If I were to pick one thing I have been most cynical about in music, it would be someone reinterpreting A R Rahman’s music. And there have been quite a few instances that cemented my cynicism. I have heard cringe-worthy instrumental adaptations of many of his works. And then there is Hariharan. Notwithstanding the immense respect I have for his singing, I have found his improvs on ARR songs almost always been avoidable. But in Episode 4 of MTV Unplugged India there happened a cover of Genda Phool from Ranjit Barot that I would gladly quote as an occasion where I was proven wrong. The occasion was Rekha Bhardwaj appearing for Unplugged, and in her own words they were presenting an urbanized version of the Dilli 6 song. And a true urbanization it was – the beatboxing from Allan, the rap from Kunal (whose lyrics could probably have been better, but given the way the rap added to the grooviness I am willing to ignore that), the awesome Kurt Peters on drums, the bluesy phrases on the piano, the basslines, the effect was brilliant! But even the urbanization was not without elements of fusion, the composer providing the classical-based garnishing from North and South – Shakthidharan from Kerala on the morsing, Arshad Khan on israj and some lovely shehnai by Ramchander. Add to all these the flawless rendition by Rekha, and I was absolutely floored!
Earlier the night kicked off with Rekha soulfully rendering a sufi piece from her 2004 album Ishqa Ishqa called Tere Ishq Mein. I had not heard this song earlier, but I liked what I heard on the show. For this episode Barot had brought in a dedicated strings section which was having a marked effect on the whole sound, especially towards the climactic end where the violins, the harmonies all came together quite nicely. She next paid a tribute to NFAK by singing one of his famous Tere Bin Nahi Lagda. Well adapted in fact, but I guess once you get used to a song actually sung by Nusrat it is difficult not to have a bias against any other rendition. After Genda Phool the next song was again one of her own Bollywood ones, this time from the movie that won her the National Award, Ab Mujhe Koi. A very soothing tune (in the raag Shuddha Nat, Hindustani expert on twitter @shenoyn told me) that had its soothingness accentuated by the strings and Ashwin Srinivasan’s flute rendition. In the latter half Rekha digresses from the actual song into a brief Hindustani rendition in the same raag. The switch is so smooth one wouldn’t realise it is different if not acquainted with the original composition. And then came the second ARR cover of the evening, Ranjha Ranjha. Once again Barot did a total makeover of the original, going heavy on percussion (Barot himself handled percussion for this song) and strings. The sinister aspect of the song comes off more starkly with this. And I totally loved Arshad Khan’s israj solo in the second interlude. The only place I had an issue was the vocals, probably due to getting used to listening to the song in the duet form. But there did seem a bit of struggle in Rekha’s rendition, something that did not occur in any other song, either before this song or after. Barot shifted onto vocals with Rekha for the next song, a jazz cover of Madaniya. The only knowledge I had of this song was that it was part of the Karunesh album Punjab. I now know that it is a Punjabi Wedding song. Interesting take on a wedding song this, and a nice listen, though not as impressive as the one Karunesh did. And finally there was another Vishal Bhardwaj-Rekha Bhardwaj-Gulzar product, Laakad from Omkara. The singer pulled it off as beautifully as she did the original, and the charm of the original was done little harm by the arrangement.
Easily the best episode of MTV Unplugged India yet, both in terms of the artist and the execution. Below are the videos from the episode, all except Laakad.