His Name Was Francisco Casanovas

When we speak of the one-time greatness of India, we often forget to include the many premier-league accomplishments of her film music of yore. Accessorizing songs with counter melodies is one of them.

Counter melody, sometimes called obbligato, is the decoration of a song with a subsidiary tune rather than dressing up its necessary part. Since it is decoration, the song can easily exist without the addition of this secondary melody. The main point to observe is, the counter melody needs to have a different tune, running separately and counter to the main melody. In a different universe, so to speak.

Let’s consider a human analogy. Imagine a family of four, two parents and two kids, on a visit to the zoo. One way is for all the four to stay more or less together, and enjoy the same sights and sounds at the same pace. However, what if, in such an outing, one child has different preferences, making him constantly stray, only to join the others again? This re-joining may happen many times in the outing, or just at the end. That’s what happens in a counter melody, where either a voice, or chorus, or an instrument or two venture out separately from the essential melodic family.

For instance, do you recall the sensational song Jai Jagdish hare, by Geeta Roy and Hemant Kumar? This was from the quill of 13th century saint Jaidev Goswami, with Hemant Kumar composing it for Anand Matth (1952). If you recall it now, you may remember there seem to be two songs simultaneously happening there, somehow beautifully crocheted together.

Here’s Hemant, chanting Sanskrit shlokas for Prithviraj Kapoor:

Hare Muraare Madhukai tabha haare Gopaal Govind Mukund shaure

Pralaya payodhi jale, dhritavaanasi vedam vihita vahitra charitram khedam…

And the essential, primary-melody part goes on Geeta Bali, lip-syncing Geeta Roy:

Keshava, dhrita meen sharira, jai Jagdish hare

Keshava, dhrita meen sharira, jai Jagdish hare…

Jai Jagdish hare, Keshava…

The above words happen separately at the start of the song, but right after this point, and many times later, Hemant and Geeta sing simultaneously, and—wonder of wonders—each seems to be singing different songs to the same beat!

That is a classic example of counter melody at work, where an accessory melody accompanies harmonized music in a completely different tune. Here’s another classic case from the same year: Pighla hai sona door gagan par, goes Lata in Jaal, the chorus going counter with Bhagwan teri sundar rachna kitni pyaari hai.

His name was Francisco Casanovas

The origins of counter melody are western, so let’s see how the concept was pollinated into the music of our soil. In 1930 a gifted Spanish musician named Francisco Casanovas came to India with his band and gave performances all over the country. He could play the flute, clarinet and saxophone exceptionally. After some Bharat Dekho, he decided to settle in Calcutta where he played with his band at the Grand Hotel, and became the Principal of Calcutta School of Music. He was also in some association with Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore, decorating the latter’s Jana gana mana with melodic cords. He also caught the fancy of singer-composer Pankaj Mullick, and they came together to bring some wonderful fruit for us to enjoy for decades. Many of the non-film songs with western beats and melodic flavour coming out of Calcutta in the ‘40s and early ‘50s were composed or arranged by Casanovas. Examples are Praan chaahe nain na chaahe, and Jab chaand mera nikla (both Pankaj Mullick), as also Yaad humen kyoon aati ho, and Wo aankh se pila gaye (both Hemant Kumar). As for obbligato, we need to go back to the pioneering Hindi film song romancing with the idea, way back in Dhartimata (1938).

The song Duniya rang rangili baba is a classic celebration of the elements, composed by Pankaj Mullick for three people, Pankaj himself, Uma Shashi and KL Saigal. This landmark song starts with Pankaj babu, who after a while hands the vocal baton over to Uma Shashi, the lead finally taken up by KL Saigal. Now not only is there no interlude in this track, but the entire weight of this melody rests on the three singers, because throughout the song, all that the musical instruments are doing essentially is play counter melody—they are on their own trip! The arrangement of this song—ie, the responsibility of which instruments will be used, where and in what way—is credited to Casanovas.

From Calcutta the idea was picked up by Anil Biswas who came to Bombay and embellished many a song with this concept, beginning with the iconic Saanjh ki bela panthi akela, written by Pandit Narendra Sharma for Jwar Bhata (1944). Here a few instruments and the female chorus going ‘panthi akela, akela’, form the backbone of the counter melody. Interestingly, in the same year, 1944, Sajjad Husain managed to use the idea in his maiden film Dost and went on to become perhaps its most ardent advocate. That song is Noor Jahan’s Badnaam muhabbat kaun kare, the straying melody quite audible.

Let’s hopscotch over the decades and see some examples, along with the gifted composers who created these tunes:

  • Raat ko ji chamke taare (Ram Ganguly/Aag, 1948)
  • Mushkil hai bahut mushkil (Khemchand Prakash/Mahal, 1949)
  • Mehfil mein jal utthi shama (C. Ramchandra/Nirala, 1950)
  • Mil mil ki bichhad gaye nain (Anil Biswas/Aaram, 1951)
  • Seene mein sulagte hain armaan (Anil Biswas/Tarana, 1951)
  • Kahaan ho tum zara awaaz do (Roshan/Malhar, 1951)
  • Hawa mein dil dole (Sajjad Husain/Saiyaan, 1951)
  • Kaali-kaali raat re dil bada sataaye (Sajjad Husain/Saiyaan, 1951)
  • Dil dil se keh raha hai (C. Ramchandra/Parchhain, 1952)
  • Dil mein sama gaye sajan (Sajjad Husain/Sangdil, 1952)
  • Kuchh nazar hati…do bol tere (Mohd. Shafi/Daara, 1953)
  • Devta tum ho mera sahaara (Jamal Sen/Dayera, 1953)
  • Jhilmil taare karen ishaare (Roshan/Maashooqa, 1953)
  • Koi pukaare dheere se tujhe (Mohd. Shafi/Mangu, 1954)
  • Kat-ti hai ab to zindagi (Anil Biswas/Naaz, 1954)
  • Mere aye dil bata (Vasant Desai/Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baaje, 1955)
  • Dekh idhar aye haseena (OP Nayyar/12 O’Clock, 1958)
  • Jhukti ghata gaati hawa (N. Datta/Dhool Ka Phool, 1959)
  • Tumse door chale (Kanu Ghosh/Pyaar Ki Raahen, 1959)
  • Teri nigaahon mein (Madan Mohan/Bahana, 1960)
  • Hum jab chalen to (Usha Khanna/Hum Hindustani, 1960)
  • Chaand zard-zard hai (OP Nayyar/Jaali Note, 1960)
  • Aa ab laut chalen (Shankar-Jaikishan/Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, 1960)
  • Kya dharti aur kya akaash (Vasant Desai/Pyaar Ki Pyaas, 1961)
  • Suno naath deenon ke (Mohd. Shafi/Tanhai, 1961)
  • Bulaati hai bahaar (Sapan-Jagmohan/Begaana, 1963)
  • Wo tere pyaar ka gham (Dan Singh/My Love, 1970)
  • Waada karo naheen chhodogi tum mera saath (RD Burman/Aa Gale Lag Ja, 1973)

Many songs have hints of counter melody in them, but the heavy-duty kinds are few, for the idea is difficult to plan and execute. But when accomplished, the result creates a deeper feel, a more enjoyable dimension in the song.

As I say sayonara to you today, I think of two relatively recent songs that used plenty of counter melody, and did so quite brilliantly:

  • Ye hausla kaise jhuke (Salim-Sulaiman/Dor, 2006)
  • Aaoge jab tum saajna (Sandesh Shandilya/Jab We Met, 2008)

Sometimes one feels there’s hope for us yet.


(Photos: Top, Francisco Casanovas; above, Ye hausla kaise jhuke)

Originally published: July 12, 2015

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