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Where’s Vaz? How Technology Shaped the Fluctuating Fortunes of Bollywood’s Musicians

The ability to sample instrumental sounds for later use and to mimic a wide range of instruments using synthesisers was not good news for professional musicians.

The availability of various recording technologies has doubtless changed the process of song production – but it has also enabled new forms of creativity. Credit: Splashi/pixabay

The availability of various recording technologies has doubtless changed the process of song production – but it has also enabled new forms of creativity. Credit: Splashi/pixabay

This wide-ranging column will take as its basis a discussion of a book every month on the history of science and technology, and relate it to a theme of current relevance. Read the other articles here.

We associate a Bollywood song with the movie in which it appeared, the actors who lip-synced on screen, the writer of the lyrics, the music director and the lead playback singers. Take – since this column deals with history! – the song Shola jo bhadke from Albela (1951). You see Bhagwan Dada and Geeta Bali dance on screen, listen to the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Chitalkar (C. Ramchandra), and hear a tune composed by Ramchandra. But the feel of the song, the texture, the orchestration and the Latin/jazz flavour have perhaps more to do with the many uncredited musicians who played on the recording and the person who organised them, Antonio Vaz.

Vaz was a regular “arranger” for Ramchandra. Arrangers, sometimes referred to as assistants (of the music director), played an important part in creating the aural landscape of Bollywood songs. They decided what and how many instruments to use, in what combination and to what effect. They brought their own aesthetic and orchestral sensibility to the songs. Yet like the hundreds of violinists whose strings provided a faint countermelody to the singer, the dholak and tabla players who set the tempo, the sitar players who burst into song in the interludes and the flautists who played the occasional soulful overture, arrangers remained largely unknown to the average listener.

The history of arrangers and studio musicians from the 1940s to the 1990s is central to Gregory Booth’s book Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios. For this book, Booth, an anthropologist and musician by training, immersed himself in the world of Mumbai’s musicians, arrangers and technicians, and conducted scores of interviews with them.

His work shows that while some of the musicians were trained in the Indian style and familiar with the sargam (Sa Re Ga Ma) notation, others played largely by ear. As the Bombay music directors of the 1940s and beyond tried to imbue their Indian melodies with some of the features of the Western “sound” (harmony, counterpoint, obbligato), they began to rely increasingly on musicians from neighbouring Goa.

These Goan musicians, trained in Western staff notation as part of their church-centred education in the Portuguese enclave, often came to Bollywood via clubs, restaurants and dance bands. In Bombay, they played in rehearsals and recordings and, in some cases, became regular arrangers to the powerful music directors of the day. Antonio Vaz had a long career supporting Ramchandra. Sebastian D’Souza arranged for Shankar-Jaikishan. And then there was Anthony Gonsalves, the prolific arranger who taught the composer Pyarelal the violin, and whose name was immortalised in return in the 1970s hit song featuring Amitabh Bachchan.

These partnerships between arrangers and music directors helped to create the template for the standard Hindi film song over the next few decades. But as Booth shows in another book (More than Bollywood, chapter 1), the rise of the arranger and the large orchestra should be seen against the backdrop of an important technological development. Around 1935-1936, the introduction of ‘dual-strip film dubbers’, which allowed filmmakers to record audio and visuals separately and then combine them, meant that it was no longer necessary that the actor and the singer be the same person. Enter the playback singer: a concept that crystallised over the next decade through the stylistic decisions of influential music directors. (Booth identifies Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan and Ramchandra.) Separate recording in turn meant that the soundtrack could incorporate larger and more complex arrangements of musical instruments, creating a need for arrangers and musicians capable of playing in concert with hundreds of others.

The largely protected economy after the 1950s limited the availability of new recording technologies from abroad as well as the exposure to international pop culture trends. This meant that, Booth argues, the Hindi film song format that evolved in the 1940s did not undergo any dramatic alterations until the 1990s (though change was perceptible from the 1970s). It is not entirely a coincidence that A.R. Rahman’s score for Roja (1992), seen as heralding the “new sound”, came around the time of India’s economic liberalisation. Rapid globalisation and the lifting of import restrictions made more sophisticated equipment available, including sequencers, synthesisers, processors and programming software.

This enabled a number of changes. Crucially, as music scholar Natalie Sarrazin argues (More than Bollywood, chapter 2), it gave an unprecedented level of control to the music director, making large orchestras unnecessary and arrangers dispensable. “Digitalization not only allowed sound to be manipulated one instrument at a time,” she writes, “but also one note at a time – a piecemeal approach to recording that increased musical precision, intimacy and nuance.”

Thus, it came to be that the male and female playback singer might record their parts on different days; that errant notes could be corrected in post-production (enabling the most tonally challenged celebrities to turn singers); and that the recording of songs became less and less a collective, social process. The ability to sample instrumental sounds for later use and to mimic a wide range of instruments using synthesisers was not good news for professional musicians, as the need to use orchestras in live recordings began to vanish. This also meant that the heyday of the arranger as writer of orchestral scores was over. His role, some would say, is now performed by the “music producer”, who works primarily with synthesised sounds and mixing software.

Is this, then, a familiar story of technology ruining livelihoods? The arguments are familiar: word-processing software made stenographers and secretaries irrelevant; e-commerce has sounded the death knell for brick and mortar shops; the Decision Review System virtually eliminates the need for on-field umpires; smartphones have killed conversation. However, these technologies also create new jobs and new forms of sociality. The availability of various recording technologies has doubtless changed the process of song production – but it has also enabled new forms of creativity. We are often nostalgic about the systems we grew up with, and understandably so. But they rarely disappear entirely; people will find other uses for them. Socrates feared that the art of writing would ruin memory and verbal argumentation. He didn’t reckon with the radio jockey.

Aparajith Ramnath is a historian of modern science, technology and business.