full article here.