Women’s Backing Vocals

The placard of reverse discrimination gets a periodic airing for the news from time to time. Reverse discrimination happens when unfair treatment is meted out to members of a dominant group in favour of members of a minority or historically disadvantaged group. These groups can be along the lines of gender, race, religion, nationality, colour and more. A recent news story about women pilots in India going into double-digit percentages is the reason the placard has reappeared. It seems that globally, just 3% of all pilots are women. At home, fresh figures released by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation inform us that out of 5050 pilots in India, 600 (meaning about 12%) are women. Male pilots are worried and crying gender discrimination!

But these gender roles are formed by society, which has historically associated men with strength and aggression, and women with mothering and subordination. Our families and environment, peer groups and the mass media condition us into such roles right from our infancy, and these perceptions don’t change quickly. Alcohol has largely been seen as a male bastion, even if the demographics are changing a bit there. Singing and dancing are considered a girlie thing to do, with clinical studies indicating that boys have been hard-wired to think of sports more.

Even so, there doesn’t seem to be any survey—at least in India—which tells us what the percentage of solo songs rendered by men versus women is, in or out of cinema. In fact, this hasn’t been studied even over a short span of time. But there is one area of singing where women have a clear numbers edge over men, in India and abroad—that of choral backing. In other words, overlooking mixed-chorus songs, more chorus-backed songs have only women than only men in them. Many times more in fact. Why is that so? Let’s get a composer’s views.

One day I asked maestro OP Nayyar about his song from Sambandh, the Mukesh-rendered Chal akela chal akela chal akela, which had Deb Mukherji driving a jeep, as the song ran background in the film. “How come you backed up Mukesh with a female chorus Nayyar saab, considering the actor was a male?”. “A lot depends on the situation in the film”, said Nayyar. “More often than not, we use a mixed chorus. If it’s a bidaayi geet, then it’s almost always ladies in chorus. A marching patriotic song will have men, but a non-marching song may have both. When the song has to deliver a message, and I have a free hand, I prefer women for backing vocals. You saw Chal akela, but also Raat bhar ka hai mehmaan andhera from Sone Ki Chidiya, same thing. Lekin sirf main naheen, bahut sangeetkaar ye approach lete hain. Vasant Desai ne bahut achha sangeet diya tha ek gaane mein, Nain so nain naahi milao, wah ji wah, kya baat hai! Us samooh gaan mein female chorus to tha hi, jo background tha, lekin Hasrat Jaipuri ne baar-baar guiyaan bhi kaha hai, yaani ki sakhiyaan. Lekin parde pe koi bhi sakhiyaan naheen dikhaayi dee!”

He spent time telling me that women sing in Soprano and Alto voices, as against men whose voices are classified as Tenor, Baritone, and at the lower end, Bass. He went on to say how time and time again, it had been found that when women backed up singers—men, women, or mixed—the results usually sounded significantly better.

That is not to say that men haven’t backed up singers well. There are a few examples of these too. The key point is identifying songs where there were no men actually lip-syncing the chorus voices on the screen. That’s a tough call. But the reverse is not tough, a point that holds good for all the three songs Nayyar spoke about above. Now that is something to think about.  Here are some male chorus songs, in a small minority even if you search for more:

  • Mere ghunghar waale baal (Shamshad/Pardes, 1950)
  • Chaahe koi khush ho chaahe gaaliyaan hazaar de (Kishore, Johnny Walker/Taxi driver, 1954)
  • Dhitang dhitang bole (Lata/Awaaz, 1956)
  • Aye dil dekhe hain humne bade-bade sangdil (Mukesh/Shreeman Satyawadi, 1960)
  • Jo hain deewaane pyaar ke (Asha, Rafi/Baat Ek Raat Ki, 1962)
  • Phir tere sheher mein lutne ko chala aaya hoon (Rafi/Ek Musafir Ek Hasina, 1962)

Female choruses in Vivaah (Bidaayi) geets. A tip of the iceberg look: 

  • Chal ri sajni ab kya soche (Mukesh/Bambai Ka Babu, 1960)
  • Baalam se milan hoga (Geeta/Chaudhvin Ka Chand, 1960)
  • Mere banne ki baat na poochho (Asha, Shamshad/Gharana, 1961)
  • Maang mein bhar le rang sakhi ri (Asha/Mujhe Jeene Do, 1963)
  • Gori sasuraal chali (Jagjit Kaur/Shagun, 1964)
  • Main to bhool chali babul ka desh (Lata/Saraswati Chandra, 1968)
  • Likhne waale ne (Lata, Suresh Wadkar/Arpan, 1983)

But far many more female choruses can be found. Here we find ladies backing up only a male lead singer!

  • Diya jisne dil, lut gaya wo bechaara (Saigal/Bhanwra, 1944)
  • Main ghareebon ka dil hoon, watan ki zubaan (Hemant/Aab-e-Hayaat, 1955)
  • O door ke musafir (Rafi/Udan Khatola, 1955)
  • Nakhre waali (Kishore/New Delhi, 1956)
  • Ye keh rahi hai zindagi (Hemant/Jalti Nishaani, 1957)
  • Ye duniya ye duniya (Rafi/Yahudi, 1958)
  • Megha re bole ghanan ghanan (Rafi/Dil Deke Dekho, 1959)
  • Na tel aur na baati (Manna Dey/Ek Ke Baad Ek, 1960)
  • O jaane waale ho sake to laut ke aana (Mukesh/Bandini, 1963)
  • Kya se kya ho gaya (Rafi/Guide, 1965)
  • Dil ke jharoke mein tujhko bittha kar (Rafi/Brahmachari, 1968)
  • Jab dekh liya to chhupenge kahaan (Rafi/Chirag, 1969)
  • Wo shaam kuchh ajeeb thi (Kishore/Khamoshi, 1969)
  • Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haaye (Manna Dey/Anand, 1970)
  • Taaron mein sajke apne suraj se (Mukesh/Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli, 1971)
  • Man ke khazaane mein maaya hi maaya (Rafi/Teen Chor, 1973)
  • Ke pag ghunghru baandh Mira naachi thi (Kishore/Namak Halaal, 1982)

Women’s chorus numbers far outnumber the men’s ones, but it will come as a surprise if men cry discrimination, because their own reluctance to sing in choruses is now a universally recorded phenomenon. The boys are happy watching and playing cricket for one thing. But with women’s cricket maturing now, please expect a shift in attitudes. Let’s recall the song from Love Marriage: He ne khela She se aaj cricket match, Ek nazar mein dil bechaara ho gaya lbw! This was Rafi backed-up by the boys in chorus. Soon though, such a song will have both men and women singing and offering backing vocals.

Because this song is about love, right? And love knows no discrimination, usual or reverse. It is an equal-opportunity employer.


(Photo: Chal ri sajni ab kya soche)

Originally published: 14th December 2014)

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