Soul of Music

It’s not just demand from the oldies, the young too like the old melodies and rate their popularity on the net

By Mahendra Ved

INTERNATIONAL Melody Foundation,  organizes musical evenings celebrating old Hindi film music.  Be it Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics or the compositions of Madan Mohan or S D Burman, there’s a dedicated audience among those hooked on to songs in Hindi and Urdu, composed, sung and enacted on the silver screen mostly during the 1940s and 1960s—undoubtedly the “golden era” of cinema.

The foundation is among others that have sprung up in recent years, and not just in the Hindi/Urdu speaking areas in the North.  A majority of the artistes are from smaller towns, driven by passion for those songs of yore to turn amateur, part-time performers, if not professionals.  And they include women who get the opportunity to show off their talent.

At such musical soirees, one easily hears the ‘voices’ of Lata  Mangeshkar, Geeta Dutt, Mohammed Rafi, Manna De, Talat Mehmood, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar.  Theirs are voices practiced to perfection, close to the original mentors.  So is the music, a mix of the traditional and the electronic.     

“Old is gold” is not a worn-out cliché for these performers and their fans.  Indeed, the lyrics of old film songs carry deep meaning and social message.  There is that romanticism of a by-gone era, when a girl’s blush and the flutter of her eyelashes or the crease on the hero’s forehead were intensely meaningful. These were songs that even a Shammi Kapoor or a Jitendra, having jumped and danced around through the movie, ‘sang’ soulfully towards the film’s denouement.

There was a song for each occasion from birth to death, of a father or brother bidding farewell to the bride, of a friendship forged or broken, of a family divided, of a distraught man yearning for his loved ones and praying to the Almighty to show him the way.  Devotional songs in a traditional society like ours have remained immortal.

India is a nation of festivals and festivities and old songs remind you of them, from Eid-ul-Fitr to Deepavali to Holi, from Lohri to Raksha Bandhan.  There would be songs with the ‘tonga’ beat a’la Naya Daur (“Mang Ke Saath Tumhara”), or one sung while in a train (Kala Bazaar, “O opar wala jaan karan jaan hai”).

There were songs sung while on picnic. Why is it that ‘Antakshari’ is a favourite game among young people especially when travelling or on holiday?

If there were dance numbers to cater to popular tastes, for the discerning listeners, there were semi-classical qawalis, thumris and ghazals that were part of the old repertoire till, say, the late 1960s.  That is unthinkable today, but the craze for Sufiana music indicates that good taste remains, if in a different form.  

Old Hindi songs provide nostalgia for generations that have grown up on them.  When All India Radio turned prudish in the 1950s, this generation turned to Binaca Geetmala.  There are takers for soulful, soft music among the young too, even if they shun the slow-moving, melodramatic and rather verbose films of the past in  which they were originally sung.   The impact of cinema is universal, but that of the old songs is even more so.

Why?  The reason is not far to seek.  Old songs comprised lyrics where each word counted.  It helped that many of the lyricists of that time were established poets.

“Old is gold” is not a worn-out cliché for these performers and their fans.  Indeed, the lyrics of old film songs carry deep meaning and social message. 

Their melody had a Classical base and all playback singers of that era with the eminent exception of Kishore Kumar, were trained in classical music.

The composers may have short-changed the deeper, more intrinsic aspects of an old Raga, to complete it in all of three-and-a-half minutes, and/or to cater to Western notes and instruments.  When the fast numbers came to cater to changing public taste, even greats like Naushad and Talat Mehmood suffered.  But many of them remain hummable today. Indeed, this public taste is responsible for the exit of good verse and good melody.  But it does not help to lament over the past or fault the present – the latter will soon become the past yielding place to another present.  What matters is the impact the music creates.

Nothing more can explain the lasting impact of K L Saigal who stays ‘relevant’ today, seven decades after he recorded ‘Babool Mora”and “Jab Dil He Toot Gaya” or GeetaDutt, who sang “Koi Chupke Sey Aake” four decades back.

The old songs are the anti-depressants of present times when life is in the fast lane.  They are also the balm for nerves frayed by noise and environmental pollution.  Even the young watch and sometimes emulate their seniors, singing with eyes closed, head raised as if in a trance, a Lata, Geeta, Asha, Mukesh or Rafi number sung when he or she was child or not even born.   

The late Khushwant Singh, while writing the forward for “The Kaleidoscope of Indian Cinema”, a book by Hameeduddin Mahmood, a renowned chronicler of Indian films, had wondered where in India, or anywhere else, people burst into songs on just any occasion.  The point was that the song conveyed the spirit and sensitivity of the occasion much better than any dialogue, and Indian cinema is essentially an amalgam of the country’s traditions.

Bollywood music has drawn its inspiration from numerous traditional sources such as Ramleela, Nautanki, Tamasha and Parsi theatre, as well as from the West, from Pakistan and other Indic musical subcultures.  For over five decades such songs formed the staple of popular music in South Asia and along with Hindi films was an important cultural export to Asia and, in fact wherever the Indian diaspora spread.

The West and its acolytes in the East have often lampooned Indian cinema for its large number of songs. While the era of musicals like “Sound of Music” and “Oh, What a Lovely War” is long gone in the West, Indian cinema has retained music and dance.  This does not make them musicals because the actors are basically lip syncing the lyrics to the voice of a playback singer.

Indian aspirants to various international film festivals carefully edit out the songs to ensure compliance with length and content.  But the songs remain in films shown across the world.  Indeed, songs have been a USP of globalized Bollywood.

Old songs are the mainstay on the FM channel of AIR and have a phenomenal following on the Internet.  AIR dare not remove this programme that is beamed daily in the afternoon and late at night.  Doordarshan, with its exclusive black and white recordings, and the scores of private TV channels also run old songs.

Old songs enable research students to keep going until the wee hours.  For many others, their appeal lies in the yearning to be young-again. Old songs are the anchor on which the aged recall their times, their friends, their young company and long forgotten first love.

Recall the public reaction when Mumbai’s iconic Rhythm House downed shutters. in Mumbai.  There was an outpouring of regret and nostalgia not just from regular visitors, but many Mumbai-based musicians, film personalities, writers and romantics.  The store that sold music and film in physical form and allowed customers to sift leisurely through its collection was symbolic of the end of an age.

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