Given the reputations of vocalist Asha Bhosle and vocalist-sitarist Shujaat Khan, it might be as well to say straight away what they aren’t doing here. Naina Lagaike, to stick to the spelling on the artwork (as opposed to its ‘Naina lagai ke’ (‘I rue having locked eyes with you’) spelling elsewhere), is not a filmi sangeet (‘film song’) offering. It isn’t filmi or folk, geet or Hindustani classical, even though elements of those wellsprings bubble up in places. It conjures the spirit of what is known in Bengali circles as ‘modern song’, even though it taps into melody of all sorts. Its title piece is, for example, set in ‘Mishra Khamaj’.
Before going too far, one of this project’s most interesting aspects is how it generates debate about its significant artistic antecedents. Or if you prefer, what brought its two leading musicians to this point…
Ashatai is, pace Walter Benjamin, the most recorded deliverer of art in the history of retrievable sound. By her own candid admission, she recorded a fair few clunkers for posterity in the process of putting food on the family plate while establishing her name in the notoriously partisan and fickle Bombay film industry. Though her back catalogue has an assortment of themed projects delving into other musical realms, the one that holds up best to comparison is Dil Padosi Hai (1987), her scrumptious non-filmi collaboration with Rahul Dev Burman and Gulzar.
Shujaat Khan is a beenkar (‘sitarwallah’), arguably the most expressive, innovative and eloquent sitarist of his generation (he was born in 1960). That judgement has nothing and everything to do with him being Vilayat Khan’s son. His most notable antecedent to Naina Lagaike is Waiting For Love (1998), on which he sang and sitared in ways that were refreshingly new to these ears. The fact that that India Archive Music project included two versions of ‘Aaja Re Piya Mora’ (‘Come back my love’) – the first composition they captured for Naina Lagaike – is only incidental. It showed another side of his musical character.
Assisting the two principal musicians are Shujaat Khan’s son Azaan Khan on acoustic guitar – who gets to provide the subtle introduction to ‘Humre Naina Tumri Ore’ (‘My eyes are on you’), one of his regular tabla accompanists, Amit Choubey, Ajay Prasanna on flutes and Bheem Rao on dholak. The core musicians put the music down live in Mumbai’s Stage Sound studio. To this, arranger Upmanyu Bhanot and his merry men have added orchestrations and touches such as the underlying electric bass line on ‘Aaja Re Piya’, a burst of colour such as the chorded electric guitar on the Asha Bhosle solo vocal version of ‘Naina Lagai Ke’ and the electric piano on ‘Kangana Main Bandhoon’ (‘I tie a bracelet’ – kangana implies a wedding bracelet). It is peppered with wow-wa-wa prick-up-your-ears moments of lambent melodicism. Naina Lagaike is a major work, the first truly monumental new work to reach these ears in 2011.