Thursday, April 30, 2009

National Poetry Month - "Moment" by Wislawa Szymborska & "Account" by Czeslaw Milosz

April is National Poetry Month and the New York Review of Books has been posting a poem every day this month to celebrate the, I suspect, not widely recognized occasion. Even though I can only read them in translation, I have always had a particular affinity for twentieth century Eastern European writers and poets (Brodsky, Milosz, Szymborska, Kundera and of course Kafka). They seem to capture the twentieth century zeitgeist in deeply intimate ways, perhaps because so many of the century's defining struggles and human tragedies played out on their soils.

Here are two poems by two Polish Noble Laureates that NYRB picked for April 28th and 30th respectively. The poem "Account" is by Czeslaw Milosz (pronounced chess-wahf mee-wosh) who was the recipient of the Nobel in 1980 and "Moment" is by the 1996 honoree Wislawa Szymborska.

I have posted Szymborska's wonderful poem " A Few Words on the Soul" in a previous post. In this poem "Moment", she evokes the serene, timeless harmony of nature's beauty. These beautifully contemplative descriptions of nature are a popular theme in her poetry. However, the subtext is the ephemeral human observer, with or without whom nature would continue on oblivious of being observed and indifferent to history's events unfolding around it.

"Moment" - Wislawa Szymborska

I walk on the slope of a hill gone green.
Grass, little flowers in the grass,
as in a children's illustration.
The misty sky's already turning blue.
A view of other hills unfolds in silence.

As if there'd never been any Cambrians, Silurians,
rocks snarling at crags,
upturned abysses,
no nights in flames
and days in clouds of darkness.

As if plains hadn't pushed their way here
in malignant fevers,
icy shivers.

As if seas had seethed only elsewhere,
shredding the shores of the horizons.

It's nine-thirty local time.
Everything's in its place and in polite agreement.
In the valley a little brook cast as a little brook.
A path in the role of a path from always to ever.
Woods disguised as woods alive without end,
and above them birds in flight play birds in flight.

This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach.
One of those earthly moments
invited to linger.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak

The second poem here by Milosz is considerably darker. As is to be expected from the author of "The Captive Mind", this is a powerful poem of intellectual introspection.

"Account" - Czeslaw Milosz

The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle's flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it's late. And the truth is laborious.

(Berkeley, 1979)

Translated from the Polish by Robert Haas & Robert Pinsky

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Memoriam - The Great Iqbal Bano (1935-2009)

Iqbal Bano, one of the great exponents of semi-classical ghazal singing in the sub-continent, passed away in Lahore at the age of 74. I have recounted a reverie precipitated by her beautiful rendition of Faiz's ghazal "Yeh mausam-e-gul" in a previous post.

The Pakistani newspaper Dawn has a good obituary of Iqbal Bano here and some great photos of the icon in their media gallery. She was born in Delhi in 1935 and was the pupil of Ustad Chaand Khan of the Delhi Gharana. She moved to Pakistan in 1952 at the age of 17 and had her first public concert at the Lahore Art Center in 1957. She was awarded the "Pride of Performance" by the government in 1974.

Even though in the popular imagination her singing is eternally connected with the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and in particular with the anthem "Hum dekheiN ge", which she performed in virtually every public concert, Iqbal Bano was a versatile singer. She sang some very popular numbers for films in the 1950's. However, along with Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, Farida Khanum and the maestro Mehdi Hassan her real distinction was to be a part of that august group of vocalists in Pakistan who revolutionized post-partition ghazal singing by transforming it into a semi-classical form like thumri and dadra. If you listen to pre-partition ghazals, even by eminences such as K.L Saigal, the ghazal was performed like a light film song. As Pakistani audiences were more hospitable to Urdu poetry rather than the arachaic lyrics of traditional semi-classical forms, the classically trained musicians such as Iqbal Bano adopted ghazal as their medium for classical musical expression. The effect was exhilarating for fans of both Urdu poetry and the Hindustani classical vocal tradition. In the next generation there are few who have the stature and skill of the first-generation of pioneering icons with the possible exception of Abida Parveen and to a lesser extent (in my opinion) Ghulam Ali.

But for any artist it is always the work that speaks most clearly so here is some sampling of Iqbal Bano's singing. I have selected, as embedded videos, a few of my favorite ghazals/geets by Iqbal Bano. Some are slightly lesser known but I have also provided some youtube links to her most popular music below.

Iqbal Bano singing Faiz's wonderful ghazal "Na gaNwaao navak-e-neem kush":

Here is a personal favorite semi-classical piece with traditional lyrics "Ab kay Saawan ghar aaja": (her live image starts at 1:52):

The semi-classical piece above was adapted as a "zippier" song version for the 1959 film 'Nagin' and here Iqbal Bano is singing that version on PTV:

For the last sample let's go out with perhaps Iqbal Bano's most popular geet "Payal meiN geet haiN cham cham ke" originally sung for the 1954 film 'Gumnaam":

And as promised links to some of her best known pieces: "Dasht-e-tanhai meiN" (Faiz) ; "Yeh mausam-e-gul garche tarab khez bohat hai" (Faiz); "Ulfat ki nai manzil ko chala" (Qatil Shifai); an unusual foray into Punjabi folk music "MeiN kamli da dhola hai raat" ; and the perennial "Hum dekheiN ge" (Faiz) which is inseparable from Iqbal Bano's persona in the Pakistani imagination.

Photo Courtesy: Dawn

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Exploring the Paths to Happiness - To the Best of Our Knowledge

I am an unabashed fan of National Public Radio. I listen to the radio only in my car so driving this Easter Sunday evening to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy I was pleasantly reminded once again of the variety of excellent public radio programming.

Wisconsin Public Radio produces a two hour weekly radio show called "To the Best of Our Knowledge". This Peabody award winning show calls itself an audio magazine of ideas and that description is as good as any. Each hour of the show is centered around a theme which is explored through intelligent thought provoking interviews.

The theme of today's first hour was "Our Peace of Mind" and had a series of wonderful conversations illuminating the idea of happiness and the persistent human quest for peace of mind. Conversations are with people as diverse as Jill Bolte-Taylor (a brain scientist who has written an interesting book about insights developed from her own stroke), Richard Davidson (a neuro-psychologist who has studied the effects of meditation on human brain by working with Buddhist monks), Satish Kumar (a former Jain monk) and a particularly interesting conversation with cultural historian Richard Schoch who is the author of "The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life".

You can listen to this segment of the show and see information on the various books and music in this piece here. I highly recommend it.