How Hindi Film Music Grew Into its Carefree, Fun Identity

The collapse of the jazz and dance club scene in Bombay coincided with the commencement of the golden period for Hindi film music.

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This is the third article in a series on the history of the Indian film industry. Also read: Part I | Part II

“But don’t you see why we are tired of the war, we went through it, and now we must re-live it in every book we read, in every film or play that we see? Instead of war, we want to see love on the screen, we want to see carefree happiness, we want someone to make us laugh. That is why we are crazy about Awara.”

∼ Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in his autobiography I Am Not an Island, about a Russian student’s response to his question as to why he liked the movie Awara (1951).

By the early 1940s, the Hindi movie had a lot to do with love, but little to do with carefree happiness. A decade after the onset of talkies, very little had changed in the expression of the Hindi film song. The protagonist – whether female or male – and the songs they sang were cradled by the subtle rhythms and the accompaniment of dholaki, harmonium, tabla and violin. A few bars of piano were thrown in with the accordion if the music composer felt particularly adventurous. The songs were made for K.L Saigal, and when the great man himself could not render them Mukesh, Talat Mehmood and even Mohammed Rafi rehearsed to sing like him. Even the occasional playful numbers were hummable but restrained.

The first slivers of change shone, propitiously, on August 15, 1947. The film Shehnai that was released on that day had a song composed by C. Ramachandra which went “Aana meri jaan, meri jaan Sunday ke Sunday”. It was peppy and one could hear the sax, guitar, drums, harmonica with a minor allowance for the dholak to accompany the antara sung by the female voice. Even Naushad’s work, which was always supported by a strong string, notably a violin bank, had new sounds and beats  creeping into them by 1949 (Andaaz). There were dramatic interventions by the accordion, a hint of countermelody and fresh refrains of percussion, that were not heard before.

Then came Raj Kapoor and Shankar Jaikishen’s work Barsaat in 1948. A musical tour de force, which set a high bar for film music. The signifier of what was to come was the cabaret featuring Joe Menezes’ band in the background  (“Tirchi Nazar hei”) with a two-minute orchestrated prelude and a counter melody that had the material of three other compositions in it. The carefree, dapper, self-assured, almost arrogant looking Prem Nath and the effervescent Cuckoo heralding in new times. The great age of the Hindi movie song was tee’d up nicely by now. How did the change come about in a matter of a few years?

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The ‘Golden Necklace’ that is formed by the Marine Drive in Bombay was dotted with jazz bars on the eve of India’s independence and well into the 1950s. ‘The Rendezvous’ at The Taj and ‘Greens’ were just two of the many that were popular among a cosmopolitan clientele consisting of urbane Parsis, bronzed up sahibs pondering their departure home and music composers from the Hindi film scene, like C. Ramachandra, Jaikishen and Salil Choudhury, among others.

Highlights of an evening at these places were performances by the likes of Chic Chocolate, Chris Perry, Frank Fernand, Goody Servai, Anthony Gonsalves and Josique Menzies. Today, not many of us Indian music aficionados know these names, but they were the itinerant pioneers who had started off their journey at the church choir in Dhobi Talao or Margao, graduated to performing at hotels in hill stations like Mussoorie to ultimately channel the likes of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker in the hazed evenings of pre-independence Bombay, before fawning patrons thirsty for jazz, cha cha cha, stomp and swing.

Their training allowed them to play notated music as bands – at weddings, funerals and orchestras. They could “arrange” music banks of strings, percussion, brass and wind to suit the symphony and they had the skill to include intrepid and unscripted flashes of brilliance that took their patrons’ breath away. They would perform encores and feed off the appreciative audience. They would have Hindi film  music composers wait for them backstage. Appreciation would be followed by invitations to the recording studios, to notate music, set up orchestras and perform for their compositions.. Those times would not get any better for them.

C Ramachandra (right) with Chic Chocolate/Antonio Xavier Vaz (second from left) rehearsing for the album “Albela” (1951). Picture courtesy: https://www.instagram.com/filmhistorypics/

The music director/composer of a Hindi film in those days could compose a melody on a harmonium, but to orchestrate it, the melody had to be written down in western notation. Obligatos, preludes and interludes between the mukhra and antara had to be composed. The type of instruments and their quantum had to be stipulated. With the onset of background music, everything from composition, arranging, rehearsals and recording had to be managed, usually assisted by the music composer themselves or their assistants.

The famous composers we know today had varying amounts of input in this creative process. Usually it was front heavy, that is, once the composition was made, and the producer/director selected the song, it was handed over to the arranger, to make it into a song, as we know it. Some composers considered themselves as music directors, but retained an eagle eye on the output. They were not trained in the harmonic way of making music, but had the attention to detail to spot deficiencies. As the harmony between a composition based on a hindustani raga and western orchestra matured, the usage of bass to improve the explosive quality of the composition was experimented. Counter melodies bloomed between stanzas or the antara. Central to this process were the arrangers, assistants and the musicians, many of them greats as we know them today, many other greats nevertheless, but largely unknown to us. For Naushad there was a Josique Menzies or Anthony Gonsalves, for Shankar Jaikishen (or SJ as they were called) there was a Dattaram Wadkar, Frank Fernand and Sebastian D’Souza, for C. Ramachandra there was Chic Chocolate, for R.D. Burman, there was Kersi Lord, Manohari Singh and Vasudeo Chakravarthy.

In that golden period, film music brought together the best to form a new Indian musical tradition – a harmonious medley of hindustani and western classical. On the one side there was Shivkumar Sharma (santoor), Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute), Pannalal Ghosh (flute), Lala Sattar (dholak) while on the other side there was Joe Monsorate (trumpeter), Bosco Mendes (trombone), Vistasp Balsara (piano and piano accordion). The recording studio was not just a man’s domain either – there was Lucila Paceho (piano), Myra Menzies (violin), Bridget Carvalho (piano) and Zarin Sharma (sarod), to name a few. Then there were instruments that most of them could play by turns in second and third rows together with the specialists – instruments like Chinese wood blocks, castanets, vibraphone, maracas, reso-reso and others.

The collapse of the jazz and dance club scene in Bombay coincided with the commencement of the golden period for Hindi film music. It was the only popular form of music that the nation knew then. This age was heralded by the composers like Naushad, C. Ramchandra, Madan Mohan, Ghulam Haider, Shankar Jaikishen, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Kalyanji Anandji, Khayyam and many others, together with singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Mannadey, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle, Sharda, Suman Kalyanpur and Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor. Their success, though, was on the backs of an industrious set of over 500 musicians that flitted between Mehboob, Famous and Film Centre studios and All India Radio, with their violins, violas, oboes, drums, santoors, sitars, harmoniums and tablas in tow.

They gave Rafi’s voice the projection to suit Shammi Kapoor’s “Yahoo” (Kersi Lord on the congo), Lata’s voice the freshness to go with the lissome Nargis in “Ghar Aaaya Mera Pardesi” (dholki accompaniment Lala Gangawane), Rafi’s voice the pathos to go with Dev Anand’s grieving in “Din Dhal Jaye” (Manohari Singh playing the saxophone for Shammi Kapoor, “Hai Duniya usiki, zamana usika“), the languid quality of Bhupendra’s voice accompanied by Chic Chocolate in-scene on the trumpet, “Rut Jawan” and the eerie steps of Gabbar Singh tuned to Vasudeo Chakravarthy’s cello in “Sholay” and V. Balsara channelling the harmonium in the guise of an accordion in “Awara hoon“. The list goes on.

The arrangers, assistants, and the musicians wore their craft lightly. They would create magic every day and trudge back to their homes, with dreams for another day. Their work did not make them famous, no one sought them out for interviews, even the IPRS (Indian Performing Rights Society) credits bypassed them, but they got paid after every shift and they had fun while doing their jobs. They brought in their cousins and nephews from Goa, Nepal, Bengal and Madras to join them in the trade. They thought it could last forever.

Bhupendra Singh solos feature in songs like “Hare Rama Hare Krishna”, “Chura liya hei tum ne jo dil ko” and “Mehbooba mehbooba” Picture courtesy: https://www.instagram.com/filmhistorypics/

Independent India and its leaders, in their first flush of idealism, were keen to get on with the task of nation-building and looked down upon frivolous pursuits like dance clubs, jazz bars and films. Their displeasure was shone in the form of heavy taxes and prohibition. Prohibition took down with it the remnants of the night life and jazz bars in Bombay. A minority of musicians who played for films on the side, while still pursuing the profession of jazz and blues, now had just this vocation left.

High taxes, on the other hand, increased the preponderance of black money in the economy, which inevitably made its way through to the independent producers of films. High excise duties would also bring down the curtain upon imports of new gadgets for sound recording and mixing, thereby leaving the industry in a technology time warp well into the ‘80s. A combination of all these factors led to a boom in the production of movies, busy recording floors and 60-100 piece orchestras. Prosperity fed ambition among the top echelons of Hindi film music industry. Ambition fed Machiavellian manoeuvres, hangers on and egos. Egos fed camps, parting of ways, and blood loyalty. Loyalty suffocated freshness, innovation, new sounds, new techniques, new voices. Loyalty also drove insecurity. Some double-barrelled composer pairs broke, but plastered over their differences for consumption. Some others were picked up from the dust and anointed as heirs to be. While all this was happening, the musicians worked on two five hour shifts every day, Monday to Saturday with an occasional Sunday thrown in. They knew the stories, but could not be bothered about the tamasha, just so long as they got paid at the end of their shift.

In the 1970s, the first synthesisers were brought into the country. This was coupled with the introduction of multi-track and improved sound recording processes. The 16-piece violin bank could be pared down to four, recorded on multiple tracks, and mixed to get the same effect. With the changing role of the orchestra, remuneration structures changed eventually. While between the ‘50s and the ‘70s music composers, arrangers and musicians were compensated independently by the producer, by the ‘80s this model changed to a contract system whereby the producer was paid a lump sum for the music, which included composition, arrangement, rehearsal, musicians and all related costs.

The toxic combination of a synthesiser on the one hand and the prospect of making a profit by cutting down the orchestra was all that was required to bring to an end this golden phase of film music. Musicians from Goa, Mumbai, Nepal, Bengal and Madras withdrew back with their memory-laden instruments to hasty retirements. The ones who persisted frequented congested, lonesome, dime-a-dozen studios to record a few bars of solos without knowing how and where their music will be used, if at all.

The comment that the student in Russia made to Khwaja Ahmed Abbas is still relevant. The music he heard in the early 1950s will never be heard again. The freshness of the sound played by a studio full of talented musicians will never be heard in a popular song like he had heard it then. We put it down to nostalgia, but the music of that time between the ’50s and ’70s will stay forever, with every Indian, like an heirloom. And not just India – people still dance to “Awara Hoon” and its various versions at Turkish weddings, Moroccan soirees, Iranian school reunions. It will continue to remind them of times when things were simpler, more carefree, and when it was easier to fall in love. It was the times, yes, but it was also the tenors and the unsung troubadours from Bombay that infused that music with their soul.

This article has referred material from the book Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios by Gregory D. Booth, Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age by Naresh Fernandes, Travels of Hindi Song and Dance Sangita Gopal, Sujata Moorti and Shankar Jaikishen’s biography by Dr Dattatreya and Dr Geetha Pujari. The author has also referred to various recollections by various musicians through interviews conducted by S.M. Irfan for the programme “Guftagoo” hosted by Rajya Sabha TV. The author is also grateful for the insights gathered from conversations with Dinesh Shailendra (famous lyricist Kavi Shailendra’s son).