Overview of Hitting The Right Notes—Hindi Cinema’s Golden Music

An Overview

If you are fascinated by the powers of the internet, you may be enamoured by a site that shows you an aerial view of all the aircraft that are currently up in the air across the world. The site, www.flightradar24.com exposes all these hundreds of aircraft, any one of which you can zoom in and click on, to learn about its make, the airline it belongs to, its place of origin and destination, what time it took off and what its expected time of arrival is. You can mouse over any given city too, and see what airplane activity is happening over the place. Such a close-up view can offer us a barometer-like measurement of the importance of a region, more planes meaning more importance of course. In a somewhat similar way, in the following pages we will figuratively try ‘mousing over’ Bombay, India, in an attempt to offer an aerial view of the music buzz over it. Our view will travel through time too, especially over the years when Hindi cinema and its music were transiting through their golden age, i.e. from the late 1940s to the late 1960s.

To begin with, it is an amusing thought that the world’s very first film show, ten short clips made by the Lumiere Brothers and screened on 28 December 1895, happened in a hall named after India. This was in Paris in a room called Salon Indien du Grand Café. Cinema was born on that day, but perhaps its umbilical cord with India was never meant to be cut. Less than seven months later, in July next year, the brothers from France came to Bombay and showed these short films to an all-European audience first, followed by screenings to native Indians soon, and the rest, as they say, is history. So much has changed over the past century and more, but we continue to remain hooked to films.

For, in the hundred odd years since films have been around, they have played a valuable entertainment role in Indian society across the land. Devdas (especially the 1935 and 1955 ones) demonstrated how obsessive love can lead to self-destructiveness. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) looked at the transient nature of all relationships. Mughal-e-Azam (1960) focussed on the strength of power pitted against the power of love. Guide (1965) was the journey of a man who emancipates from a physical, self-centred human to a selfless, spiritual one. Waqt (1965) not only told us why we should never get arrogant, but brought in a galaxy of many stars under one canopy. Sholay (1975) showcased entertainment on a scale hardly seen before. Bajirao Mastani (2016) gave us a close-up into the life and times of the Great Peshwa.

Scratch the idea just a bit, and we find that songs have been an integral part of the Indian cinema experience, more than can be true about films for citizens of other countries. Of course, there was no sound in silent movies, but as soon as our movies got a voice, they started to sing a lot. The first Indian ‘talkie,’ Alam Ara (1931) had seven songs, but that was as if we were only testing the microphones.

Just to highlight the value we attached to music in our films, here is a representation of a few films and the number of songs that were embedded into them in the first decade of Indian filmdom:

  • Satyawadi Raja Harishchandra (1931/27 songs)
  • Chatra Bakavali (1932/49 songs)
  • Gulru Zarina (1932/33 songs)
  • Muflis Ashiq (1932/32 songs)
  • And Shaadi Ki Raat (1935/35 songs)

The cherry on the cake? That was Indrasabha of 1932, with no less than 69 tracks, the highest number of songs in any film ever.

Such high numbers went down significantly in the 1940s but there were still quite a few songs per feature. Here are examples of figures from films of the 1940s:

  • Taj Mahal (1941/17 songs)
  • Bhakta Surdas (1942/16 songs)
  • Shri Ramanuja (1943/17 songs)
  • Caravan (1944/15 songs)
  • Mera Geet (1946/16 songs)
  • Sati Sita (1946/20 songs)
  • Matwala Shair Ramjoshi (1947/16 songs)
  • Meera (1947/18 songs)
  • Gunsundari (1948/14 songs)
  • Jalsa (1948/18 songs)
  • Bazaar (1949/16 songs)
  • Lekh (1949/15 songs)
  • Jogan (1950/15 songs)
  • And Mangala (1950/15 songs).

This mood spilled over somewhat into the 1950s, with Albela (1951/12 songs), Sansaar (1951/14 songs), Baiju Bawra (1952/13 songs), Anarkali (1953/12 songs), Nagin (1954/13 songs), and so on, with ten songs being quite a common occurrence. This number has been going progressively down over the decades, and recently we have also had song-less movies clicking at the box office, but looking at recent occurrences would take our eyes away from the years in focus.

We step back and see that in the first four decades of cinema and its music (1931-1970), some 4,400 Hindi films were released with about 36,000 songs in them, giving us an average of over 8 songs per film. All this just highlights the importance we have attached to our film music.

The French film historian, Yves Thoraval, has this to say about music in our films: “To a large extent Indian cinema has come to be known the world over by its musical dimension with its songs and dances, which lie at the very heart of its cinematic tradition. For the last 5,000 years, India has had one of the richest musical traditions in the world—perhaps the most complete expression of its artistic genius . . .”

But while film music has entertained us over the decades, it has also acted as social glue on a national scale. Consider the complex Indian panorama, with its dozens of languages and dialects, complicated further by its many religions. Natural to every free society, we have had unrests and disturbances, and fought bitter political and ideological battles. But many things have finally kept us as a cohesive unit, the Indian ethos of tolerance being a key player in this area. This ethos of peaceful co-existence has been propelled with many other ingredients, some, like music, not so instantly or clearly visible. It is true that this is a subject of debate for statesmen and philosophers, and is in any case beyond the scope of this work. But the pan-Indian, undying appeal that our popular songs have had over such a long haul acts like a common denominator among the multiple fractures–ethnic, linguistic, economic and social, that characterise Indian society.

A Comparison with Western Europe

This comparison does not claim that West Europeans are not equally civilised or cultured but that, perhaps, behind that western culture and sophistication is the fierce need for a separate linguistic and cultural identity, which is one reason why Western Europe has so many countries. The fact that recently the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union—which is not even a country—should endorse this point further. India has more land mass than the dozen biggest countries of Western Europe together, plus more languages as well, and yet we remain fully integrated as one nation. This is not an over-simplification or a vainglorious effort at self-congratulation. It is the inevitable conclusion that an academic would draw if he made a comparative study of the Indian and the European ethos.

The tanpura is an Indian musical instrument that plays a harmonic drone, never loud or sitting centre-stage, but underpinning singers or melody instruments admirably. In much the same subtly supporting way, our film music has been consistently and abundantly demonstrating its ability to act as a harmonic drone, stabilising our regional differences. As such, social scientists do need to explore the lasting relationship between popular film music and the collective Indian psyche. We must factor in particularly that good popular film music has been enjoyed at the most fundamental level by all strata of society repeatedly over long spans of time.

Yet musicologists, both Indian and foreign have neglected Indian film music, preferring to focus their attention on our folk traditions and classical music. We are not alone however; scholars pay scant attention to film music even in the west. That is a pity because it displays a strange disconnect from reality. If people love a certain music in large numbers, surely it is the responsibility of musicologists to understand why that is so, and then explain it to their thinking audiences.

Why are Hindi songs, particularly from the time-period we are essentializing, so popular? Why hasn’t their popularity collapsed? Young contestants often sing old songs in competitions, even if the judges too are young people, and many of these contests are shown on television. At parties, many young people love the work of Madan Mohan, SD Burman, OP Nayyar, Sahir, Shakeel, Mukesh, Shamshad, Rafi, Lata, Asha, Geeta and Talat, even though they were born decades after many of these giants passed on. Get into a taxi in Delhi or in Mumbai, chances are the driver is listening to a radio program of retro Hindi film songs. The patina refuses to dull.

Music has been in our fabric

Our mythology dates back to much before history was written, and we see Lord Shankar dancing away, playing the hourglass-shaped, two-sided drum called damru. We also see another instrument from pre-historic times, the shankh (conch-shell), which is a wind-blown ‘instrument’. The Hindu Goddess of knowledge and the arts, commonly referred to as Maa Saraswati, has always been seen playing the plucked instrument, veena. Over the centuries, we have had bhajans and kirtans in homes and in mohallas, qawwalis in dargahs, and plays based on epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata in full measure. All these have involved music, as well as folk songs, theatre, puppetry, bidaayi geet, and a wide variety of region-centric street performances.

It was into this milieu that silent films came, and they were shown in tents. Inside there would typically be four classes of audience. The highest rates were paid to get chairs with arms; behind them sat people on armless chairs positioned a little higher. In the flanks, one sat on shared benches, and finally, more outwards, on mounds of plain sand. Even so, since the very rich and not so rich were under the same roof, enjoying the same experience, films became a levelling medium.

In the early days of the silents, there was no sound, which made these films quite dry experiences. So, live musicians were brought into tents to play instruments such as the tabla, violin and piano, to musically ‘emote’ the scenes as they happened. It is this idea—that a given mood can be created just by instruments, without the help of words or voices, that was to play a significant role in the music planning of composers like SD Burman, who were hardly familiar with refinements of Hindustani poetry, and yet managed to give us meaningfully relevant music.

But the days of the silents began to end as ‘talking’ films (‘talkies’) started happening abroad. The Jazz Singer (USA, 1927) brought in sound; two years later, Britain would have its first talkie, Blackmail (1929), and as we saw, two years later India would have her own first talkie, Alam Ara (1931).

The introduction of sound and other technological improvements brought in bigger audiences, so films started migrating from the tents to pakka structures now. It was a good time to be a filmmaker, as against 15-20 years earlier, in the days of DG Phalke, who would later come to be called the father of Indian Cinema. Films now began to offer a decent return on investment. Producers were able to pay cast and crew handsomely, so more and more people started joining the stream of filmmaking and music. Prithviraj Kapoor, KL Saigal and Kidar Sharma went over to Calcutta, where the enterprising BN Sircar had already converted his New Theatres to a film production unit. These gents joined RC Boral, Pankaj Mullick, KC Dey, and so many more.
But Bombay, Poona, and Lahore, all were making enjoyable Hindi/Urdu films, with fair music of course. After a few years, a fire at New Theatres depressed Sircar; Poona began losing filmmaking importance, mainly because producer-director-actor V. Shantaram, already associated with artful and meaningful films, moved to Bombay, and in a few more years, Lahore was lost to us, because of the partition.


Meantime, Naushad, Mukesh, Surendra, Shakeel and dozens of others had opted to go to Bombay, where, considering the technology of the time, stellar work was being done musically by a few like Saraswati Devi (a Parsi lady whose real name was Khorshed Minocher Homji). She composed music for many Bombay Talkies films, achieving distinction too for making actor Ashok Kumar sing for himself on the screen. Just to recall that this was the man who had been thumbed down by the Bombay Talkies director for not even having the face to act, much less a voice to sing! In the coming years, Sahir, Jaidev, Hemant, Ravi, and so many set designers, writers, actors, artistes of all hues would descend like locusts on the city.
Bombay became the meeting point of such souls needing so badly to express their art. And they kept coming from everywhere, even as the British were packing their bags for final departure. Naushad had rebelled and run away from Lucknow. Rafi had come from Lahore, skint and with peanuts stacked in a pillow case. OP Nayyar would tango in from Lahore and Amritsar. Khayyam, originally from Jalandhar, would spend a few years learning the rudiments of music from Pandit Amarnath in Delhi, then head for Lahore, only to end up in Bombay like many others. Just as in a high tide all boats rise, a high musical tide now hit the city–for some twenty years–before ebbing away.

But there happened another inflow—the local, Bombay-to-Bombay one. Hundreds of Goans and Parsis, with their knowledge of western notations and art of playing western instruments, were in the employment of the British. With the latter exiting, these gifted musicians were being rendered jobless. They were welcomed with open arms by our composers, because now their tunes would include a new, exciting mix of sounds, to address a wider range of situations in their films. This amalgamation added a valuable depth and dimension to our melodies. The western-melody hit ‘Aana meri jaan Sunday ki Sunday’ from Shehnai (1947) is an example. Many more followed: ‘Patli kamar hai’ (Barsaat, 1949), ‘Gore gore o baanke chhore’ (Samadhi, 1950), ‘Jab nain mile nainon se . . . lara loo’ (Jaadu, 1951), etc. One must remember that Indian music is melodic, i.e., essentially linear, while western is harmonic, i.e., played with neighbouring notes, to lend a fuller feel. With western music coming in, Hindi film music bloomed beautifully. Many of the Parsis who went on to compose songs or embellish them with their sounds include V. Balsara, Bahadur Nanji, Cawas Lord and his sons Kersi and Burjor Lord, Homi Mullan, and Goody Servai.

The Goans were even more prolific, with AX Vaz (as composer Chic Chocolate) and dozens of gifted musicians adding western flavour with their trumpets and saxophones, pianos and double basses. Behind the success of dozens of successful tunes of virtually every significant composer of the golden age are the instruments played by Goans. Besides the actual playing, there is the art of song arrangement which is vital. Arrangers decide which instrument will play in a song, how much, and where. It’s quite an art. Again, the names that come to mind: Sebastian D’Souza, Louis Fernandes, Joe Menezes, Sonny Castellino, Benny D’Costa, Franco Vaz, Anthony Gonsalves, Lucilla Pacheko, Joe Monsorate, and Leslie Fernandes. The long list would fill a page.

Hindi music was not just content to absorb these western-trained musicians; it was eclectic in its use of instruments from across the world, e.g. Chinese temple blocks, the Iranian santoor, accordion (Germany), the oud (Arabia), rabab (Afghanistan), mandolin (Italy), and several more. Of course the harmonium (from France) had for long been in India, in films too, never mind that All India Radio banned it for thirty long years, because of its foreign origins. The British ruled India at that time (1941), and never very hot on the French, were only too delighted to respond to an Indian chorus to ban the instrument from the government-run studios. It is significant that this chorus was led by the legendary Rabindranath Tagore, who first had the instrument leave Shantiniketan ignominiously. Never mind that later, every significant exponent of Rabindra Sangeet, Pankaj Mallick and Hemant Kumar included, had the harmonium as if surgically attached to them, just about never performing on a stage without the instrument.

Two developments happened from the early ’50s to make the Hindi film song behave even more like a rocket on steroids. The arrival upon the radio-broadcasting scene of a young man called Ameen Sayani, and a significant entry into cinema by waves of classical musicians. It was the former’s voice that brought wonderful Hindi film music, week after impatient week, into people’s homes on a scale that can hardly be described. Just to recall that there were no TVs or other entertainment media available to us at the time. It was this remarkable man on whose passionately-capable shoulders fell the responsibility of popularizing our film tunes and their makers. He delivered admirably, week after week. He has been regularly on radio till as recently as late 2015, which means over some sixty years, with every possibility his broadcasts could resume any day! How he has been doing such amazing work, in much the same voice, facing a microphone over so many decades, is an incredible story by itself!

As for classical musicians, they raised the bar of our music significantly. These classical exponents—vocal or instrumental—have sung, played or composed for Hindi cinema: Bhimsen Joshi, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Parveen Sultana, Kishori Amonkar, DV Paluskar, Amir Khan, Niyaz Ahmed, Firoz Dastur, Vilayat Khan, Begum Akhtar, Nikhil Bannerjee, Shobha Gurtu, Aarti Anklekar, Shubha Mudgal, Amanat and Fateh Ali Khan, Ravi Shankar, Allah Rakha (as AR Quereshi), Ali Akbar Khan, Halim Jaffer Khan, Pannalal Ghosh, BR Deodhar, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ram Narain, Shankar Rao Vyas, Husnlal, MS Subbulakshmi, Hira Devi Mishra, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Master Krishna Rao, and Bismillah Khan.

Not all classical musicians were happy in their cinematic journey though, given that among other negatives, they could not understand the irregular methods of work in the industry. But they all left cinema music the richer, in return for some fame, and for a few, even wealth. Neither have classical musicians ever been one big happy family. The advanced style of vocal classical called Dhrupad has complex grammar and aesthetics. Dhrupad singers once looked down at the exponents of Khayal, which employs taans and murkis (delicate ornamentations). Khayal singers thought thumri, with its accent on lyrics that sometimes suggested the erotic, was infra-dig. The last looked down upon the ghazal, which has for long been recognized as the Queen of Urdu poetry, but is a written form rather than a sung one. Sadly, many classical exponents and also aficionados consider film music pedestrian, and so look down at it. But let us not forget all the heavy-weight classical exponents, both vocal and instrumental, who have ‘been there, done that’ in the Hindi film scene.

But even if these classical musicians did not stay, our ‘mainstay’ composers had a solid understanding of our classical ragas. It is not for nothing that many of the wonderfully euphonic songs from our cinema are based on classical ragas, and such melodies were created not just by composers who were knee deep into classical—like Vasant Desai, SN Tripathi and Naushad for instance—but also by self-confessed ignoramuses of classical music such as OP Nayyar. Every significant composer from Hindi cinema has left behind a remarkable footprint of tunes based on classical ragas, songs that just refuse to perish, for they have no expiry date.

Apart from classical tunes, composers did many other value-additions, getting just the right expression from singers being one of them. Lata and Naushad have both said it so often that her song in Amar (1954), ‘Tere sadqe balam,’ was okayed only in the nineteenth take; till then she could not glide over the ‘ye-ae-ae-ae’ part perfectly. That mother of all qawwalis in two parts, ‘Na to caarvaan ki talaash hai,’ and its follow up ‘Ye ishq ishq hai’ took an unbelievable twenty-seven hours to record, till Roshan was completely happy. Gracing songs with smart aesthetic ornamentations was another concept used by the maestros. For instance, to lend more realism to a flower-picker who has just been pricked by a thorn, maestro Anil Biswas had Lata respond as we all instantly would, with a precisely-timed ‘Aah’, before she began to sing ‘Mere phoolon mein chhipi hai jawaani’ (Anokha Pyaar, 1948). ‘Theheriye hosh mein aa loon’, urged Shashi Kapoor to Nanda in Muhabbat Isko kehte Hain (1965). It was Khayyam who made the lady resist him in a closed-mouth fashion, with a ‘hn-hn’!

Since cinema is a very powerful audio-visual medium, we must consider the film song in its visual context too. It is here that beautiful and talented people can elevate the melody, as so many did. Meena Kumari, Nutan, Nargis, Vyjayantimala, Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Dharmendra, Suchitra Sen, Shashi Kapoor . . .it is a long list indeed. In fact, if the sets are attractive too, or the cinematography charming, the choreography appealing, and the direction meritorious, we carry very positive images of the song in our mind’s eye. The years in our review were characterised by great cinematographers like VK Murthy, Faredoon Irani, Fali Mistry and RD Mathur, directors like Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Guru Dutt, V. Shantaram, Nitin Bose and BR Chopra, choreographers such as Gopi Krishna, B. Sohanlal, Lachhu Maharaj and Birju Maharaj. Each of these artistes has had—or can have—an entire book dedicated to their work. These were people who hungered for originality and excellence relentlessly. They were artistes who worshipped their art.

Filmmakers and composers took the poetry of Ghalib, they grabbed the stories of literary greats, filmed them and then they peppered these films with remarkable musical scores, as is the case of Anand Matth (1952/Bankim Chandra Chatterjee), Parineeta (1953/Sarat Chandra Chatterjee), Mirza Ghalib (1954/a biopic of the poet), Devdas (1955/Sarat Chandra Chatterjee), Usne Kaha Tha (1960/Chandradhar Sharma Guleri), Kabuliwala (1961/Rabindranath Tagore), Go-Daan (1963/Munshi Premchand), Guide (1965/RK Narayan), Teesri Kasam (1966/Phanishwar Nath Renu), Uphaar (1971/Rabindranath Tagore), Sangharsh (1968/Mahasweta Devi), Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977/Munshi Premchand), and Rudali (1993/Mahasweta Devi). All these films had unforgettable tunes.

And then there were our wonderfully gifted lyricists, raising the bar time and again. They were offering a resigned-to-sorrow helplessness in ‘Unko ye shikaayat hai ke hum kuchh naheen kehte’ (Rajinder Krishan/Lata/Madan Mohan/Adalat, 1958), and telling us how to live admirably in ‘Jeene ka dhang dikhaaye ja’ (DN Madhok/Saigal/Khursheed Anwar/Parwana, 1947). But it was not just DN Madhok giving us a roadmap for inspired living; think of ‘Kisi ki muskuraahaton pe ho nisaar’ (Shailendra/Mukesh/Shankar-Jaikishan/Anari, 1959). If high Sufi thinking was to be found in ‘Hum hain raahi pyaar ke’ (Majrooh/Kishore/SD Burman/Nau Do Gyarah, 1957), it was also there in full strength in ‘Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya’ (Sahir/Rafi/Jaidev/Hum Dono, 1961). It was a time when the idea of beauty being in the eyes of the beholder was juiced like this: ‘Maan mera ehsaan are naadaan ke maine tujhse kiya hai pyaar, Meri nazar ki dhoop na bharti roop to hota husn tera bekaar’ (Shakeel/Rafi/Naushad/Aan, 1952). Romance? ‘Ye kya kar daala tune’ (Hasrat Jaipuri/Asha/OP Nayyar/Howrah Bridge, 1958). There are virtually thousands of songs with exceptional lyrics that touch a chord in us quite routinely.

Not just classical musicians, not just exceptional Indian writers, directors and technicians, even foreigners have had quite a bit to do with our films, impacting them in a lasting way. Consider the following cases: As early as 1930, a Spaniard named Francisco Casanovas came to India and taught music at a school in Calcutta. He introduced western musical concepts and orchestrated many songs, like Praan chaahe nain na chaahe (non-film/Pankaj Mullick), and set the foundations of counter-melody—a distinctly Western concept—through the song Duniya rang rangeeli baba (Dhartimata, 1938).

Escaping from Hitler’s terror in 1932 were Germans Franz Osten and Joseph Wirsching who along with many technicians arrived in India to direct, photograph and edit some sixteen films for Himanshu Rai’s Bombay Talkies. Examples are Achhut Kanya (1936), Izzat (1937) and Kangan (1939).

Walter Kaufmann was also a German-speaking Jew who ran away from the Nazi swastika, finding safety under the Indian one in Bombay from 1934 to 1946. He became Director of European Music at All India Radio, while making deep studies of North and South Indian classical ragas, in time writing scholarly books on both. It is he who composed, in raag Shivranjani, the signature tune for Akashwani, which even now starts the day for the radio station, when it comes on each morning. Even more, Kaufmann founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society, giving hundreds of concerts during his time. Of more significance to us here is the fact that he composed many scores for the Government-funded documentary films, even as he was orchestrating, making background scores or composing songs for a few Hindi films made by filmmakers like Sohrab Modi and Mohan Bhavnani. These films included the latter’s ‘The Mill’ (1936), Munshi Premchand’s first outing with cinema; sadly the film was banned because the British Censor thought it would have an inflammatory influence on workers.

Naushad Ali was one of the greatest composers of Hindi cinema. For his very first venture (Prem Nagar, 1940), it was not only Walter Kaufmann who created the background music, even its scriptwriter, Willy Haas, was a German. But since Hass did not know English too well, a German lady called Hetty Kohn was taken to translate from German to English. Finally, DN Madhok translated the script into Hindustani for the film shoots.

Bata is a Czech company which started its India shoe-manufacturing operations in what soon came to be called Batanagar, near Calcutta, in the early 1930s. Since a large number of Czechs were permanently living there, many musicians found work opportunities there, principally among them Joseph Newman, another German-speaking Jew who played several wind instruments. Among his many legacies was the training he gave to Manohari Singh who hailed from Nepal. Manohari Singh went on to become one of Hindi cinema’s most gifted instrumentalists by far, his Key Flute or Saxophone enhancing the worth of hundreds of wonderful melodies.

As the director of MS Subbulakshmi’s Meera (1947), which was made in Hindi, but also as a director for over a dozen Tamil films in the ‘40s and ‘50s, American Ellis R. Dungan brought in many techniques to make a lasting impact on our cinema. Earlier as India was racing to make her first speaking film, Americans were being sought to help integrate sound into cinema. Wilfred Deming was to be the man who achieved the feat in India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (1931).

This does not include the dozens of other foreign artistes who were resident here, but not directly working in our films. But expatriates would meet socially in the evening or holidays, and when great minds meet, thoughts are cross-pollinated, with everyone going home fizzing with ideas. That in turn helps when they get back to work.

The point is there was so much charged involvement being funnelled into our cinema, both from Indians and foreign visitors. This was perfect circumstances for excellence to bloom and grow.

So, it should hardly surprise us of the popularity of the Hindi film and its song not just in India, but in many parts of the world. Raj Kapoor was a darling in the Soviet Bloc countries, but he was so in China as well. His songs are even today being turned instrumental and played in many cities of Europe. Celebrity singers like Bobomurod Hamdamov from Uzbekistan sing ‘Mera joota hai Japani’ and ‘Awaara hoon’ at high-profile dinners, never mind if no one understands a word of the poetry. Incidentally ‘Awaara hoon’ has a story, concerning Chinese Premier Chou-en-Lai, when he was on a visit to India in late 1961. The Governor of Bombay, MC Chagla arranged a musical session followed by dinner in honour of the visitor and his compatriots. The singers for the evening, Geeta Dutt and Talat Mahmood went about singing to a smiling sea of Chinese faces. Soon enough, the Premier called JC Jain, general Manager of the Times of India group who was overseeing the proceedings, and whispered into his ears. The music was fine, but why were they not singing ‘Awara hoon’? A graciously-reluctant Talat and Geeta teamed up to sing that Mukesh song, even without proper words, perhaps the only time that they were not concerned too much with the words!

An extraordinary account of how dozens of Hindi films culturally invaded Greece is accessible on the net. It has been written by Dr. Helen Abadzi, and it offers details about how many Hindi film songs were picked up and turned into local ditties.

This thing about Indian films being shown in theatres in Athens and their songs enjoyed on a mass scale were not too known even to many artistes whose songs were being sung. In my interviews with Manna Dey, Lata and Majrooh for instance, I was not surprised that they had not the foggiest idea of this phenomenon. How could they, when they, like most others, had to scratch their heads even to recall many of their own songs? In fact, it would even be expecting too much, especially from artistes, because they generally live in a forgetful, non-regimental sort of universe.

It was therefore another remarkable man, named Harmandir Singh Hamraaz, of Kanpur, who decided to diligently build up a database of all films and their songs from 1931 till 1980. These logs, done in ten-year volumes, contain so much more data: the banner of each film, its producer, director, songwriter, composer, singers, cast, date of release, length of film, gramophone record number of each song, etc. This invaluable work has been followed up by Suman Chaurasia of Indore, who has brought out a similar tome for the 1981 to 1990 period. A bit of extrapolation of these gents’ findings, compounded with random pickings from 1991 till 2010 suggests that the total number of recorded Hindi film songs is about 62,000.

We now move to form, and observe that till the early 1950s songs were recorded on 78 rpm discs, which limited the length of a song’s time to three and a half minutes. With the development of 33 rpm records, this duration could be pushed higher, permitting experimentation with form and content. All these factors were key ingredients in the making of good music in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

But as the saying goes, “All good things come to an end”. This happened in Hindi film music too. Some artistes took to alcohol and passed away. That had a dominoes effect on others, impacting their work. Others could not work any longer in an industry where unethical standards were high, and awards going to undeserving candidates. A key factor too is that the euphoria created at independence died away, so artistes just were not excited enough, at least in a yes-we-can kind of supercharge. Moreover, just how long can a person always be on a high? Most people’s creativity at some point falls over the other side of the plateau. Like an article of faith, many music buffs feel this ebbing away started sometime in the late ‘60s, twenty years after it had begun.

This does not mean that good songs have evaporated after 1970. It just means the intervals between good songs have become very long. Technology has improved significantly, but that has not really rescued mediocre singing, poetry and compositions. Earlier a Saigal would sing into a crude microphone, and direct to film. So would other singing stars arriving after he did, such as Noor Jahan and Suraiya. Today there is playback, and the microphones have become very sophisticated, with a gooseneck pop filter, which neutralizes blasts of air that happen, typically with sounds like pa, pha, and bha. And of course, it is all in the studio. But why songs, much of the dialogue we hear in films now is dubbed again in a studio in a process called Automated Dialogue Replacement, which means the entire cast has to say their spoken lines in a studio again. The visuals too, they now have an embarrassment of pixels, but look what excellence was achieved even without sophisticated equipment, in films like Andaz, Mughal-e-Azam, Guide, Sholay, etc.

One of the key reasons such excellence happened without great technical support is that creators—irrespective of what work they did—received their share of unplugged gardens, countryside and beaches. They valued some silence and undisturbed solitude, so vital for the imagination, which drives creativity. But now we seem to live in a culture that has negative attitudes about reflection and solitude. In the current chaos of constant connections, it must be very difficult to socially disengage and rise high with fresh ideas.

Finally, as I say sayonara to you . . .

I am fortunate that my passion for music brought me in proximity to many gifted artistes who let me touch the hem of their garments. This affinity permitted me to write about them in my previous books, and host radio shows on World Space Satellite Radio, All India Radio and elsewhere.

In my journey, I have met a few new musicians too, some very bright generally, but they have left me largely unimpressed. One of my questions to them has been, “Relative to the Golden Era, why is there such a general poverty of imagination in our music scene?” Most have not had a basic response—forget the intellectual depth—to address the question.

A recent addition to Bombay cinema’s lyrical scene is a young girl I have known for years. I asked her if Sahir’s famous nazm,Chalo ik baar phir se’ was actually a ghazal. Within a few seconds, she had the unseeing stare of someone who has tuned out. Yet another just-arrived composer thought I would ask the kind of questions about which he could respond in some freshly-salted celebrity-gossip way, about why a certain big producer never took his calls, for instance. It has been so rightly said, “Small minds discuss people, mediocre minds discuss events, and large minds discuss ideas.” Many of our currently-popular artistes are busy oscillating their attention between people and events.

That disheartens. Even so, good music surprises us from time to time these days. Every now and then a ‘Dekh lo aaj hum ko jee bhar ke’ (Bazaar, 1982), ‘Hosh waalon ko khabar kya’ (Sarfarosh, 1999), ‘Piyu bole’ (Parineeta, 2005), or ‘Rooh mein faasle naheen hote’ (Club 60, 2013) will sneak up on you to make you sit up and take notice.

That offers hope, but history suggests caution.