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The Notes of his life

For nearly two hours Umbayee (P.A. Ibrahim) regaled a small audience at a hotel in Kochi. He sang his heart out. He moved to the lobby when he overheard the manager, who was not all that keen to have him on board, say, "He has a wonderful voice and sings well too. But he has the looks of a criminal." Umbayee remembers saying to himself, "Sir, not just the looks, I’m a criminal."

Life was a long struggle for Umbayee. A tough childhood, constant conflict with his father who did not approve of his interest in music, poverty – Umbayee was drawn into the vortex of crime. Smuggling watches, perfumes and such stuff in return for US dollars, drinking away his woes, he was being sucked into the slush though music was always there around him.

The story of Umbayee’s life is unravelled in all honesty in his biography titles Ragam Bhairavi, which will be released at a function to be held at the Kerala Fine Arts Hall on August 21 at 6 p.m.

"Sometime in 2005 my story squeezed into 42 pages appeared in a Malayalam magazine. Really I don’t think my story is worth telling anyone outside. But this happened. It was an interview that got a tremendous response. That’s when publishers came forward with the suggestion of turning my life’s experiences into a book," says Umbayee.

It took nearly six years to complete. "This happened because of various reasons. This narration and writing down happened only when I was free. Then when the draft was ready I thought the language was not mine. My friend Hameed P.E. also felt the same. We decided to rewrite in a language that was truthful, intimate. Hameed assisted in the writing. That’s why it took all these years."

The book records faithfully Umbayee’s life, from his childhood, playing the tabla, listening to music and playing for programmes on the sly to popularising Malayalam ghazals that has made him what he his today.

It was filmmaker John Abraham who first used the name Umbayee in the titles of his film Amma Ariyan, in which he acted and his voice was used. He composed one song, Urangaan urangaan nee…’ for the film Novel that is his brief tryst with films.

"When I read my story frankly I cried. God was so kind to me. People have been there in crucial phases of life helping forward, people whom I had not met before. I firmly believe that an artiste and art is for the society. Had it not been for the society I would not have survived."

There are poignant moments in the book that Umbayee narrates with no filter. Like the one when his daughter spotted him as he walked past the Fatima Girls High School at Fort Kochi. "My eldest daughter Shailaja asked me the next day if I had walked past the school. I shook my head. She looked at sme straight in my face and said that her friends told her that he was drunk and swaying from side to side. That really hit me hard. I stopped drinking."

Mattancherry, Umbayee’s hometown, was a huge influence on Umbayee. "There was music all around. You only had to find it. There were singers like Mehboob bhai (H. Mehboob), Dasettan (K.J. Yesudas) who were inspiration for a whole generation. My biggest blessing was being able to play the tabla for Mehboob bhai. I also got to listen to numerous legendary musicians. One performance that I can never forget is Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha ‘live.’ That’s when I realised to stop playing the tabla and there was so much to learn."

Umbayee’s Bombay days after being packed off as a trainee electrician when he did not know the difference between ‘AC and DC’ forms a major chunk of the book. The city changed his life. "It was here that I met my guru, Ustad Mujawar Ali Khan. I don’t know what made him accept me as his disciple. My guru was a sort of wandering minstrel, here today gone to tomorrow to some dargah."

For nearly seven interrupted years Umbayee studied music from Mujawar Ali Khan. "In between, I used to come home. Smuggling helped finance those trips. Then one day my guru left Bombay never to come back. I still don’t know what happened to him."

Life in Kochi struggling to make ends meet was again a challenge. He sang in a hotel, worked as laundry manager and also kept singing. It was during this phase that he brought out his first album, Aadab that had nine of Hasrat Jaipuri’s Urdu ‘shers.’ He has since then released 19 more.

The idea of Malayalam ghazals was born after a successful programme in New Delhi. It was not easy as most of established poets were not willing to give their poems to an unknown singer. "That was when a waiter at the hotel where I worked told me about Venu V. Desom. We met and that was how my first Malayalam album, Pranamam came about."

There was no looking back for Umbayee. Poets like ONV Kurup, Yusufali Kecheri, and Sachidanandan have lent their poems, his albums have hit the mark, and his mehfils are a huge draw everywhere.

"All that I’m doing now telling my audience something which greats like Mehdi Hassan and Jagjit Singh did in Urdu and Hindi. I’m simply putting all that into Malayalam. If there is one message in my life it is how music or the arts can lift a person when he has plunged to the depths. There is so much life in our music that needs to be explored. And if there is one dream it is to set up an institution for Hindustani music," says Umbayee.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 7:46:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/The-Notes-of-his-life/article14576731.ece

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