Seen But Not Observed 

The great British actor Sir Michael Caine is blond and 6 feet 2 inches tall. These properties are enough to make him stand out in a crowd. Somehow though, they escape many people’s attention. Caine gave a remarkable interview to Playboy Magazine 50 years back. Among the amazing things we learnt about him is that he didn’t know how to drive a car, as also how he got the idea of acting as a spy. About this last, it’s like this: he was a soldier in the British Army in Korea. In the Army, his unforgiving commander never quite noticed Caine’s height or colour of hair, neither did he observe the brass needing a shine on Caine’s belt. Overlooked too was the young man’s running late to find his place to begin the morning drill. Management by Exception is observing and correcting things that deviate from the norm, but even with so many deviations, the idea was clearly not working here. That’s how the seeds of Caine wanting to be featured as a spy were planted. He was being seen, but not being observed. If he could go unnoticed here, he could do so in other situations too. Caine went on to act in so many spy films (Gambit, The Ipcress File, Funeral In Berlin, The Two-Headed Spy, The Jigsaw Man, The Black Windmill, and many more).

In that sense, the instrument Double Bass is the Michael Caine of the music world. It stands 6 feet tall, making it the tallest instrument on a stage. And it can be played with some flourish, as in plucked, bowed, even spun around (to see examples of this last in Hindi cinema, check out Mera naam Chin Chin Choo from Howrah Bridge, 1958, and also Teen canastar peet-peet kar gala phaad kar chillaana from Love Marriage, 1959). Notwithstanding such deviations from the norm, its presence continues to be ignored in the minds of audiences. What’s the deal?

The Double Bass (pronounced base) is the Grandma of the Strings family, in which the Violin, at 2 feet height, is the baby (as such making high sounds!), followed by the Violin’s elder sister Viola, which is a little larger, generating a warmer and richer tone than the Violin. Next comes the mother, Cello, which at about 4 feet height is played sitting on a chair. Its sounds can resemble the human voice. Finally comes the Double Bass, also known by other names like Stand-up Bass, Acoustic Bass, Contrabass, Upright Bass, String Bass or just Bass. From the scroll at the top to its peg at the bottom, Double Bass stands tall at 6 feet, so it must either be played standing or sitting on a high stool. It can be played by bowing or plucking, but these days, it’s plucked much of the time. In our films, it’s played mostly by plucking.

One of the key reasons the Bass doesn’t occupy our minds is because of its low range and soft volume. The other instruments tend to hog up everyone’s audio attention, since their sounds are loud or can be amped up. If you amp up the Double Bass, it is known to emit feedback howls. That is one reason the Electric Bass guitar has taken over from the Double Bass in some settings. The Bass’s awkward size also makes it difficult for touring musicians, which is also why the Bass Guitar is more visible these days. Its beats can sound decidedly louder than its larger ancestor’s.

But most people think of both the basses as providing only the percussion. And they wonder too why there should be such an instrument around at all, if the composition already features drum kits or tablas, dholaks or bongos or congas, such loud percussive instruments. The reason is that while the bass instrument does not have a serious solo literature of its own, it is an exceptional team player. Its role is to glue the instruments together. Instruments such as dholaks and drums have pure rhythms, while say the piano and accordion can play harmony. But try playing just pure rhythms with harmony; you may find something missing. The percussive beats of the bass connect with the percussion instruments to offer a soft rhythmic carpet to the song, while the notes of the bass hook up with the harmonic notes of the other instruments, effectively forming a bridge for a deeper ambience and fuller enjoyment of the music.

In rock bands, Bass Guitars can be particularly useful. Answering a question about the importance of a Bass Guitarist in a rock band, guitar teacher Nick Minnion says: “Pretty much the same as the importance, function and purpose of the foundations in a house. You don’t necessarily notice they even exist most of the time, but if you take them away the whole house collapses in a heap of rubble”. Thus, bassists tend to be the stabilizing guys. Theirs is not to upstage anyone. Let the singer shine and the drummer bash away to enjoy the limelight. Let the piano and accordion be basked in glory. They bring the sane sounds when everyone may be going over the top. They keep the band grounded. Some musicians opine more strongly: ”You need the solid sensible bass player to keep all these lunatics from imploding as a band” 🙂

In classical orchestras though, conductors prefer the Double Bass most of the time. Our films have had lots of fun featuring them too. This has been done cinematically as well, on the screen, as in all the songs below. The interesting thing however is, while most significant instruments have been played by at least one major Hindi film actor on the screen, the Double Bass has the dubious distinction of never having been played by a significant actor, except for a few seconds by Kishore Kumar in Gaana na aaya, featured below.

Check these out:

  • Koi kisi ka deewaana na bane (Lata/Sargam, 1950)
  • Mud mud ke na dekh mud mud ke (Manna, Asha/Shri 420, 1955)
  • Gaana na aaya bajaana na aaya (Kishore/Miss Mary, 1957)
  • Are tauba are tauba (Geeta/12 O’Clock, 1958)
  • Beliya beliya beliya beliya (Lata, Manna/Parwarish, 1958)
  • Mera naam Chin Chin Choo (Geeta/Howrah Bridge, 1958)
  • Nineteen fifty-six, nineteen fifty-seven (Lata, Manna/Anari, 1959)
  • One two three four dil ka tu chor (Rafi, Suman/Black Cat, 1959)
  • Bolo bolo, kuchh to bolo (Rafi/Dil Deke Dekho, 1959)
  • Teen canastar peet peet kar (Rafi/Love Marriage, 1959)
  • ..itni badi mehfil aur ik dil isko doon (Asha/Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, 1960)
  • Chaand zard zard hai (Rafi, Asha/Jaali Note, 1960)
  • Aye dil dekhe hain humne bade bade sangdil (Mukesh/Shreemaan Satyawadi, 1960)
  • Chheda mere dil ne taraana tere pyaar ka (Rafi/Asli Naqli, 1962)
  • Ae hey dilruba tujhko kya pata (Geeta, Asha/Dr Vidya, 1962)
  • Hong Kong Cheena meena Singapur (Asha/Hong Kong, 1962)
  • Aao twist karen (Manna/Bhoot Bangla, 1965)
  • O mere pyaar aaja (Lata/Bhoot Bangla, 1965)
  • Achha sanam kar le sitam (Asha/Teesra Kaun, 1965)
  • Chhoti si mulaaqaat pyaar ban gayi (Rafi, Asha/Chhotisi Mulaqat, 1967)
  • Ajab hai ye duniya ajab zindagi hai (Asha/Bandish, 1969)
  • Mubarak ho tujhe aye dil (Lata/Raja Rani, 1972)

Many more songs have featured the Double Bass in them. In all of them, you will have to listen carefully to feel the soft carpet. It will be like observing the tall Michael Caine’s tarnished belt buckle. Why, maybe even like noticing Rahul Dravid, the low-profile steadfast man who anchored many cricket games, as others jigged away to take the glory.


Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 5 August 2018, page 13

Featured image: from Nineteen fifty-six, nineteen fifty-seven (Anari, 1959)


17 Replies to “Seen But Not Observed ”

  1. what a magical piece from manekbhai on the double bass ( base ) connecting so many personalities to touch on the point of going unnoticed but silently important and vital in its existence.

    Now how could he add his name after Rahul Dravid as finality – well we would add it as we have seen his persona, his huge strength in the art of bringing in the history of music and song so well, a lay man like me too understands and does he go unnoticed ?

    well no, he is even taller than his height – what is amazing is, he is such a silent hard worker with tremondous zeal and his fantastic eye on a mission to spread knowledge touching open aspects which others dont reach upto so easily. 🙂

    We are lucky to read what he writes and it sparkles every time – 🙂 Stay Blessed Bhau. 🙂

    1. I got the feeling I am a keynote speaker at an event and you are introducing me…felt very nice, even if not fully deserving of such praise 🙂

  2. As always a great opening and a good connect to the main topic. Most of the observations are so accurate .

  3. Luckily it opened today and escaped from my ‘seen but not observed category’ Educative… especially to one given the task of playing our college’s makeshift Double Bass… a tea-chest, open side plonked to the ground, a long nylon string attached to centre of its top, the other end to a long stick. The stick erected on the top of the box and me strumming it with one foot on the box top, to prevent it toppling over. Took a toll on my back.

  4. Awesome, Sir! Only a genius like you can associate this ‘Double Bass’ with Michael Caine, though I would prefer to link it up with somebody with a more imposing frame like Prithiviraj Kapoor. It looks indeed like the patriarchal figure-head of all violins, but withdrawing itself to the background with quiet dignity and letting all the smaller ones make all the big noises. The thing had always caught my attention though my ears had failed to filter out the sounds that it makes. I had thought it to be more of some ornamental value to add some visual appeal to the orchestra assemblage. If I am not wrong, may be it is something like ‘tambura’ of carnatic music which does’nt make any music but goes on playing the same monotonous notes. The ‘tambura’ player is generally well-settled on the stage with the thing well-settled on his lap, and has nothing much to do other than nodding his head in approval at the singer’s ‘aalaap’s, but he does share equal credits with other co-musicians playing more complicated instruments. I guess the ‘Double Bass’ player though does somewhat similar minimal pluckings on the strings, has a more difficult task of holding the big fellow who would’nt stand on his own. Generally the artiste is shorter than the instrument, as in the picture, making one wonder who’s supporting whom between the two.
    I need to listen carefully one song after another that you have listed, to get a real hold of the ‘Double Bass’ sound. Though you had advised the ignorant likes of me who can’t tell a violin from a cello, to give it a miss, I couldn’t resist to plunge deep into your analysis and learn a thing or two. As always, I try hard to find at least one song which you would have missed out or edited out. May I suggest with little hesitation, ‘Cheda mere dilne tarana tere pyarka’ from ‘Asli Naqli’, not because I successfully discriminated the ‘Double Bass’ sounds in the song, but only because I found some big violin-like thing, which could be possibly this ‘Big Bass’. I find a few more big ones lying unattended. May be they were too heavy to be handled by the musicians.

  5. What an amazing comparison to Michael Caine, it is so apt! I am totally delighted with the implosion of lunatics remark too, how succinct n perfect is that!
    But what never ceases to stun me is that you are such a powerhouse of knowledge and intelligence and you put these two together with passion both as a craft and even more, as an art.
    You have now become the best music historian on the golden age of Hindi film music, leaving all the others behind much as Assam’s Hima Das did, leaving her competitors behind as she said to herself, ‘Tu maze se bhaag!’
    Bhaag, Manek, bhaag! Maze se bhaag!

  6. WOW -How eloquently you have demystified this gargantuan Musical Instrument. Never knew before reading this the details part by part= Violin , Viola , Cello and Double Bass.

    How beautifully you have summarized the cohesiveness of the Double Bass in bridging the gap between 2 different musical instruments.

    In modern orchestra the key board can mimic many instruments put together, thus reducing the crowd clutter and cost on stage in live Musical programs , where clones [ ? ] of our great playback singers belt out, songs of yore, thereby helping us cling to an era of Music very dear to us.

    Wonder if some maverick inventor is also working on some instrument which can emanate Rafi- Kishore- Talat- Mannada as well as the female playback singers voices in the required tenor,
    in live stage programs,thereby making the audience euphoric in achieving their Nirvana.

    Thanks for a very enlightening and educative blog Manek .

    The craving for the Sunday breakfast reading continues undiminished

    Dilip Apte

    1. “Wonder if some maverick inventor is also working on some instrument which can emanate Rafi- Kishore- Talat- Mannada as well as the female playback singers voices in the required tenor,
      in live stage programs,thereby making the audience euphoric in achieving their Nirvana.”
      Makes me wonder too Dilip…decades ago, it took me weeks to believe a moog synthesizer could exist. I mean where were the instruments? It’s a changing world, with driverless cars too…omg! So let’s see what happens 🙂

  7. Manek Premchand ..u rose tall like a Double Bass with this article sir.i m happy to feel like a Side rhythm instrument the Manjira.fantastic article mere ustaad

Comments are closed.