Some years ago, the Centro de Lingua Portuguesa/Insitituto Camões Goa organised a poetry marathon (the occasion was, I think, World Poetry Day) where the public were invited to recite poetry in any language of their choice. On a whim, just because I had never had the opportunity to do so before, and because I was on a sort of Urdu “trip” at the time, I decided to participate by reading an Urdu poem.
One “poem” had caught my fancy years ago through popular culture, in the form of the lyrics penned by that genius among lyricists, Javed Akhtar, to the song “Ek Ladki ko Dekha” from the hit film musical “1942: A Love Story”. So I in effect recited the lyrics of this song, as verse, as a poem.
It was hard to shake off the imagery of the film or the meter suggested by the song as I recited the lines. But even as non-sung verse, the lines have their own inherent rhythm, meter, and one in some ways savours the structure of the poem without the distraction of melody. The lyrics are basically literature.
In the East, the two are often inseparable. The wonderful thing about attending a qawwali or ghazal concert is the interjections of “Wah! Wah”, often accompanied by “thaliyaan” while the performance is still on, something that would be frowned upon at a western classical concert today. These gestures of appreciation are most often in acknowledgment of the wry humour and wit in a couplet, or a clever pun or double entendre, basically the artistry in the use of language. The melody, rhythm and percussion are all there in the music, but the true stars are the lyrics themselves. Many of you would have attended the scintillating qawwali performance of the Warsi brothers of Hyderabad this February at the Sufi Sutra World Peace Festival to know what I mean.
I won’t pretend to have ‘gotten’ every witticism, or understood the reason for every roar of laughter from the audience, but one couldn’t help being swept away by the electricity, the euphoria in the room.
If one views all the sacred spiritual texts as literature as well, one will find that they are frequently sung, often as aide-memoires. In my GP years in High Wycombe, I had a few patients with the title ‘Hafiz’ added on to their name. I learnt from one of them that this title was conferred on someone (‘Hafiza’ if a woman) who has completely memorised the Qur’an. He obliged me by reciting an extract for me in my consulting room. The recitation was actually a chant, accompanied by a rhythmical rocking back and forth.
It is easier to memorise a text if there is a melodic line, a rhythm and cadence juxtaposed upon it. This trend is seen in most religions. There is still the tradition of singing-reciting Hindu sacred texts like the Ramayana, and they are believed to have been passed down through the centuries in the bardic tradition.
The neume, the basic element of Western and Eastern systems of musical notation, (precursor to the five-line staff notation we use in western music), was used to notate inflections in the melodic recitation of the Christian holy scriptures. A similar system exists to notate the recitation of the Qur’an as well.
Even in non-sacred writing, literature and lyrics can be hard to separate sometimes. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore would set his own poems to music. Incidentally Tagore was technically the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, although he won it for his collection of poems Gitanjali rather than explicitly for his songs.
And ironically, it was the text of his poems that inspired many western composers into writing works of music. Alexander Zemlinksy’s Lyric Symphony, his best-known composition and hailed as “among the finest musical works to appear between the two great wars”, has “seven related songs for baritone, soprano and orchestra, performed without pause” using seven poems from Tagore’s collection ‘The Gardener’. It is thought that Zemlinksy even played a piano version of the finale for Tagore at a salon in Germany, but unfortunately there is no record of Tagore’s impression of the piece.
‘The Gardener’ seems to have provided a mine of inspiration for other composers as well, ranging from Leoš Janáček to Karol Szymanowski. Still others, such as Darius Milhaud, Frank Bridge, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Richard Hageman and Pavel Haas have also been inspired by Tagore’s writing.
The recent death of Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) brought again into focus what a wonderful lyricist he was. His song lyrics could serve as stand-alone poems. And the music serves the lines so well. Take for instance his most famous Hallelujah: when he sings “the fourth, the fifth; The minor fall, the major lift”, this chord progression happens along with the words. The keyboard accompaniment has the sound of a gospel organ, giving the whole song the feel of a spiritual, a gospel anthem.
And the lyrics to his song titled ‘Anthem’ are even more beautiful poetry. Some lines echo the way so many of us feel: “I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd; while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud. Ah, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud, And they’re going to hear from me.”
“Ring the bell that still can ring” seems like a clarion call to action, while he seems to offer solace in “There is a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”
Nobel-worthy or not? Did Bob Dylan’s Literature Nobel elevate song-writing to a higher plane? After this, will more songwriters also win a Literature Nobel? Should they, when there are other platforms to acknowledge them, and would it be doing a disservice to mainstream literature?
(An edited version of this article was published on 18 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)