A requiem for peace

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A requiem for peace
Nonica Singh

SOFTNESS defines, nay epitomizes, her persona. And it’s not just her melodious voice that is touched by a rare nazakat, even herandaz-e-bayan is marked by a style brimming with finesse singularly uncommon today. Seema Anil Sehgal, a Mumbai-based popular ghazal singer, who vowed listeners with her mellifluous presence in Salim Arif’s play Lakeerein in Chandigarh recently, lives by and swears by the poetry of greats.

Seema Anil Sehgal

Not surprisingly, for every question her repartee comes in a couplet. Mir Taqi Mir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib `85 she needs little provocation or reason to hum the shayiri of great poets. Take Faiz`85. she remembers most of his poetry by heart. At a function in the US she even surprised Faiz’s daughter Moneeza Hashmi by singing some of his nazms that even the daughter hadn’t heard before.

Poetry speaks to Seema of its own volition. Not for her the sharaab, shababand kebab ki baatein her sensibilities respond only to the sublime and philosophical poetry that plumbs the depths of human hearts. And she isn’t partial to Urdu poets. Dushyant, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Gulzar, Shiv Kumar Batalvi even Dogri poets, she has sung them all.

Free verse or poetry within prescribed metre`85. she believes all kinds of poetry can be composed and sung. Of course, blank verse presents a greater challenge for unlike a ghazal, where each couplet has an independent entity, in free verse all is connected and has to be musically woven as a whole. Back in time Jnanpith award winner Ali Sardar Jafri, who felt his poetry was only meant to be recited, was suitably impressed when she sang it. The poetry turned into Sarhad the very album that Atal Bihari Vajpayee then Prime Minister of India took with him as part of peace mission to Pakistan.

Gufatgu band na ho, baat se baat chale she, who is hailed as the “Peace singer of India”, sincerely believes India Pakistan friendship is not a mirage but a possibility that can be realised. As she is all set to perform at Faiz Ghar in Pakistan she avers, “Literature can play a most important part in building bridges and mending hearts.”

So dear is the concept of India Pakistan peace to her that she consented to sing for the play Lakeerein precisely because the theme of the play dwells on Indo-Pak ties. Though she has thoroughly enjoyed her stint in the play which has had over 33 shows, she is unlikely to make singing for plays a habit. Ditto for films. She may have sung for a couple of films like Pardesi Babu and Deepti Naval’s directorial debut Do Paise Ki Dhoop Chaar Aane Ki Baarish but once again cinema is not her cup of tea.

Immersing herself deep in the multilayered metaphysical meanings of soulful poetry, bringing out its emotive content evocatively and soothingly is her forte. Music happened to her in early childhood. This singer from Jammu recalls singing her first bhajan at a temple at age seven. A poet father, training under vocalist Pandit Mani Prasad of Kirana gharana and later under the tutelage of Shanti Hiranand disciple of Begum Akhtar, firmed up both her voice and her inclination. Between Begum Akhtar and her, Seema’s fans may sense a parallel, but she has never aspired to ape the legendary singer’s style. In fact, she has studiously avoided singing ghazals synonymous with the ghazal queen for “Who can match her?”

On the dwindling popularity of ghazals she says, “Singers had brought down the standards to the level of the lowest common denominator without realising there are no short cuts to success.” Not that success, as the world understands it, matters to her. Winner of prestigious awards like Hakim Khan Sur Award for national integrity she who was felicitated at the prestigious Harvard University, Boston, USA, has never hankered after laurels or honours either.

She smiles, “We all choose our individual paths and I have decided to spread the fragrance of meaningful poetry.” And the meaning of life she finds in the eternal couplet Jahaa’n mei’n ahl-e-eemaa’n soorat-e-khursheed jeete hai’n, Idhar doobe udhar nikle, udhar doobe idhar nikle”

Indeed, true people and genuine talent can never be kept down. Irrepressible and indefatigable, they come up even if all calculations are against them. Just as Seema, moving against the current of market forces, has found her niche as well as hordes of admiring listeners.



Crossing borders with Seema Sehgal


Crossing borders with Seema Sehgal

By Rafay Mahmood
Published: November 23, 2011

Indian ghazal singer and composer Seema Sehgal’s compilation Sarhad was presented to the Pakistani government in 1999 as a national gift. In an attempt to promote cross-border collaborations, the Tehzeeb Foundation — a society for the advancement and promotion of music, literature and fine arts — invited Seema to perform at the ‘100 years of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’ celebrations held recently in Karachi.

The society has played a crucial role in preserving classical music and bringing performers from across the border to perform in Pakistan. Last year, the foundation brought the heart-warming Grammy award winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (who invented his own musical instrument called ‘Mohan Veena’) and this year we welcome Seema, a ghazal singer who sings for peace.

Music for peace and harmony
Hailing from Jammu Kashmir, the singer, who grew up in a hostile environment, has taken up the task of spreading peace through her music. However, she is not alone in the mission as her husband, Anil Sehgal, a former member of the Indian Air Force, shares the same dream of employing music with meaningful poetry to establish peace and communal harmony.

“Having been a part of the Indian Air Force, I know more than anyone else about the hatred that is enforced by the governments on both sides. But fortunately, people on both sides of the border want peace and that’s why we are here,” Anil tells The Express Tribune.

In 1999, when India and Pakistan’s already sour relationship took a turn for the worse following the nuclear tests a year earlier, the couple decided to work on a peace album, which later proved to be a souvenir of peace between the two countries. “Talking about Indo-Pak peace has become ‘fashionable’ these days,” adds Anil. “We, however, came up with the idea of compiling a peace album, Sarhad, when the two countries were at the brink of war.”

Sarhad consists of poems by well known Indian poet and film critic Ali Sardar Jafri. The poems are sung and composed by Seema herself. Jafri, a close friend of the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz, is known for masterpieces such as “Guftago Band Na Ho”.

However, at the time, the Sehgals had no idea that their musical effort for peace would actually become part of a greater peace process until Anil received a call from the Indian prime minister’s office. “One odd day, I got a call from the prime minister’s office and Atal Bihari Vajpayee told me that he loved Seema’s compilations of peace poems. He also said he would like to take them to Pakistan as a national gift. What else can one wish for,” says Anil excitedly.

Sarhad was presented to Nawaz Sharif, the then prime minister of Pakistan, during the historic Lahore summit in February 1999. Later, the prestigious Harvard University, US, also felicitated the poet, producer and singer-composer.

Bringing Iqbal to India
Seema also has to her credit some very interesting compositions of national poet Allama Iqbal. According to Anil, in 2003, Seema was the first to sing Iqbal live in India. “Misconceptions create pointless borders,” stresses Anil. “Pakistan made Iqbal their national poet and Iran also recognised him but we, Indians, were left without a legendary poet. Someone had to tell people that Iqbal is worth singing and celebrating even in India. After all, he is the genius behind ‘Saare Jahan Se Acha Hindustan Hamara’,” clarifies Anil. “Iqbal is melodious and great to sing,” says Seema regarding her experience of singing Iqbal.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2011.