Madangopal Singh has an unending bag of stories. The composer, singer, actor, screenwriter, film theorist editor and professor of English has travelled to most the corners of the world, and has experiences where the real almost interweaves with the ethereal. The journey of Madangopal’s music is interesting – it began with theatre, entered into people’s movements, and now is an authentic voice of Sufi. But throughout this journey, his music has been closely associated with the community and responded to its needs.
Born in Amrtisar, Madangopal’s grandparents lived a street away from the Golden Temple. The gurudwara, the huge community that visited it, the strains of spiritual music… Madangopal remembers it vividly. He recalls that in the Fifties people “felt distinctly connected to one another not just culturally, but far more significantly cross culturally as well”. The scene at home was not very different, his father, the renowned poet, late Harbhajan Singh had filled the house with a large collection of books that covered a range of subjects from art to literature to anthropology and philosophy. A lover of music, the house reverberated with the music of the great maestros like Ustad Salamat Ali, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and more. There was also Saigal, Lata Mangeshkar, and Mohammed Rafi — Madangopal as a little boy learnt his first songs from here. “I was influenced by a range of singers and singing styles. I adored Mohammed Rafi. Subsequently, I became enamoured of classical musicians such as Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur and Pandit Kumar Gandharv. This led me deeper into musical appreciation and was enchanted by Gangubai Hangal, Kishori Amonkar, M.D. Ramanathan…. The music of Jyotirindra Moitra moves me in a very deep way.” Madangopal did try learning from Prof. G.S. Sardar, the older brother of Singh bandhus, but he gave up soon. “I just ran away from class. I did not take any lessons. I was all the time interested in cricket, Pataudi, Budhi Kundran, Jayasimha… that’s where my heart was.” Decades later, Madangopal did go to a great guru who used to sing in a gurudwara. After Partition he came to the streets, and Madangopal discovered him accidentally. “But you are singing well in your own way,” the guru told him. Complex harkats are not needed, be your own, the guru advised.
Madangopal, who worked with theatre groups initially, was also closely associated with IPTA. He translated poems of Brecht, Neruda, and Lorca, making them part of his concert repertoire. “Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was translated into Punjabi and I was singing for the play. I remember how the play had 36 songs, and by the end of the performance there would be a hollow in my tummy.” In the later years, during the Babri Masjid episode, one of the songs from the play which speaks of an entire town being burnt down became central to his repertoire. “The song used to give me such a high. After I finished singing it, I felt completely drained of emotion, I used to choke. I felt I would die, and nothing left in me. But at the same time, I was also on a high. Death is also reclamation of life, isn’t it? This paradox is very interesting…”
Madangopal remembers another important incident that compelled him to look at life differently. “I was singing for my filmmaker friends Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahni, I was travelling, composing… many things. During the course of my travel I recognised that protest music cannot be of anyone genre.” In 1992, there was curfew imposed in Delhi. The curfew was defied and over 350 artistes congregated on the Safdar Hashmi Marg. “There were nearly 600 policemen deployed, but they wouldn’t arrest us. I started singing a Kafi. The words of the composition were ‘How can any friendship happen between them and us, my eyes are brimming with tears, how can we trust those who don’t understand pain…’. As I sang this song I realised that we are actually moving backwards, invoking that violence and pain. Do we really need to invoke that distance? I felt continuity is more important. We have to connect with them and take them along.”
A great admirer of musicians like Nusrat Fateh Ali and Abida, and Persian legends like Shahram Nazeri, Madangopal says he is extremely fascinated by the music of Alim and Farghana Qasimov. With his group Chaar Yaar, he has collaborated with western and east Asian musicians and believes that it is impossible to attribute a singular character to Sufi music. Primarily, a scholar of film and cultural studies, Madangopal even wrote a film on Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, directed by Nandan Khudhyadi. The film won the President’s award for the best short film in the mid-90s.
Though Madangopal is of the view that Sufi music cannot have a single character, he notes that it has has become big and omnipresent today, thanks to Bollywood composers. It is “getting aggressively appropriated by inhabitants of lifestyle pages,” he observes. They now sing Sufi anywhere for a price, which actually violates the Sufi spirit. “Sufism has been not only a music of love and protest but also an expression of communal harmony, and peaceful coexistence.” It has been very different from the bhakti music of the south, it was rooted in reformation. Compared to the north Indian bhakti poets, the south Indian bhakti poets took up relatively safer issues. “What has happened is that as long as Sufi was sung within the dargah, it defined itself in a way. The larger secularisation happened because of radio and cinema. In that it became accessible to a whole lot of people who never went to the dargah.”