Talking songs


An intrinsic part of the society they inhabit, music-makers, music will always echo the voice of their times

I have been writing screen plays for the last 35 years, I have never in my life read a book on screenplay writing. I’ve been writing lyrics, I have never read an article on lyric writing. I’ve been writing poetry, I have yet to read anything about poetry writing. I’ve read poetry but not about poetry writing. So I have total ignorance as far as the theory is concerned – It is flawless, unadulterated. Whatever I know, I have learnt on the job. And as far as film lyrics are concerned, my job had started much before I joined the film industry because I was interested in films and film songs.

Songs in films are like a part of the drama, a part of the narrative, and this was not invented by Indian cinema. It is thousands of years old. This is the way we narrate stories; this is the way we tell our tales. Whether Sanskrit plays like Mrichakatika, Ramleela or Krishnaleela, rural theatre, called nautanki or in Bengal, jatra, and so on. Before the emergence of the Talkies you had Urdu-Parsi theatre, which was urban theatre. All forms of drama invariably had songs. This is the way India has been telling and hearing its stories and tales, with songs.

I, having read no books myself, have recently written a book about film songs. Here I tried to guess the sources from which we have taken our vocabulary, our structure, our style. Before Alam Ara, a film made in the ’30s, there was, as I mentioned, Urdu-Parsi theatre. Urdu-Parsi theatre had songs and employed famous writers like Agha Hashar Kashmiri and Munshi Badil and even their scenes were often written in poetry and rhyme. "Kahiye shahbaz-e-zamana, Aapne is nacheez ko pehchana?" The king asks a rebel who is standing in front of him in court, chained. The prisoner replies, "Pehchana, pehchana, Shaitan ko kaun nahi janta hai? Balki har ek pehchanta hai! Shakl-surat dekh li, Kibr-o-raunat (pride and arrogance) dekh li, Naam pehle se suna tha, Aaj surat dekh li." The king says, "Badzubaan, Tu zanjeeron mein jakda hai, Aur phir bhi akda hai? Sar se guroor-e-masnad-e-o-makhmal (pride of power and glory) nahi gaya, Rassi tamaam jal gayi par bal nahi gaya!" That was how it went, and then, off and on, one would start singing. Now, I have read these plays. Many of them are set in an Egyptian background, or the hero is a Roman soldier, the heroine a Jewish princess, and so on and so forth. But be it Marcus or Helen, even they sang "more balma nahi aaye" or they sang a ghazal as the play progressed. It was quite evident, when I read those plays and heard that music, that Urdu-Parsi theatre, which in a way was a forerunner of Hindi cinema and Hindi cinema music, had two sources – folk and the traditional Urdu ghazal. It took from both sources and in many places it synthesised.

As in the early songs of Pankaj Mullick where we see both languages working together, for instance in the famous ‘Pran chahe naina na chahe’. In the song’s antara are the lines: "Jhadte hai phool phagun ke, phagun ke mahine mein, Main tumse juda hota hoon, ek dard liye seene mein". The first line has the language of the North Indian folk song: "Jhadte hai phool phagun ke, phagun ke mahine mein", but the second line is pure ghazal: "Main tumse juda hota hoon, ek dard liye seene mein". This synthesis of Hindi and Urdu, rural and urban, was evolved right in the beginning of Hindi music. Hindi films and Hindi film music are extremely liberal, large hearted, open-minded; they are not conservative at all. In fact I am surprised when people talk of fusion now, that they believe fusion is a discovery of the last 20 years. That’s just not true. If you listen to songs by Pankaj Mullick, or later, Naushad, or Madan Mohan, you see that what they were doing, without being aware of it, was fusion. When people didn’t know there was a gas called oxygen it wasn’t as if they were breathing something else. They were still breathing oxygen.

Similarly, perhaps the word fusion did not exist – but if you hear the music of, say, Pankaj Mullick or RC Boral, their tunes are totally Shastriya Sangeet-based but their orchestration is western, symphonic. They used the trumpet, they used the cello, they used violins. Take songs like ‘Tu jaha jaha chalega mera saaya saath hoga’ by Madan Mohan from the film Mera Saaya. Now, this song is pure Nand raga – unchanged, unaltered, but the entire orchestration is western, symphonic. The rest of the world is discovering these experiments now, just as the USA is discovering neem now when our grandmothers knew about neem hundreds of years ago, and it is the same for fusion. In fact, Hindi film music started and evolved with fusion – fusion of musical instruments, fusion of language, fusion of traditions. Now, with time it changed. Because it is dynamic, it is not static. It has never been shy of changes. And that’s why it is living. That’s why it is spreading.

As far as lyrics are concerned, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, some words were used because the rural influence existed and was very evident in film songs. Words like balma (lover) or many others with a rural base were gradually pruned and marginalised over time, and went out of the vocabulary. While every second song in the ’30s and ’40s had the word balma in it, you probably won’t find the word used in any popular song of the past decade. Why did this word become obsolete? And I am looking at just one case when in fact there are many such words. There is a definite socio-economic reason behind this shift.

Music also moves with life and society. With time we are developing speed but I’m afraid we are developing speed at the cost of depth

To begin with, we don’t have many theatres in this country. Even today, in a country of 100 crore people, we have barely 14,000 theatres, whereas in the USA, where there are 28 crore people, there are almost 1 lakh theatres. So theatre and cinema going, movie watching, is strictly an urban phenomenon. There are hardly any theatres in the villages. So why was there rural vocabulary and why and how did it become obsolete?

Let’s try and understand this shift.

In the ’30s and ’40s, industrialisation was not so widespread, you had some mills in Bombay, Kanpur or Calcutta, but ultimately India was not really an industrialised country. So, by and large, the middle class was an extension of the landed gentry. They were teachers, professors, bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, but they were the extended family of the agrarian class, of the landed gentry. They had their ties, their roots, in the village. Their source of affluence was the village with which they shared strong cultural connections. And that is why they were comfortable with a song that was rural in its temperament. Industrialisation developed a new middle class that had nothing to do with the village. They had no nostalgia, no romantic notions about rural life. So the hero or the heroine, the protagonist ceased to be somebody from that milieu. The hero ceased to be a farmer or someone who lives in the village. Even the romantic notion of an innocent villager coming to the big city has lost its appeal. The only exception over the past several years has been Lagaan where the hero is a villager. And here, too, the hero is actually not a villager but an Indian fighting the British.

This paradigm shift has changed the language of the Hindi film song. Songs started becoming more and more urban. There were two things happening simultaneously over the last 50 years. One – a disconnection from rural roots; and two – the shrinking sphere of Urdu in northern India. You make Hindi films particularly for northern India because that is supposedly the Hindi belt although Hindi films are screened everywhere. But obviously, North India is the main market, of Hindi speaking people, Hindustani speaking people. Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Rajendra Krishan, these people had very strong roots in the Urdu language and they wrote songs that were poem-like or close to ghazals. Many music directors had also come from the background of Urdu, like Madan Mohan, Naushad, Khaiyyam, Husn Lal Bhagat Ram, so they had a certain facility for composing ghazals. Even when they composed a tune, their tunes were in the ghazal format (in
India the ghazal has 12-14 meters). As the Urdu language lost ground, such music and such music directors became more and more scarce.

In the ’40s and ’50s, stories had a certain idealism because society had a certain idealism. There was a collective aspiration. There was a collective dream. So the hero was the common man, unlike the ’90s and today, when the hero is essentially from a rich family and does nothing but sing songs. He used to be a working person – a farmer, a mill worker, a truck driver, a taxi driver, an unemployed youth sometimes, a clerk, a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, but a working person. And, more often than not, the story dealt with a socio-economic problem. Rich people were bad people. Poor people were good people. And we were waiting for the time when everybody would become affluent. Affluence was around the corner and good days were on the next page of the calendar. At that time, when we had such idealistic stories around this collective dream, the song situations were provided by the story to celebrate these dreams. You could write songs like ‘Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi’ – it was possible. So the meter, the story, the situation, the temperament of the music and the sensibility of the filmmakers and the audience, who were aware of literature, poetry, all of this provided an atmosphere conducive for good songs. And you got good songs.

That was a time when life had an easy pace, everyone had the space to breathe, society was less industrialised, and there was some time for leisure. People had time to ponder. And what happened then? The tempo increased, the tempo of life, and so did the tempo of music. If society moves at a frantic speed, music cannot be medium-paced. It too will become very fast.

Music also moves with life and society. With time we are developing speed but I’m afraid we are developing speed at the cost of depth. We lost idealism, so did the lyric. We, as a society, accepted and imbibed a certain crudity, a certain vulgarity, a certain insensitivity, and that reflected in the music as well as the lyric.

I don’t think it is a matter of chance that your best songs were during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru and your worst music and worst lyrics have come at a time when Mr. LK Advani was ruling the roost. I think songs like ‘Sarkailo khatiya jaada lage’ and the speeches of Mr. LK Advani belong to the same package. On the other hand, as the crude reactionary fascist attitudes in society gradually begin to recede, you can once again see that there is an urge for better music, better lyrics, better words. So let’s hope that India, Indian politics, Indian films and Indian film lyrics will see better days in the future.

Archived from Communalism Combat, February  2005 Year 11    No.105, Cover Story 3



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