ANJANA RAJAN

Popular Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila returns to the Indian music scene via an album of Punjabi wedding songs.

Time was when recording studios were large apartments. In such capacious environs, a tiny tot named Runa Laila made her mark. As she grew in stature, the studios shrank. Technology has bridged the difference though. So this month when melody queen Runa Laila dropped by in New Delhi to sing a few songs for an upcoming album of Music Today, the tiny basement studio where she recorded was up to the challenge. So what if Runa teetered a bit on her heels making her way down the steep steps? She has pranced her way through changing times with an equanimity all her own.

The album, a mega collection of Punjabi wedding songs covering every ritual from puja to cocktail party, also includes a number of other popular singers such as Jasbir Jassi and Harshdeep Kaur, etc. For the Bangladeshi singer who won countless hearts with hits like “Damadam Mast Kalandar”, “Mera Babu Chhail Chhabila” and others, this is being touted as her first album in India after a gap of 10 years.

“It’s been a long time,” she agrees. That fluty voice is enough to convince you that continuous stage engagements across the world, as well as films and television in Bangladesh, have not managed to take the silk out of her vocal cords — nor have years of jiving taken the grace out of her everyday interactions. “Actually I did some Bengali recordings for Puja, etc., but not on a very big scale.”

When Music Today contacted the popular singer and asked her to sing eight tracks for an album dedicated to music for a traditional Punjabi wedding, she thought, “Wow! That’s different.”

Runa says the team assembled has made it “a comfortable workplace” — and the collaborative spirit means her inputs were welcomed by the music composer.

“We finished all the tracks in three days,” she explains, adding that although the airlines agitation delayed her arrival by a day, eating into the time allotted for discussions, she found after the first song, she could do three tracks in a day and three the next. “It’s good to do it in a flow. When I came I had all these songs on my head. Once it’s done you are relaxed.”

Her lack of airs, of a ‘been there done that’ attitude despite being a veteran of hundreds of recordings, is refreshing. Reflecting on her varied canvas, she muses, “I’ve had the good fortune of working with great composers like Jaidev, Kalyanji-Anandji, Lakshmikant-Pyarelal, then Bappi Lahri. So I got a mix of songs, which is good for me. Because even in my solo shows I have folk, semi-classical, I have pop, I have everything. Of course I’d love to work with the current directors.”

But today’s hits are nothing like the soothing melodies of the old composers. “When I started singing — I was not even 12 — the films being made were very different. They were family-oriented, social dramas. Not that they aren’t now, but now there is more emphasis on action, on exotic locales. At that time music was a very important part of the films. People went to see films for the music.”

She accepts change. Recording in those days was a social affair, with all members present and required to practice to flawlessness. “But nowadays you come into the studio and say okay, gaana kya hai, and sing line by line, or even word by word,” she laughs. “It’s a lot easier, but we’ve lost some of the emotions. When you sing in flow there are more emotions, which when you sing in bits you’re not able to keep to the same level.”

What about present-day composers? “Some of the songs are very well composed, arranged, presented. Even in Bangladesh I do a lot of film recordings and work with a lot of young music directors. They have a very modern approach to music.” She admits, “But it’s true those old songs have lasted 50-60 years and are equally popular if not more. Zaahir hai, us mein kuchh dum to tha! (Obviously that music had power.)”

Visual versus aural

Though a pioneer of performing while singing, Runa agrees the visual element in popular music now sometimes overrides its aural quality. “Which is a pity really, because no matter how much you perform, you have to sing even better.” Her advice is, “If your performance is affecting your singing, you shouldn’t perform.”

On the judges’ panel of a talent hunt on Zee Bangla, she says the reality show format offers exposure. “My only concern is, once they reach a certain place they should be able to go forward, on a bigger canvas.” She says she recommends such talents to music directors she works with. “In one of my recent concerts in Dhaka they wanted some singers to perform before me, so I suggested these kids, and they got a great ovation.”

Busy giving others a break, the veteran too wouldn’t mind a break — back into Bollywood. “There are a few projects being discussed. Once they are finalised, maybe this year, or early next year, I will know. We have just done this album. Hopefully it will do well…”

Does the singer that delivered hit songs in films like “Gharonda” and “Ek Se Badh Kar Ek” really need an album to reintroduce her to Bollywood? “There’s been a long gap,” she says mildly. “And now the music scene has changed totally; a lot of younger people are at the helm and working with young people.”

Some may look for youth. Others know freshness when they see it.

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Occasion-wise

“The Complete Punjabi Wedding Collection” is a comprehensive album set with songs from the rich Punjabi folk tradition, of which wedding songs are a big part. These include songs for occasions like the sehra, ghodi, vidai, mehndi, etc. that are traditional but set to today’s music styles. The set includes a CD called “Cocktail Night” featuring popular wedding songs, boliyan, tappas, etc. sung in contemporary dance music style. Music direction is by Gaurav Dayal.

Runa on the album

I was comfortable with Punjabi because I started my career in Karachi and I was working in the Lahore film industry and sang in various languages, including Punjabi. But the songs in this album are in what they call ‘theth’ Punjabi. I think I’ve done it properly. It’s a good idea to preserve these traditional songs. Overall the general melody has been maintained. Some contemporising has been done, because younger people would probably demand that more.”