Based primarily on Raaga Yaman, Breathless, back in 1998, was a new idea involving a constant flow of notes that eventually culminated in roaring waves of applause. It was an idea that forced the audience to comprehend impossibilities. It was a construct of romantic storytelling in two meaningful parts. It was a puzzle for the laity, and a challenge for even those blessed with significant musical prowess. To sum up, it was (and still remains) beautiful!
Back in 1998, India was still developing a taste for rap in clear contrast with a great majority of compositions that were generally characterized by a distinct amble. Breathless raised the threshold: one wasn’t supposed to just rehearse and recite so many words, one was supposed to sing them in the new pace – preferably without slipping on a note or missing out on a word. Not surprisingly, the first few attempts ever at a live rendition made even seasoned performers look timorous. It took the master himself to demonstrate the impossible in the first ever live rendition when the perfect notes of his voice struck our eardrums like rhythmic raindrops pattering on the earth. It took less than two minutes of mellifluous vocal outpouring to drench a nationwide audience in exaltation. Subsequent renditions by Shankar Mahadevan collectively became the most fitting response to puritans who felt that fusion and rap brought about a rebarbative declension to the sanctity of music. Those puritans felt reduced to the state of impious skeptics who now needed to convert – and convert they did as they embraced this new standard of live rendition … to the extent that today anybody who convincingly renders this masterpiece is deemed worthy of artistic veneration.
I still remember trying to spot just one breath when I first saw the video of this song on our television – my elder brother had told me that it was sung in one breath. Of course, I learnt soon about how the whole song was put together. I also remember receiving with the excitement of a schoolboy (which I was) the cassette of the album Breathless, perhaps named after the title song (the cover asked us to participate in a contest requiring us to answer why the album was named thus). Interestingly, I only listened to both the parts of Breathless (the TV version and the reprise) one after another for a long time as a quotidian routine, before I finally heard the rest of the songs (which I did enjoy too – my favorite being ‘Ghul rahaa hain saaraa manzar’ from among the rest of the songs). What I remember most was the white cover of the cassette what unfolded into the lyrics of both the parts in tiny font. It gave the appearance of a newspaper article written in eloquent Urdu. Regardless of the intimidating volume of words, I was relieved for I no longer had to look at different sources to get the lyrics (this was the age before the internet). My first instinct was to memorize the song in full, which I did eventually (both the parts). In retrospect, I do wonder sometimes why I didn’t put in any effort of equal measure towards my studies! To cut a long story short, I did perform the Reprise in school on the occasion of teachers’ day in 2001.
Since then and till date, I have always enjoyed listening to this beautiful composition. To me, what differentiates a masterpiece from any other composition is timelessness. The definition of beauty and the perception of what counts as beautiful may well have evolved in these intervening years – but Breathless has consistently remained beautiful for anyone who has ever heard any rendition of it! This composition is one of the best examples of innovation that has inspired artistes to think out of the box and present fresh ideas to the audience. As an academic, I have personally grown for my appetite for experimentation which has helped me explore new ideas – in some capacity therefore, I still relate to Breathless. As for timelessness, even today when the great Shankar Mahadevan performs live, the audience hopes for a rendition of Breathless and in anticipation, holds its breath!
The author is Assistant Professor, IIT Bombay; Behavioral Scientist, Centre for Behavioral Economics, Society and Technology (BEST) Brisbane
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