What is with gatherings where people sing hindi songs? And I am not talking about yearly family gathering or picnics where it is common to sing or play antakshari. These are grown up people who have traveled many thousands of miles to discuss serious stuff.
Last week I was at a dinner hosted for a NGO conference where a film I had made was releasing. The crowd gathered were all over from South Asia - Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and even Pakistan.
No sooner the film got over and people applauded us for the effort, someone picked up the cordless mike and there was a hushed silence. I was busy shutting down the projector and a woman's voice started (at a high pitch) to render this song. I could not place her - which part of the subcontinent she was from. She was wearing a Kerala saree with a gold border but her Urdu diction was good.
What struck me was that the song had nothing to do with the occasion or the event. Why would you pick that song to sing? Of course it is a beautiful song. In a small gathering perhaps. But at a dinner with 40 people?
It took me back to the nights in Jamia staying up listening to poetry or even further ancient memories of dinners at home where someone would start singing while the rest were eating gulab jamuns or drinking coffee. The songs chosen by the singers were what they liked. They were not be able to render them well but the listeners had no choice. Only a brave singer would take requests.
By now everyone was hooked. I looked around the faces. Some of them were lost in their thoughts. Other were staring at the singer to figure of the words since they were alien to them. Of course there was a token European who was recording the entire session on an I-Phone. It reminded me of a group waiting for the marriage ceremony to begin and start singing songs to pass away time.
At college in the gang we had it was pretty obvious who would be singing and who would have poetry to recite that evening. The rest were the audience. Most of the songs were repeated every time we gathered. No surprises. At family dinners sometimes a new person would try out a song she had been practicing in preparation for this dinner. Otherwise it would be the same playlist. And the same faces.
It seemed to me that this singer belonged to that tradition. Singing at gatherings was natural for her. What was scary was the audience seemed to be used to such things. Is it because they all did it when they gathered at their friends' homes? As the song came to an end, I could feel a knot in my stomach. The same feeling you get at a dinner when one person starts singing followed by another one and pretty soon you get the feeling that this is not going to break up till everyone (including you) have been forced to sing. I squirmed and looked around for the door.
Thankfully many in the audience had performance anxiety that evening. When the song finished, many complimented the singer. And then rushed out for dinner. Just in case someone started to sing another one.