Photo Credit: STR/AFP
As I attended to some other matters this week, I had playing in the background some old ghazalsfrom the golden era of the 1980s. Well before mp3s and even compact discs, the kasit ruled the roost. And always the biggest sellers in the tape wars were the ghazal masters. It was one of those Ages of Innocence that people over a certain age tend to rhapsodise about when they’ve had a bit too much tipple (and are listening to old tapes).
Among the ghazal singers it was Pankaj Udhas who made a particular impression as the king of thesharabi ghazal (boozy ghazal). Way back when I was a different man, I memorised many of his biggest hits and introduced the baby-faced artiste to all manner of curious Midwesterners. Last week, as he sang away and I focused on my chores, the penny finally dropped. Pankajji was singing a drinking song. The obviousness of this realisation set me back for a minute or two and then set me on my mission, the fruits of which I share with you this week: an intercultural guide to Pankaj Udhas’ and Western drinking songs.
Sabko Maloom Hai Main Sharabi Nahin
This ghazal throws up that classic line of defense of the excessive imbiber: I’m not a boozer – just ask anyone.
Sabko maloom hai main sharabi nahin
[Everyone knows I’m not a drunk]
Phirbhi koi peelae to main kya karun
[but then if someone offers me a drink what am I supposed to do?]
Sirf ek baar nazron se nazrein mille
[If just once our eyes meet]
Aur kasam tut jaaye to main kya karun
[What am I to do if my promise is broken?]
Indeed, just to set the record straight, Udhas opens this number with a mini monologue about the “misunderstanding” of many of his fans that just because he sings sharabi songs, he must be a drunk. It is an opinion, he makes very clear, that is not true.
The Piano Has Been Drinking
Tom Waits has no voice left. Not that he had much of one even as a young man. But who cares? He is an American icon whose “voice’ has been described as if “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”.
The poet of the bar stool, the bard of all boozers and night owls, his street poetry has invigorated popular music for more than 45 years, giving the American songbook eternal gems too numerous to list here. But in this instance, he takes the same line as Pankaj Udhas: “Hey, I’m no lush. Everyone knows that.”
The piano has been drinking, my necktie is asleep
And the combo went back to New York, the jukebox has to take a leak
And the carpet needs a haircut, and the spotlight looks like a jailbreak
And the telephone’s out of cigarettes, and the balcony is on the make
And the piano has been drinking, the piano has been drinking
Not me, not me, not me, not me.
Sharab Cheez Aisi Hai
Here, demon alcohol is praised openly and lusciously. The melody of this ghazal is one the great highlights of the genre, and Udhas manages to wring every drop of pathos out of the lyric that is almost uncomfortably frank. Clearly this solitary drinker has not yet reached the tipping point; the very thought of turning his back on the wine is too much to bear.
Yahi to toote dilon kailaajh hai anjumm
[this is the cure for the broken-hearted, Anjum]
Main kya kaho tujhe kaisi hai na chodi jaye
[How can I explain why I can’t give it up]
Ye mere yaar ki jaisi hai na chhodi jaye
[It is like my beloved, I can’t leave it]
Sharab cheez hi aisi hai na chhodi jaye
[Booze is something I can never give up]
This verse is about as close as any ghazal gets to the traditional country “crying in my beer” song.
Red Red Wine
This Neil Diamond song was a mega hit for the 1980s UK reggae outfit UB40 (named after the unemployment benefits application form). The band recorded a number of versions, with this being my personal favourite because of its rapping centre section, in which we hear echoes of Pankaj’s stubborn steel-willed drunk.
Red red wine, I’m gonna hold to you
Hold on to you cause I know your love true
Red red wine, I’m gonna love you till I die
Love you till I die and that’s no lie
Red red wine can’t get you off my mind
Wherever you may be I’ll surely find
La Pila De Saqia
What’s the excuse here? It seems to be, talk to me about sobering up after I’ve had a few more.
La pila de sakiya paimaana paimaane ke baad
[keep serving the drinks sakiya, jug after jug]
Hosh kee baate karunga hosh me aaneke baad
[I’ll sober up and then talk to you about sober things]
La pila de sakiya
[bring me more, sakiya]
In the years since I used to listen to these drinking songs, I have forgotten just how raw the lyrics are. There is nothing subtle about most of Udhas’ sharabi ghazals. They are hard hitting and would undoubtedly be condemned by all sorts of social and lobby groups if sung in the West. One can appreciate why his earlier explanation, that the singer and the song were not identical, was deemed necessary.
Just One More
Udhas’ insistence that he was different from the characters of his song was something George Jones, country music’s greatest voice, was completely unable to echo. Jones, aka the Sinatra of country music, battled with the bottle throughout his life. Tales, some humorous, others horrific, abound of his antics while under the influence. Most drinking songs in country music are associated with the honky-tonk sub-genre, of which Jones was an awesome practitioner. Honky-tonk in this case being the rough cultural counterpart of the maikada or maikhana of the ghazal.
Put the bottle on the table, let it stay there till I’m not able
To see your face in ev’ry place that I go
I’ve been sitting here so long
Just remembering that you are gone.
Well, one more drink of wine
Then if you’re still on my mind
One drink, just one more and then another
Ek Taraf Uska Ghar
An eight-minute recital of indecision, this Zafar-penned ghazal sets up the classic boozer’s scenario. Who do I love more? The wine or the beauty? Both have a hold of my heart. Where should I go? Oh please someone help me!
Ek taraf bam par koi gulfam hai / Ek taraf mehfil-e-bada-o-jaamhai
[In one direction is a rose complexioned woman/ In one direction is a gathering of wine and booze]
Uske dar se utha toh kidhar jaaunga/ Mai kada chhod dungat oh mai marr jaaunga
[If I leave her where should I go/ If I leave the wineroom I will pass away]
Sakht mushkil me hu kya karu ai khuda
[I’m really in a mess, what should I do, Oh God!]
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
The angst and desperation of EkT araf Uska Ghar is reflected perfectly in this classic by The Clash, that punk band for thinkers.
One day is fine the next day is black
So if you want me off your back
Well come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
Although strictly not a drinking song, one can rest assured given the band and the times and the subject matter, the liquid elixir played a part in the composition and performance of this song, not to mention the countless swoony renditions sung by broken-hearted boys in pubs across the world since the song first came out.