When Chinmayi Tripathi sang ‘Zara Halke Gaadi Haanko More Ram’ and her partner Joell Mukherjii strummed on a dotara (two string instrument), at the recently concluded Mahindra Kabira Festival in Varanasi, the audience wanted more such musical versions. For the lyrics by the 15th-century mystic poet, the foot-tapping soft melody, the rustic voice, and the quiet Ganges in the backdrop, were all in perfect sync to the ode being paid to the great saint’s teachings.
When Tripathi started the next composition, ‘Bhala Hua Meri Matki Phooti, Mein to Paneeyan Bharan Se Choot Gayee,’ she followed it with a small explanation. “Since the pitcher is no longer there, I don’t have to worry about filling it anymore.” For an audience which had been deprived of a live musical performance for over a year, the poetry was also a reminder of the unwanted stress and worries that life offers. “One of the most important things we keep in mind is the poetry’s significance to today’s times. In fact, Kabir’s teachings are more relevant today than when it was written in,” says Mukherjii, the 37-year-old musician from Mumbai.
Music and Poetry Collective by Chinmayi and Joell is a unique initiative by the couple to recreate classical poetry for a contemporary audience. Their compositions are filled with timeless classics of saints such as Kabir and Meera along with the gems of Chhayawad Hindi poetry (between 1922 and 1938). “It’s a small attempt by us to create a bridge between classical poetry and modern music,” says 36-year-old Tripathi who is the singer and songwriter while Mukherjii is the multi-instrumentalist composer-producer. “My interest and love for Kabir has been there since my childhood as I have grown up listening to Prahlad Singh Tipaniya (popular folk singer of Kabir bhajans),” she adds.
It was Tripathi who first came up with this novel idea of a poetry collective after hearing the oft-repeated lament of lack of good lyrics in present-day music. But it took her many years to give wings to her dreams. “I took the clichéd path, worked in a day job for a few years, realised the place was not for me before quitting everything to pursue music full-time,” she says. Around the same time, Mukherjii had grown disgruntled with working in the Hindi film music industry. “I did not want to work as a ghost producer which happens a lot of the time. It was a thankless job. You really can’t do the kind of music you want to do in Bollywood,” explains Mukherjii, who also works in the advertising industry. The disillusionment led them to launch this collective in 2018.
The indie music scene, though in the throes of transformation, still has a long way to go, believes the duo. “You have to be extremely bold to be an indie musician in India. It’s a life-long struggle,” says Tripathi. For their first album, she raised Rs 6 lakh through a crowdfunding platform. With the money, they released six singles between 2018 and 2019, with music videos for three.
It’s not just classical poetry for the young musicians. The couple often releases original singles on music streaming platforms. Their recent singles were ‘Afghani Toofan’ on the downfall of the neighbouring country and ‘Democracy Ka Keeda’, a satirical take on India’s handling of Covid-19 during the second wave. “We try to speak our minds through our work—be it by picking up a classical verse to fit common turmoil or creating original compositions to highlight political scenarios. Artists can’t ignore the world around them,” Tripathi says.
Organised by Teamwork Arts, it was one of the first large-scale music festivals to be held in the country since the pandemic. It was also the Collective’s first live performance in two years and they can’t feel “more alive”. Jay Shah, Vice President, Head – Cultural Outreach, Mahindra Group adds, “We are happy to be the frontrunners of such a revival. Despite the fears and many challenges, we managed to pull it off.” For a year filled with grief, the festival in Varanasi was a resurgence of hope of better times ahead. Just like the Collective’s finale song for the day ‘Ud Jayega Hans Akela, Jag Darshan Ka Mela.’