The Saddest Song of Them All

A song of real grief cannot be merely sentimental, but something that even within its private world, sings a context, provides a historical echo, and even gives a political meaning to the situation of life.

Unlike what Shelley said, all songs that tell of our saddest thoughts are not necessarily sweet. There are songs that are simply sad, as sad can be. They make you brood deeply or drown you in intense melancholia. Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, Dinah Washington’s ‘Bitter Earth’, and Cesária Évora’s ‘Sodade’, are such songs. The sadness of a song not only emanates from the lyrics, or the tune in which the song is set, but also from the voice and the singing. The Kurdish singer Aynur Doğan’s dirge, ‘Ahmedo’, which I first heard in Fatih Akin’s documentary, Crossing The Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul is exceptional. It is a song dipped in wailing, where Doğan mourns perhaps a personal tragedy along with the desperate situation of her people.

In the world of the ghazal, a genre ripe with sadness, there are quite a few exemplars. All of Begum Akhtar is a veritable plunge into the river of sadness. From Shakeel Badayuni’s ‘Mere Humnafas Mere Humnawa’, to Ghalib’s ‘Ibn-e-Mariyam Hua Kare Koi’, Akhtar scales songs of bereavement full of longing. In her memory, the late Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid Ali, wrote,

‘Ghazal, that death-sustaining widow, / sobs in dingy archives, hooked to you. / She wears her grief, a moon-soaked white, / corners the sky into disbelief. / You’ve finally polished catastrophe…’

The gypsy singer from Rajasthan, Reshma, came to be famous for her song in Hero, where Laxmikant-Pyarelal made her render the Hindi version of the Punjabi folk song, ‘Char Dinan Da Pyar O Rabba Bari Lambi Judai’. But it is in the ghazal, ‘Aksar Shab-e-Tanhai Mein’, in which Reshma, with faltering strokes of emotion, finds her soul.

The song, interestingly, is an Urdu translation of Irish poet Thomas Moore’s poem which begins, ‘Oft in the stilly night’, by Nadir Kakorvi. What prevents Farida Khanum from scaling the same heights of sorrow as Akhtar or Reshma is perhaps the velvety texture of her voice, which tempers the effect of ‘Mohabbat Karne Wale Kam Na Honge’ and other songs.

The men in comparison, including the maestro, Mehdi Hasan, charm with the richness of their singing but can’t get really close to the piercing vulnerability one experiences listening to the women singers. Jagjit Singh’s rendering of Ghalib may be an exception. As Vikram Singh Khangura put it, his rendition of Ghalib, as “poetry recitation”, something that is suitably “less ornamented”, brings us closer to the poetry than classical and other forms of singing Ghalib. So, though Abida Parveen sings ‘Bekhudi Besabab Nahi Ghalib’ brilliantly, her singing rather than Ghalib’s poetry becomes the point of appeal. Jagjit simply touches upon the bare notes of pathos in Ghalib, bringing it closer to our experiencing the language of the poems.

In Hindi film music, there is too much artifice to arouse pathos: techniques of dramatisation and sentimentality are used to cajole the listener’s sensibility. The problem with Madan Mohan’s ‘Rasm-e-Ulfat’ is that the song hurries the poetry, and Lata Mangeshkar makes it too melodious. In fact, melody is the central problem in Hindi film music; it cushions the effect of sadness, and makes it consumable. A similar problem afflicts a host of Lata songs, from ‘Betab Dil Ki Tamanna’ to ‘Na Koi Umang Hai’ from Kati Patang There is more elegance in songs like ‘Haal-e-dil Yun Unhe Sunaya Gaya’ and ‘Woh Chup Rahe To’, both from Jahan Ara. A gentle air of melancholy pervades ‘Pal Bhar Mein Yeh Kya Ho Gaya’ while Lata reaches her shrill pinnacle in ‘Dikhayi Diye Yun’ from Bazar. Khayyam uses Lata’s pitch to exploit the depths of the song but what he loses in this ghazal by Mir is his usual, masterful sense of ‘thahrav’ (poise), which he gifts Bhupinder in ‘Karoge Yaad To’.

You can hear the poignant poetry along with the song. But whether in ‘Karoge Yaad To’, or ‘Koi Nahi Hai Kahin’ – R.D. Burman’s masterpiece in Kinara where he creates the feeling of sound in the middle of a vast emptiness – or in the exquisite ghazal ‘Piya Tujh Aashna Hun Main’, by Quli Qutub Shah set to music by Vanraj Bhatia, Bhupinder is a bit too sophisticated for getting into the raw, rocky bottom of sadness.

Asha and Geeta Dutt

Asha Bhonsle’s most memorable songs have the same problem of tunefulness. It is the melodic quality of melancholy that becomes the soaring point of  ‘Chain Se Hum ko Kabhi’ or ‘Yeh Saaye Hain’, or the songs of Umrao Jaan. R.D. Burman responds to the challenge of Gulzar’s non-rhymed poetry in ‘Mera Kuch Saamaan’, by making the song move like a rivulet. Asha’s sense of sadness is imbued with a strong bodily effervescence, a sensuous angst that adds a sense of materiality to the suffering she sings.

Both Asha and Geeta Dutt, when they sing a ‘Sapna Mera’ or a ‘Ja, Ja, Ja, Ja Bewafa’ respectively, show they are good with the spirit of Hindi jazz, if one can use a phrase like that. Both can be lively in the midst of grief, and also dare to be tempting. Dutt’s ‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’, is her other extreme, where she renders a sterner version of a sad song in comparison to Lata’s.

Mukesh, Rafi and Manna Dey 

Among the leading male singers of Hindi cinema, Mukesh’s voice was always more tragic than Rafi’s. His sadness is simple, each word clearly outlined when he utters them. He neither downplays nor exaggerates the song of despair, whether it’s ‘Chal Akela’, or ‘Jis Gali Mein’. Raj Kapoor thought Mukesh could carry off the most difficult act, to sing the melancholy of the clown. But then, both were a team. ‘Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din’ sounds eerily disembodied, floating in the air without a body, a pure memory of hurt’s vanishing footsteps. Rafi’s limitation is again that he is too melodic for the sadness his voice desperately sought in songs like ‘Hum Bekhudi Mein Tum’ and ‘Din Dhal Jaye’.

Rafi could make his voice float on air and embrace a whole landscape with his poignant sur of longing. The same can be said of Manna Dey, who, whether singing ‘Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli’, from Anand, or ‘Pucho Na Kaise’, seems to be more keenly engrossed in the craft of singing. For both Rafi and Manna, singing is a country where sadness is a stranger they meet and whom they impress along the way.

Talat, Kishore and Hemant Kumar

Talat Mahmood and Kishore Kumar are the exact opposite of Rafi and Dey. Talat’s quivering voice is the epitome of sadness. In ‘Phir Wohi Shaam Wohi Gham’ or ‘Zindagi Dene Waale Sun’, he is more involved in the sadness than the singing. But melody chases his despair to prevent him from losing himself completely, and keeps him measured and poised.

About Kishore, Zakir Hussain once said the most striking thing ever: When you hear him, you feel as if he is singing for you and you alone. Kishore, perhaps more brilliantly than others, manages to individualise the feeling of pathos, creating an intense, private relationship between himself and the listener. Though he mastered all moods, it is in songs like ‘Badi Sooni, Sooni Hai’, from Mili, or ‘Panthi Hoon Main’ that you find him, completely himself, thoroughly involved in mapping the contours of sadness.

In Kishore’s sad songs, a certain gravitas weighs more heavily than melody. That is why Kishore could evoke the sombre depth of ‘Tum Bin Jaoon Kahan’ in Pyar ka Mausam better than Rafi, and ‘Mere Naina Sawan Bhadon’, better than Lata.

There is a problem that afflicts all male singers, including the ascetic-sounding Hemant Kumar singing ‘Jaane Woh Kaise’ for Guru Dutt in Pyasa. I would like to call it, using Milan Kundera, the problem of ‘homo sentimentalis’, the term he invents and describes in his novel, Immortality: “Homo sentimentalis cannot be defined as a man with feelings (for we all have feelings), but a man who has raised feelings to a category of value.”

All male actors, be it Guru Dutt, Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna or any other, suffer, in differing degrees, from a deep-seated masculinity that draws them towards their own centre, and makes them let their emotions loose from that centre alone. Their sentimentality keeps them on a tight leash. It is this (self) centeredness of their pain, their sense of suffering, sometimes masquerading as a larger, universal ethic that their playback singers translated for them. It is a division of labour which hides a tacit flow of masculine superiority and limits their portrayal of hurt-filled emotions. Kishore’s ‘Kahan Tak Ye Man Ko’, picturised on Amol Palekar in Baaton Baaton Mein, by its effusive detachment, offers something other than the private, male core of sadness spilling over. Suresh Wadkar’s ‘Seene Mein Jalan’ from the film Gaman, goes further, as he manages to merge the personal with the social grief enveloping an era. In the other song from the film, Jaidev’s masterpiece, ‘Aapki Yaad Aati Rahi’, he introduces us to the unique Chhaya Ganguly, whose voice sounds like a bee-hive of gloom.

The one male singer who comes closest to a certain feminine sense of vulnerability, despite the heavy maleness of his voice, is Kabban Mirza. In his rendering of Nida Fazli’s ‘Tera Hijr Mera Naseeb Hai’, for Khayyam, we hear a man who finds himself abandoned in the no-man’s-land of sadness, yet without losing his maleness, his self-assurance, he sings a slave’s sombre pride on his ill-fated love with a queen.  I am referring more to his singing than the actual lyrics of the song, though both of course go hand-in-hand. The folk version of Kabban is of course S.D. Burman. In ‘Doli Mein Bithaike Kahan’ and ‘Safal Hogi Teri Aradhana’, Burman sings like a boat in turmoil. In folk music, the singer never sings of himself alone, but of life and landscape around him, of things that throw him out of himself. 

And in the end…

The saddest song of all, in my book, is by a virtually unknown singer, Jagjit Kaur. She lends her voice to Sahir Ludhiyanvi’s ‘Tum Apna Ranj-o-Gham’ in Shagun and Amir Khusro’s ‘Kahe Ko Byahi Bides’ in Umrao Jaan.

Both songs were set to music by her husband, Khayyam. In the saddest song I am referring to, melody falters, singing takes a back seat, and the world comes to an end. A song of real grief cannot be merely sentimental, but something that even within its private world, sings a context, provides a historical echo, and even gives a political meaning to the situation of life. So when she sings ‘Dekh Lo Aaj Humko Jee Bhar Ke’, Nawab Mirza Shauq’s ghazal in Bazaar, which Khayyam sets to music haltingly over bare strings, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t move, because the song throws you not just into the life of the woman who’s enacting the song but also the life of the nation, not only the separation of lovers but love as a metaphor of a larger, historical separation, faced by oppressive structures, partitioning all possibilities of love.

When Kaur sings, you feel the figure of Heer, Amrita Pritam, all the women in Punjab singing alongside her, humming from the shadows. ‘Koi Aata Nahin Hai Yun Mar Ke’ – nobody returns from the dead – sings Kaur, and you imagine a silent crowd of women in mourning, their grief inconsolable, with no hope for redemption. That is when time pauses to listen to history.

Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.