Meet Two Musicians Reimagining Faiz's Urdu Partition Poem

Meet Two Musicians Reimagining Faiz's Urdu Partition Poem

To commemorate 75 years of the Indo-Pak Partition and the Independence, Kolkata-origin and Seattle-based music producer-composer, vocalist, and UX sound designer—Vasundhara Gupta aka VASU and New Delhi-based vocalist, songwriter, voice-over-artist, and music therapist Amira Gill decided to independently release Subh-e-Azadi — an iconic Urdu poem and nazm penned by the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz during the Partition of 1947. The poem is also among the only poems that the poet wrote about Partition, an event that inarguably changed the entire course of South Asian history.

Bringing together the worlds of traditional Indian music and modern electronic music production, VASU calls the track a landmark moment in South Asia’s art and music landscape.

Composed by Vasundhara Gupta & Amira Gill, this song was commissioned as the title track for the Sundance-nominated virtual reality (VR) docu-drama Child of Empire, and is currently being toured in museums and film festivals worldwide. The song ‘Subh-e-Azadi’ was produced with the full support of the Faiz Foundation and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter, Salima Hashmi and features eminent musicians from across Asia. To know more about the song, we had a conversation with VASU and Amira Gill.

Let’s start with knowing a little about you and your music journey so far.

VASU: I am a music producer/composer, vocalist, and UX sound designer from Kolkata, currently based in Seattle, USA. I grew up in a traditional joint family, exposed to a wide variety of music (from Indian classical to Bryan Adams and French instrumental), while training lightly in Hindustani classical vocals. In 2017, I graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston with a degree in Professional Music and a minor in Music Production, Technology, and Innovation from Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain. During the pandemic, I gained a new perspective on my artistry and identity, which translated into my latest EP ‘Parwaaz’, a celebration of life and the inner desire within all of us to let go, live free, and take flight. As of 2022, I’ve moved with my partner to Seattle, USA, where I’ve accepted a full-time offer from Amazon as a UX sound designer. I’m (mostly) always up for new challenges and pushing myself outside my comfort zone. Currently, that includes getting used to a full-time job (for the first time in my life!) and seeking adventures in a new city.

Amira: I am a vocalist, songwriter, voice-over artist, and music therapist. I grew up in New Delhi (where I live currently) with a great love for music. My singing journey started with Bollywood music and ‘western’ pop along with soul/RnB songs. Learning singing tropes by listening to and imitating powerful singers like Aretha Franklin and Beyonce, I developed a love for strong voices. My professional journey as a musician kicked off at 15 when I was asked to join The Incredible Mindfunk, an independent Delhi-based band. We wrote an album of original music that was released in 2013, and performed at festivals, competitions and clubs within the country. In 2015, I moved to Boston to start studying at the Berklee College of Music where I graduated with a degree in Music Therapy. At Berklee, the exposure to music from different parts of the world and within India too was so amazing to observe and absorb that I dove into it. I started singing songs from the middle-east, Balkans, South India, Spain, among others and started collaborating with the musicians from there. That chapter of my life opened up a lot of doors and interests which still carry today. I have been back in India since the start of the pandemic, and have collaborated with artists I deeply respect. I hope to keep growing my niche music therapy practice and developing my artistry, collaborate with people who have been on my vision board, travel within and outside India, and keep learning (patience, and music).

What was the inspiration behind the song and what was the creative process like?

VASU: The main inspiration behind this song is of course the story behind the nazm, Subh-e-Azadi, written by the iconic Faiz Sahab. Our initial call with his eldest daughter, Salima Hashmi, gave us many interesting insights into her father’s state of mind when he wrote this nazm, the emotional and political climate across the nation in 1947, and her own childhood experiences and how those shaped who she is today. There was a lot of fodder to work with. At the same time, there was a lot of responsibility to tread carefully and sensitively.

Amira and I have a close personal relationship and that only made the creative process even more engaging and exciting! Since this song was composed remotely, there were numerous early afternoon and late-night Zoom sessions where we exchanged melodic ideas. While I came up with rough production sketches and soundscapes, we both would go back and forth with melodic iterations and Urdu phrasings.

Amira: Once we had the main skeleton and framework for the song, I flew down to Calcutta (where Vasu was at the time) during Pujo time and we spent 3 days part-time recording the vocal in the studio and crafting the track and part-time having conversations about our piece and how to elevate it while walking through the pandaals around Park Street. This song has been the most immersive experience of my life because of the amount of truly intentional work that went into it. Every lyric, every instrument choice, every musician who has been a part of it, and every phone and zoom call has led to making the piece what it is today. It’s truly been about the journey.

How would you define your sound?

VASU: As a producer, I knew this track had to be an amalgamation of traditional, grounded, and earthy instrumentation as well as modern and minimal, electronic production. I would define our sound as deeply embedded in cultural roots, yet evolved and relevant to today’s audience.

Amira: In addition to everything Vasu said, this song has a very cinematic, grounding, nostalgic, and empowering feel.

As a parting note, VASU said, “While working on this project, I realized that we are the last generation of South Asians to have grandparents who witnessed the Partition first-hand, or survived it and are alive to account for it. That alone is an incredible thought to leave one with. I feel immensely grateful and proud to have played a small part in this mega story. Like most things in life, this is above and beyond all of us as individuals.”

To which Amira added, “I feel very grateful that the team at Project Dastaan & Anzu Films is doing the work that they are to document and educate the world about the Indo-Pak partition and its relevance in even our current socio-political climate. The film and the song have melted man-made partitions and led to deep cross-border conversations. The journey has led to the creation of a powerful piece of art and it’s a great privilege that we played a part in making this a reality.”

Song credits:

Composed by: VASU and Amira Gill

Sung by: Amira Gill

Produced by: VASU

Percussion: Praveen Sparsh

Sarangi: Yuji Nakagawa

Mix & Master: Ishaan Chhabra

Artwork: Harshad Marathe

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