(As published in India Currents)
MEERA THE LOVER. Audio CD. Vandana Vishwas. $ 14.99.http://vandanavishwas.com
Vandana Vishwas has a dard ki mithaas (aching sweet) voice; even a casual tune would sound profound were she to hum it. Her debut album—Meera, The Lover, strings together compositions by aristocratic medieval poetess Meera Bai almost chronologically, forming both a lyrical presentation of Meera’s progression from innocent love to devotional longing and a musical notation of the highlights in her life. In a distinct departure from the popular one-dimensional bhajan-style rendition, Vishwas’s style of composing Meera’s poetry infuses them with a passionate longing, a romantic vibrancy to the devotion.
The beginning of the first number “Badara Re” (O cloud) is breath-taking. Vishwas has arranged Raag Des to the traditional 14-beated north Indian rhythm (Deepchandi), to depict the jumping flow of raindrops. The song completely transports you to a fragrant bower where an innocent Meera is watching the rain bearing clouds and listening to the chimes of the wind. The intelligence with which Vishwas has chosen instruments and the music arrangement in general is commendable.
“Piya Bin” (Without my love), was arranged by Vishwas’ guru D.K. Gandhe to the raga Bhairav Thaat. The violin speaks of loneliness, and the huskiness of Vishwas’s voice in the high notes bring to life Meera’s agony. “Sanware ke rang” (The hues of my love) sounds like Vishwas … er, Meera, is dancing a rejoinder to societal rebukes here, preferring instead to be called the crazy devotee. Vishwas’s singing gives a human face to this devotional craziness; one can begin to understand how Meera starts to turn into Meera Bai. Indeed, throughout the album, one is urged by Vishwas’s compelling voice to get under the skin of this mystical hermit-poet.
“Sun Lijo” (Hear me out) has nuances of pouting and bashful bargaining for acceptance. Meera proclaims that the world has accepted that she has reincarnated herself in his image, so how come he never even shows her a glimpse of himself? The iktara marks a soulful beat to this song. In “Fagun ke din char” (The month of spring seems to have just 4 days), Vishwas conveys proof of Meera’s never having belonged to the community, hers is the world of just two people. So no matter that playing Holi is taboo for the widowed Meera; in her world, she is the eternal bride of Krishna and has a right to merriment with her chosen one. The music here sounds 1970s Bollywood at times.
The theatrical composition of “Rana ji” (O King) sets off Meera’s confrontation with the king in the royal court, where she renounces her royal heritage in public. Vishwas has cleverly used Raag Darbari here, the popular raga used in courts. One can just picture a luminous, defiant Meera as she stands in court with tear-laden eyes taking her lonesome stance. “Chala wahi des” (Let’s go to that land) has the slightly untamed tone of the wandering mystic that Meera has now become. The music is dramatic here. Vishwas’s vocal portrayal conjures up an image of Meera being that many transcendental states closer to the ultimate union with Krishna. The inclusion of the last dandiya number in this album is debatable—the beat throws off the wonderful serene mood of the other songs. “Badara re” is the best song in this album.
The ache in Vishwas’s life (permanent septic arthritis in infancy immobilized her left hip and joint) has sweetened her voice, giving it the depth required to portray Meera. One hopes that she doesn’t deviate from this niche—it is likely that a dedicated audience is already in the making.