By James Goldberg
Although best known for his work in the very modern medium of Bollywood film, Jeevan Sidhu is also a poet with a deep and abiding investment in his culture’s literary past. He has worked as a playback singer on films such as Pardes, Veer/Zaara, Dil Se, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, and Love Aaj Kal, meanwhile producing critically-acclaimed poetry in the traditional ghazal and kafi forms originating in the Indian northwest and Pakistan—forms which typically deal overtly with religious themes. In January, Sunstone’s Reena Solomon chatted with Jeevan over tall glasses of buffalo milk (“Mormon ki chai,” Sidhu joked) in the village of Dhudi near the India-Pakistan border.
This is a work of fiction.
Reena: How did you first develop an interest in poetry?
Jeevan: My mother’s family is from here in the village, but I grew up in Faridkot, and I think that was a big influence, living so close to the memory of the poet and saint Baba Farid. Whenever my father was out of work, my mother would take me down to eat langar at a certain gurdwara that marks a place where Baba Farid Ji once spent forty days in meditation.
“What was he thinking about for forty whole days?” I’d ask my mother.
“Son,” she’d say, “he was trying to catch a glimpse of God.” And then she’d tell me to be quiet so she could listen to the Sikhs sing this Muslim saint’s songs.
I never thought I could be a saint like Baba Farid—I’d never even heard of the Latter-day Saints back then—but I developed a passion for old poetry. Later, when my father was working consistently, my parents would buy me records of the great ghazal singers—Begum Akhtar, Talat Mahmood, Jagjit Singh—and I’d hide up in my room listening to them. I didn’t understand much of their sense, but I could lose myself in those sounds. I used to think: “I could do this for forty days. Just stay up here and listen to my records.” I was a very lonely child.
Reena: A lot of artists seem to come from backgrounds of isolation. Do you think that isolation has shaped your work?
Jeevan: (laughs) I guess so. If I’d had more friends, I probably would have grown up listening to U2. Or maybe it’s more like: if I’d grown up listening to U2, I might have had more friends. But I was hooked on old-school ghazals.
Reena: Could you tell our readers a little bit about the ghazal?
Jeevan: Sure. It’s a very old and beautiful form. A ghazal is made up of couplets, each of which ends with the same word or phrase. In the hands of a brilliant poet, this final word can be approached from a breathtaking variety of angles: like a candle’s flame on a breezy night, the poem flickers this way and that though one end is always fixed to the same point.
In the ghazal, a poet speaks to, or of, his Beloved—although he knows that he can’t have her in this world. Sometimes the Beloved is a woman with whom the poet has no chance of happy union—maybe because a marriage is going to be arranged between her and another man. But if he catches even a glimpse of her hair, the poet will speak of how it moves him to the core, and how intensely he feels the pain of their separation.
Maybe the Beloved doesn’t know he exists. Or maybe she knows from the mist in his eyes that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Maybe she’s in love with him, too. If she is, she probably treats him cruelly: either to warn him not to risk society’s wrath by acting on his love, or to test him—to see if he loves her enough to make it worth risking everything to run away with him. Then again, maybe she doesn’t love him. Maybe she’s just very cruel.
On a deeper level, the Beloved is God. The poet is intoxicated by moments of intense connection, but must endure a separation from his Master which may last a lifetime. Just as the world ridicules lovers, the world can never understand those who have given their whole hearts to God, who would forsake all earthly things for his name.
These two longings—between a man and a woman, between the soul and God—are the voice of our culture’s poetry. As I sang in one film: yeh muhabbat bhi ek ibaadat hai / aur yeh ibaadat bhi ek muhabbat hai, “this love is also a worship / this worship is also a love.”
Reena: Have you ever been in love?
Jeevan: Of course. All my life. But I didn’t always know what I was in love with.
Reena: With film itself, maybe? How did your Bollywood career start?
Jeevan: When I was fifteen years old, they were shooting scenes for a Punjabi-language film in some fields near Mandwala, not far from here. I loved films and thought it would be very glamorous to see one being made. I had no idea, of course, how much stop-and-go there is in film and how much is added in postproduction. To be honest, I was extremely disappointed: I’d gone to the trouble of skipping school and making my way out to the village, and there wasn’t even any music playing! It was too late to go back, though, so I decided to make the most of things and sat singing to myself while the heroine ran through the fields again and again until the wind caught her scarf just right.
Someone on set heard me singing. He told someone else, who told the director, who soon offered me my first job as a playback singer. I worked for several years in the low-budget Punjabi film industry before being offered work in Bollywood at age nineteen and relocating to Mumbai, which was then called Bombay.
Reena: Tell us a little bit about the role of playback singers in the Indian film industry.
Jeevan: Every major Indian film has at least five songs (usually more), and until very recently most actors worked on several projects at a time instead of focusing on one like they do in the USA. There’s no expectation for actors and actresses to do their own singing: playback singers record the songs and the actors lip sync.
It’s really much better that way, because then there’s no expectation for singers to be gorgeous, the way singers—especially female singers—are expected to be in the West. Beautiful voices come in all kinds of bodies. I wasn’t the world’s most handsome nineteen-year-old, but I could sing ghazals and kafis and qawwali and whatever else they asked me to sing, so I was in.
There’s a very real magic in this. Millions stare at Aishwarya Rai as they listen to a voice which, in point of fact, is emanating from a small, fat woman’s soul. Women fall in love at the same time with Shah Rukh’s body and my voice—although the only physical feature Shah Rukh Khan and I share is a distinctly-shaped nose.
Reena: Like New York, Mumbai is a city that never sleeps. How did you adjust from the pace in Punjab to big-city life?
Jeevan: Not well. Music directors liked my voice, and so I was usually able to work. But if I was lonely as a child, I was ten times lonelier when I first moved to Mumbai, so far from family and neighbors. My success brought only superficial satisfaction. Though my only dream for years had been music, when you live out your dreams in the day, what is left to comfort you when the din of the city keeps you up half the night?
In general, I think that happy people tend to attract more success than miserable people do, but that’s not true of ghazal singers. The more unhappy I became, the more music directors wanted me to work for them. For the first time, my voice as well as my heart were filled beyond the brim with longing—for someone to love? for the God Baba Farid would have given anything to glimpse? or just for escape? I didn’t know myself what I was longing for, but everyone could hear it. New and impressive professional opportunities opened up for me, but after we’d go out and drink, I would still spend my nights alone in my apartment, only the noise of the city bleeding through the walls to keep me company—or to remind me that even living among millions of people, I had no real company.
Of what use was success when I’d been left with such an empty heart? There is a couplet from the poet Sauda: ai waae bar aseer, ke par tor kar jise / Sayyaad fasl-e-gul mein chaman se riha kare, “how accursed the caged bird who in spring / the hunter sets at large, with wings clipped away.”
And yet, if I hadn’t been so unhappy, would I have ever met or listened to the missionaries? It’s true that God works in mysterious ways.
Reena: How did your conversion affect your art?
Jeevan: Living alone in Bombay had taught me longing; feeling the Spirit as I learned about the restored gospel—and ultimately receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost—taught me closeness to God: the kind the ghazal celebrates, the kind the old poet-saints like Baba Farid and Bulleh Shah no doubt felt. It was very hard for me to join the Church. Changing one’s religion goes against tradition and I knew my parents and relatives would have a difficult time accepting it, but how could I turn away from that feeling? The missionaries asked me to be baptized, and though I knew it would be a disaster to say yes, I also knew I couldn’t say no. As I walked up to the rooms the Church rented for the baptism, I thought of the lines from a song: Jo bandishen thi zamaane ki tor aaya hoon / main tere vaaste duniya ko chhor aaya hoon, “I’ve broken society’s strictures and come to you / for your sake, I left the world behind.”
I came to understand the emotional world of the ghazal much better when I broke tradition and joined the Church.
Reena: Were you already writing poetry at that time?
Jeevan: No, I was still just singing. My writing started two years or so after my conversion.
As I’ve described, I felt very close to the ghazal when I first took the decision to join the Church. After a while, though, a distance started to develop: the ghazal always speaks of a Beloved you can’t have: a God who reveals himself at times but who is also constantly testing you with his distance. In the spiritual high of my early days in the Church, I no longer felt that. I was too encircled in God’s immediate love to experience the ghazal’s longing. I still sang, but only from my voice, not from my now-satisfied soul. But time doesn’t leave one satisfied forever: a couplet from Hafez says “Nothing in this world is without terrible barriers / except love, but only when it begins.”
Reena: That’s beautiful, but also a little bit terrifying.
Jeevan: Real love is terrifying because you have to bet your life on it. Otherwise it’s not real love.
Reena: When you felt the Spirit and joined the Church, did you think you’d found your Beloved?
Jeevan: Yes. I thought so. I thought the Beloved was God.
Reena: Just like for Baba Farid, Bulleh Shah, Dard?
Jeevan: Yes—I thought a lot about Dard in those days. Whenever we’d talk about the plan of salvation, I’d think of his couplet Doston dekha tamasha yahan ka bas / tum raho ab hum to apne ghar chale, “Friends, we’ve seen enough of what this world has to perform / you can stay for more, but I’m ready to go home.” Being away and estranged from my family, it was very comforting to know that I had a literal home to return to: making it back to our Father in Heaven was my obsession. I kept the commandments even when it meant losing money over things like not working on the Sabbath. I attended meetings regularly and fulfilled my callings as best I could.
After one year, I arranged to sing at a concert in Manila so I could go to the temple there. I’ve often reflected on that experience with another of Dard’s couplets: Hijaab-e-rukh-e-yaar the aap hi hum /Khuli aankh jab, koi parda na dekha, “I was the veil that hid my love’s face / As I awoke, the curtain arose.”
Reena: But in all that time, you never wrote a poem on your own?
Jeevan: No, I didn’t start writing poetry until after my trip back to Punjab.
Reena: What changed then?
Jeevan: I hadn’t been home in years: my visits postponed first by my career, then by my fear of returning to my family with a new faith. But when my cousin died, there were no excuses left. I had to go. He and I had grown up together. In Punjab, your paternal cousins are supposed to be like brothers, and as young children we had been very close.
He had died of drug overdose. Heroin. It was very wrenching to face his wife and understand the ruin he’d left her. No money. No home. Everything lost—for what?
I had only planned to stay in Punjab for a week, but when I realized how bad things had become, I ended up staying for nearly two months. Since the American invasion of Afghanistan reopened that nation’s dormant poppy production, heroin and another drug they called smack had become easily available. Smugglers would float old tires full of the product across the river at the border.
Even if some of the people I remembered from my childhood weren’t addicts themselves, they all seemed to have an addict in the family. Punjab was haunted by them—brides were warned not to wear jewelry until they reached the wedding hall so that they wouldn’t be robbed on the way. Can you imagine men desperate and single-minded enough to rob a bride?
I could take refuge from my own problems in the love of God, but it was harder to hide there from problems that plagued my whole world.
There were no Church branches in Punjab at that time, so I spent a lot of time reading the scriptures on my own, looking for answers. I read in the Doctrine & Covenants a lot, and eventually noticed something about the prophet Joseph Smith. He loved God and he loved his wife—but Zion was his Beloved. It was his dream of Zion that filled him with ecstasy, his longing for Zion that gave him strength, his separation from Zion that he wept over.
He could sometimes steal a glimpse of this Beloved, but he could never be united with her in this world. Was she testing his faithfulness—or only trying to torture him? Sometimes she is a lost lover to him; sometimes a cruel lover refusing to return.
I watched the fabric of society collapsing under poverty and addiction and yearned for another order to descend, to put on her beautiful garments.
Then I took out a pen, and I wrote of my impossible Beloved.
Reena: A Mormon ghazal writer is something of a rarity—how have audiences responded to your work?
Jeevan: My faith is the experience through which I imagine my poems, but not the one through which my audience interprets them. Lovers will always hear poems like mine as speaking of their love; spiritual seekers will hear in them the search for God; revolutionaries can listen to a ghazal and hear the Beloved as the true Revolution that never seems to come.
Though Muslims pioneered the form, there have been many talented Sikh and Hindu ghazal writers and even some Christians. The poetry doesn’t care about your religion: it only demands that the anguish of an unfulfilled love be written in fiery scars across your heart.
The ghazal demands only that you love as purely and as selflessly as the moth: who can tell from your words if a beautiful woman or the dream of an exalted society is the flame to which you’re drawn?
Reena: Do you think you’ll ever run out of inspiration?
Jeevan: When it comes to the dream of Zion, khat likhenge garche matlab kuch na ho / hum to aashiq hain tumhare nam ke.
Jeevan: I’ll keep writing letters even if there’s nothing left to say / I’ll write them just because I’m a lover of your name.
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