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Delhi's date with melody

A RETIRED Indian Airlines official living in Delhi's Harinagar-Mayapuri area goes all the way to Shah Music Centre in Meena Bazar in the Walled City to buy old playing records. Last time he needed a music collection of Talat Mahmood, the silken-voiced singer, which included "Jalte Hain Jiske Liye'', and paid a goodly sum for it. Mathur Sahib's wife died years ago. He lives all alone now and after dinner hears these old favourites, which fill up the vacuum of his life. Was it the Bard who said, "If music be the food of love, play on, play on''?

Sometimes we hear a voice and immediately fall in love with it -- maybe on the radio, TV, cassette or an LP on the gramophone or record-player, or even on the telephone. The voice seemingly indicates the physical attributes of the person from whom it emanates.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, it is said, fell in love with the voice of a singer and immediately visualised that she would be good enough to share his ample royal bed. But when he saw the woman he was shocked. She was short, fat, dark and pockmarked. But hiding his disappointment, he gave orders that she should occupy the verandah near his bedroom and sing while he made love to someone else. In this case it was the voice that acted as an elixir like a mujra at the kotha.

One knows of a romantic professor of Delhi University who would hear a film song and think of the sensuous curves of the singer.

Then there was a friend from Paharganj who migrated to Karachi, fell in love with a foreign telephone operator's voice and went all the way to Flushing Meadows, New York, to see her. Luckily the girl, though not a beauty, was good enough for him to admire. They got married and now live in Chicago with their four children.

But the professor is still a bachelor with hardly a hope of ever getting married as he is past 80. According to reliable reports, he keeps an inexhaustible store of cassettes.

Dr. R.S. Sharma of Karol Bagh died some years ago. A public school hosteller during his boyhood had a wish--to write a thesis on "The Singing Voice and Sex Morbidity''-- that could not be fulfilled. Yet he often talked about it with friends, and what he said even in his not-so-sober moments made sense. His contention was that even a pretty woman seems repulsive if she has a bad voice.

Among the voices he rated as thrilling were those of Begum Akhtar, Mubarak Begum, Noor Jehan, Shamshad Begum and Reshma. He thought that they drew out the very heart of the listener, and in case he was emotionally unstable, aroused morbid desires in him. He would say that such voices did not belong to the great only, but also included relatively less popular singers like Kavita Krishnamurthy. Another contention of his was that bhajans too could excite such feelings.

Maybe he went too far with his pet obsession, but what do you say of the old Khan Sahib of Pul Bangash, Delhi, who got on a high whenever he heard Runa Laila sing: "Kya awaz hai, Kya nazakat, kya ada'' -- what a voice, grace, charm and poise -- he would say with a gesture of his hands, in between gulps of gin and tonic. Khan Sahib is gone to the eternal singing fields, but Runa Laila is around and making waves as usual.

He used to cite the example of Jahandar Shah -- 1711-1712 -- who fell in love with the voice of a dancing girl, Lal Kanwar, married her, and made her his queen in the Red Fort. They went to Lahore, and there the dandy emperor bought all the oil available in that historic city to celebrate a festival of lights while his beloved sang. They both met a tragic end at the hands of his nephew, Farrukh Siyar, who usurped the throne and ruled till 1719, when he was strangled and Mohammad Shah Rangeela, another great lover of dance and song came to the throne of Delhi.

Talking of thrilling voices, a girl named Holly was caught minus her clothes years ago by a warden in a Delhi hostel while listening at night to the songs of Elvis Presley. Frank Sinatra's voice excited a woman so much at a 1945 dance party in what is now Standard Restaurant in Connaught Place, that she threw her drawers at the gramophone playing a record of "Ol' Blue Eyes''.

So it's not the men who get affected. The pelvis-thrusting Bollywood dancers are there and so too the frenzied girls of the Rock and Reggae bands.

A young man heard someone singing on a moonlit night. He left his bed and wandered away in search of the singer in 1906. After some time he came to the Najafgarh Jheel and there he had a strange sight: A woman with the head of a bull-buffalo was straining her neck towards the full moon and singing that haunting melody. He ran back in panic, developed fever and died after a week, muttering: "Amma, bhainsa sar ga rahi hai'' -- a reference to the ghoulish woman.

Voices do draw one: sexually, aesthetically, culturally or religiously. It's not body beauty that counts in such cases but the vocal chords and their power to entertain or enchant -- like Keats' Nightingale. No wonder a beautiful woman with a defective soundbox seems repulsive to some, when even a hidden Tun-Tun's singing voice can thrill the listener. So does Kavita Krishnamurthy's when she sings "Ai Khudawand bata tere pavitar parvat par kaun basega''. And you don't need a thesis to prove that!

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