The passing of the incomparable Lata Mangeshkar gives us a chance to pause and pat ourselves on our backs. Our country, our culture, our civilisation, if you will, have gifted to the world an extraordinary art form available virtually nowhere else. It may have been a new technology, but its father in India, the redoubtable Dadasaheb Phalke, was quite clear that movies will inexorably follow the artistic traditions of our colourful peninsula.
Our first movie had to be based on a story deeply embedded in our soil and stubble. The Kathasaritsagara, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Hitopadesa were going to be the effortless and inevitable sources for our cinema. No wonder his pioneering attempt was Raja Harishchandra. The second element which today seems obvious in India, but which was and is not that obvious in Paris, in Shepperton (near London) or in Hollywood, is that a performing art without music simply does not fly.
You can go back to Bharata Muni or Sarangadeva; you can look at the sculpture panels at Hampi or Thanjavur or Khajuraho; or you can look at performances of Sadir Attam, Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Krishnattam, Mohiniattam, Kudiyattam, Yakshagana, Therukoothu, Lavani, Bhaav, Sattriya, Manipuri, Kathak, our classical stage, our folk stage, our puppetry or Harikatha Kalakshepam. The idea of action or dialogue with no music, which might have been fine in Periclean Athens or even Elizabethan England, simply does not work in our country. We put up music boxes even with our silent movies.
And when the talkies started, there was no question of having cinema without songs. Many of our early actors - KL Saigal, MK Thyagaraja Bhagavatar and MS Subbalakshmi - were great singers in their own right. But Indian film directors discovered soon enough that good actors may not be good singers. How does one deal with this issue? The solution now seems obvious and simple. But let us not forget that other national cinemas in the world, to this day, have not embraced playback singing and lip-synching with the vim and gusto that we have demonstrated.
How a disembodied voice can generate romance, which is traditionally associated with sight or first sight if you will, is best captured by a family anecdote. My uncle Kittu Mama had never seen a photograph of Lata Mangeshkar. But he decided to write her a letter assuring her that he would become her slave for life, if she sang just one song solely for him. Lata, or more likely her secretary, sent him back a “Dear Brother” letter with a photograph. My uncle went back to his radio and to the magical voice inside! The voice on the radio as a persistent presence and the occasional viewing of the scene of the song in a theatre - that remains the enduring story of our film music.
It is easy to make fun of corpulent heroes and nubile heroines running around trees in Shimla, Darjeeling, Gulmarg, Udhagamandalam, or increasingly Switzerland and Holland with lip-synching melodies punctuating their gyrations. The fact is that over the years, the art form has mesmerised our country and at a minimum, intrigues the rest of the world. The art form has truly arrived. It is now our baby in the larger aesthetic world just as much as chess or decimal numerals or yoga or T-20 are our contributions in other fields.
While not belittling the contributions of All India Radio, I do want to put on record for people of my generation an appreciation for the solid support that the multinational EMI (His Master’s Voice), the then foreign Radio Goa and the still foreign Radio Ceylon provided to Indian playback singing in their times. And who can forget the greatest compere of all time - Amin Sayani - even if we do not buy the humble Binaca toothpaste, a brand known primarily in our part of the world? Ciba Geigy, the company that produced Binaca toothpaste has disappeared. But the name Binaca will not disappear from the history books of Indian music and musicology.
The redoubtable SD Burman captured the aesthetics best when he spoke to our servicepersons (Fauji Bhais in their days) on one of Vividh Bharati’s Jaymala programmes. Burman mentioned that we were fortunate in India to have two perennial streams of music flowing in the land. The first was our classical music with the raga method, something unknown elsewhere in the world. And then there were the close cousins of our classical music - our various folk paradigms. Burman referred to them as Shastriya Sangeet and Lok Sangeet. Our film music combined these two traditions with an incomparable elegance. And our clever music directors managed to add western orchestration and even a bit of a jazz repertoire to the mix. The net result has been a vigorous, soul-satisfying art form which can never tire us or let us down.
The 78 RPM gramophone record technology resulted in the concentrated energies of the music director, the lyrics writer and the singer coming together in a three-minute fever-pointed focus. The effect has been more than merely electrifying.
The never-ending popularity of “nostalgia sessions” of the songs of decades past has become an Indian obsession. Art historian BN Goswamy mentions that the game of “antakshari” (starting a song with the word with which the earlier song ends) has been mentioned in our classical texts as one of the 64 arts that traditionally, all civilised persons, especially civilised courtesans, needed to be acquainted with.
There is today not a single extended family or group of college students on a picnic, who are not antakshari experts and therefore by default, civilised courtesans. And film songs are their choice, almost invariably. These songs may in fact be more ubiquitous than Gandhi or Ambedkar statues. And that statement itself constitutes a monumental tribute to the genre.
With the entry of Youtube, we are all blessed with a fresh opportunity to re-watch the Chitrahaar/Chaya Geet which we were forced to watch on black and white Doordarshan screens some four decades ago. We can now watch our favourite stars gyrating and singing in bold colour at any time of our choice.
Youtube has also made possible events like the enchanting Margazhi Maha Utsavam which satisfies wonderfully those of us who love Carnatic music and Tamil Film music, both alternately and simultaneously. I recently watched the impressive Subhasree Thanikachalam present a 100 artistes rendering the song Singaravelane Deva. I closed my eyes for a moment and there were Savitri and Gemini Ganesh right in front of me. The movie was Konjum Selangai, literally meaning the anklets that caress fondly. Variations and improvisations that persons like Subhasree provide ensure that film playback music will remain a vibrant art for a long, long time.
I was privileged to attend a virtuoso performance by Vishaka Hari. She did not tell the Ramayana using the words of Valmiki, Kamban, Pottanna or Tulsi. Instead she laid out the entire Ramayana story only with the compositions of Tyagaraja. Needless to say, it was a musical and a poetic treat. Indians are more vociferous than Shakespeare’s Orsino. Music is not just our “food of love”. It is our food for all seasons. Which is why in our movie industry sometimes music directors are paid more than directors and singers are paid more than actors!
Our great composers like Purandradasa, Annamacharya and Tyagaraja were very emphatic that while ragas were important, the sahityas, the words, constituted the soul of our music. In their own way, the Bauls of Bengal understood this. An amazing synchronicity there.
The emphasis on lyrics has the added value so that music is used for story-telling. That is perhaps why playback singing fits so naturally in an Indian movie. All Indians are inveterate and unstoppable story tellers. Till the arrival of unrelated item numbers in recent times, the songs of Indian cinema always played a crucial role in moving the story along.
In Chemmeen, Manna Dey sings Maanasa Myne Varu, and the entire tragedy of forbidden love gets captured; the story’s ending is anticipated. When Dharmendra lip-synchs Ya Dil Ki Suno sung melodiously by Hemant Kumar, the heartaches of Uma/Anupama, played by the lustrous Sharmila Tagore, are captured by her putative love interest. The Kannada film song Doni Saagali is actually a standalone Kuvempu (KV Puttappa) poem skillfully woven into the tale. In Maya Bazaar, when the playful Ghatotkacha sings about Kaurava Prasadam, the story is embellished. The Telugu film Shankarabharanam is all about music. It re-enacts the ancient story of Svetaketu learning from his father with a rare sensitivity.
Lest we think that intellectual Bengalis don’t have songs in their movies, I invite everyone’s attention to the gorgeous Ami Jamini Tumi Shoshi (I am the firmament; you are the moon) from Antony Feiringee. Completely anti-intellectual and very lovably maudlin Bengali.
Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Balamuralikrishnan, MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasanthakumari and Yesudas are all classical singers who have added so much to film music. Balamurali’s Oru Naal Poduma, which is lip-synched by the gifted Baliah, plays the role of advancing the story in Tiruvilayaadal with every syllable.
“Enchantment” is a jejune word to describe the effect. But of course, Tiruvilayaadal gets its coup-de-grace from TM Soundararajan’s Paattum Naane. As Shivaji Ganesan lip-synchs this immortal song (lyricist: Ka Mu Sharif; music directors: Viswanathan/Ramamurthy), all of us who have a little bit of heart, can actually and metaphorically have a darshan of Shiva/Sundareshwara.
Raj Kapoor/Mukesh with Hoton Pey Sachai Rehti hai, Dilip Kumar/Mohammed Rafi with Madhuban Mein Radhika, Dev Anand/Mohammed Rafi with Akela Hoon Mein, Kishore Kumar/Kishore Kumar with Mere Saamnewalee Khidki Mein, Sunil Dutt/Talat Mahmood with Jalte Hain Jiske Liye and Helen/Asha Bhosle with O Haseena Zulfonwali will remain a part of our country’s heritage for decades and perhaps for centuries to come.
This column is written in the aftermath of the passing of Lataji. So one must go back to her enduring music. And I think the best way to remember her is for us to loudly acknowledge how we, our friends and our families were directly touched by her magic voice.
My other uncle, Raghu Mama was convinced that Nagin’s Man Dole was the best song ever. It is important to note how that mesmerising song ploughed the story forward. My mother Padma was convinced that Madhubala lip-synching Pyaar Kiya to Darna Kya was the height of artistic achievement. Again, the song and the accompanying dance had a central purpose within the larger love story. My uncle Narasimha Mama (yet another uncle!) was an undying fan of Chand Phir Nikla from Paying Guest. My cousin Nagu loved the Lata-Rafi duet Jo Vaada Kiya in Tajmahal. Actually, the very first time we heard the song, Nagu correctly predicted that it would win all the awards that year. My brother Ramji is a great fan of Aaj Phir Jeeney Ki Tamanna Hai because he felt that Rosie/Waheeda deserved a break. My sister Bharati is a great fan of O Basanti Pavan Paagal. Readers should again note how deftly Padmini’s movements accompanying the song end up adorning the tale.
My own favourite remains Kahin Deep Jale from Bees Saal Baad. I call it “the song of the twentieth century”. Waheeda Rehman, the presumptive singer is not even present. The likeable Biswajeet (Chandangarh’s young Jagirdar) is simply haunted by the song as are all of us. My wife Neelambari’s favourite is a duet from Rudali which Lataji sang with Bhupen Hazarika. Somebody remarked that there are a bunch of neurons inside the brains of so many Indians where a little bit of Lata Mangeshkar’s playback voice resides. So true.
All columns and essays must end. This is not an adda where one can carry on forever or a game of antakshari which never ends. So here it is: Thank you Lata-ji. Thank you Indian Cinema. Viva playback singing. Viva lip-synching.
The author is the former CEO of MphasiS, and was head of Citibank’s Global Technology Division. He is currently the Chairman of Value and Budget Housing Corporation (VBHC), an affordable housing venture.
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