There is more to that song

The radio would always be on at home when I was growing up.  It would start at around 6:30 am with Vividh Bharathi and would then switch to Radio Ceylon at 7:30 am and that program would culminate with the signature Saigal number at 8 am.  It would then switch back and forth between the two stations through the day depending on the program my mother liked to listen.  So I grew up listening to Hindi songs, the old ones primarily.  My parents loved these songs and my brother and I grew up listening to them and liking them.

At that age, I was really attracted by the melody of a song.  If a song appealed to me, I listened to it.  When I first met my wife and we were discussing our tastes in music, I told her that I liked old Hindi songs and she told me that she liked them too.  After we got married, we realized that our respective definitions of “old” were relative.  She was referring to the 60s and 70s as old, I was referring to songs from the late 30s to mid-60s as old. And it is these songs that I’m referring to in this blog. (And I do apologize that if you are not into Hindi music, you may not really find this blog interesting)  Now, I’m by no means a singer and I can’t carry a tune to save my life, so I was not surprised that she looked at me strangely when we were newly married and I sang tunelessly to myself. However, it turns out that it was not just my horrendous renditions of the songs that were bothering her.  There were other more serious issues.  The first was that I was lyrically challenged.  I knew the first line of a song and then I added my own lyrics or juxtaposed lyrics from another song.  I had been doing this all along and nobody had pointed that out to me.  The second was that not knowing the lyrics meant that I did not understand them.  So I would be blithely singing a really sad song when we were in a happy mood.  That was something she could never and she still cannot comprehend.  Unfortunately, all her gentle suggestions have not changed me a wee bit in our twenty plus years of marriage and I’m still terrible when it comes to lyrics but I have started paying a little more attention to the songs that I listen to.  

About three years ago, my cousin (who truly is an authority on movies, music, books, photography, aircraft and many other subjects) recommended a book called “Behind The Curtain” by Gregory Booth.  I bought a copy on Amazon and started reading it eagerly,  anticipating interesting anecdotes about singers and songs.  The book is much more than that.  It is an extensively researched project that traces song making and the recording techniques from the 1940s to the early 2000s along with quotes from music directors, musicians and sound engineers.  Booth also looks at the changes from the studio system to a music director-centric model of composition.  He delves into the creative process of a song, dissecting the process of how a song is composed and recorded. He also looks at the financial aspect of music recording,  It is truly an objective and academic look at the whole process.

I found the anecdotes that I was looking for in books and YouTube documentaries on singers, lyricists and music composers.  Javed Akthar has hosted a set of programs on singers, actors and music directors called “Classic Legends” and another on songs from 1950 – 1975 called “Golden years with Javed Akthar”.  These provide a fair number of anecdotes about songs.  These books and documentaries have given me a better understanding and appreciation for what goes into a song.  I admit, that this was probably intuitive to a lot of people but I learned a fair bit along the way.

The early songs were recorded on site at the time of filming.  This meant that musicians had to be hidden behind props such as bushes and actors could not really run around the trees, they had to be reasonably stationary.  This also meant that the actors sang their own songs. Think of the filming of the “Duelling Cavaliers” scene in the movie “Singing in the Rain”.  Recording techniques then allowed for the songs to be recorded in the studio.  It was the era of playback singing.  However, the singers and musicians were recorded together at the studio.  If a singer made a mistake or a musician was off key, the whole song had to be recorded again.  Dattaram Waadkar, a percussionist and later a music director, remembers that the recording of “Ghar aya mera paradesi” from the movie “Awara” took almost 24 hours to record with an orchestra of 120 musicians!  The music was composed by the famous duo Shankar-Jaikishen who introduced the concept of large orchestras.  The latter part of the 20th century saw composers such as A.R. Rahman adopt digital recording techniques that allowed for recording of the voice separately from instruments (or having separate tracks for each instrument) and then putting all the tracks together.  Asha Bhonsle in an interview mentions that she was surprised when AR Rahman asked her to sing into a mic without the orchestra and told her that he would assemble the song later.  “Computer baba” she called him.

The creative process involved was interesting.  Songs in Hindi movies do not exist in a vacuum.  They are part of a movie and have to blend in or sometimes make a dramatic statement.  The director of the movie would provide the background for the song.  The music director would come up with the melody taking into account the mood of the song and any regional/folk influences in the movie.  The lyricist now had to write lyrics for the song.  The words had to rhyme, convey the pathos of the song and also fit into the melody of the song.  Again, the language would vary depending on the type of the movie.  A “Chaudavin ka Chaand” set in Lucknow would have more of an Urdu influence but a “Ganga Jamuna”set in Awadh would need the song to have an Awadhi dialect.  The lyricist would need to hear the melody while composing the music.  Prior to tape spools or cassettes, this would mean that a musician with a harmonium and percussionist would be required to play the melody while the lyricist composed the song.  The song was then rehearsed by the singers and ultimately recorded with the entire orchestra.  I suspect that these steps did not happen in isolation and had to be a collaborative process.  In fact, there is a rare recording of this process on YouTube.  Here, the music director, O.P Nayyar feels that the original lyrics do not lend themselves to the melody.  The lyricist, Qamar Jalalabadi, thinks for a while, rephrases a line and the singers Asha Bhonsle and Mohammed Rafi then rehearse the song.  Occasionally, a tune had to be retrofitted to a lyric as in the case of the movie “Mirza Ghalib”.  In this case, the composer Ghulam Mohammed had to work with Ghalib’s poetry to compose the songs for the movie.


So much for the techniques and the creative process, what about the musicians themselves?  Perhaps you have heard the song “My name is Anthony Gonsalves” from the late 1970s Blockbuster “Amar Akbar Anthony”.  It was a very popular song, but there is a story behind it and Gregory Booth starts his book with that story.  Anthony Gonsalves was a musician from Goa,  He was trained in Western classical music and played the violin for Hindi songs from 1943 to 1965.  One of his students in the early 1950s was Pyarelal Sharma, the same Pyarelal of the Laxmikant-Pyarelal team that composed the music for the movie “Amar Akbar Anthony”.  What better way for Pyarelal to honor his teacher than by incorporating him into a song?  Anthony Gonsalves is quoted as saying “We were always hidden, hidden behind the curtain.  No one knew.”.  Hence the name of Gregory Booth’s book.  While the musicians came from diverse backgrounds, during the years after partition there were a fair number of musicians from Goa.  These were classically trained in western music and could read music.  A few of them went on to become “arrangers”.  These were the unsung heroes who took the melody from the music director and then arranged the music by incorporating various instruments.  They wrote the sheet music that would be used by musicians who could read music.  The ones who didn’t read music picked up the melody by ear and played the songs.  Sebastian D’Souza is another well-known arranger.  There were Parsis too such as Cawas and Kersi Lord. Kersi Lord was a versatile musician who has played a variety of instruments in several iconic songs as in the accordion for the song “Roop tera mastana”.  In fact, there is an excellent documentary on Kersi Lord on YouTube called “The Lord Speaks” and it is worth watching.  These arrangers did a yeoman’s service but were never recognized and their name never showed up in the credits.

The music directors usually started off as musicians themselves.  Shankar and Jaikishen provided the musical interlude between the acts in Prithvi Theater.  They were chosen to compose music by Raj Kapoor for “Barsaat” in 1948.  Other music directors started off as musicians, then became assistants before getting a break themselves as music directors.  Dattaram Waadkar was recruited by Shankar in the late 1940s as a percussionist and he featured in all the iconic Shankar Jaikishan songs.  He got his break as music director in 1957 for the Raj Kapoor directed “Ab Dilli Door Nahin”.  I don’t think I can do justice to music directors in this blog.  These are legends.  I can name the following off the top of my head – RC Boral, Pankaj Mullick, Saraswathi Devi, Khemchand Prakash, Husnalal Bhagatram, Sajjad Hussain, Naushad, C Ramachandra, Ghulam Mohammed, Madan Mohan,  Khayyam, Roshan, Ravi, OP Nayyar, SD Burman, Shankar-Jaikishen, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji, Usha Khanna, Vasant Desai, Salil Choudhary,  Hemant Kumar, Chitragupta, RD Burman.  I’m sure I’ve missed several here.  You might have not heard of them, but chances are that you have heard their songs.  

I really am in awe of anybody who can sing well or play a musical instrument.  But composing music is really beyond my imagination.  These music directors had to come up with compositions under deadlines and what compositions they came up with!  Basing their songs on Indian classical ragas, folk tunes or occasionally borrowing a tune from Western songs, they composed music that has long outlasted the movies in which they featured.  At their heyday, the choice of a music director would actually drive the audiences to the movie theaters.  LPs and cassettes were released by HMV in advance of a movie’s release and they essentially whetted the listeners’ appetites driving them to watch the movie when it was released.  While music directors usually composed their music for a specific movie, they also had their own compositions independent of a movie.  An example is the fantastic melody for “Naina Barase” by Madan Mohan.  He had composed this tune probably in the 1950s and had tried to use them in movies but the tune had not been accepted.  He finally used it in “Woh Kaun Thi” in 1964 and went on to be a hit.

That brings us to the lyricists.  These were the poets who wove magic with their verse.  They took the music composed by composers and gave them words to give voice to the singers.  Lyricists had to compose verse depending on the situation in the movie.  There are innumerable songs dedicated to love in Hindi cinema.  The exuberant kind as in “Yahoo! Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahen”, the regal kind as in “Jo vaada kiya ho” and the poetic kind as in “Chaudavin ka chaand ho”.   There is the genre of sad songs relating to heartbreak, unrequited love, separation, infidelity and in the occasional case, a deposed ruler ruing his fate. Religious songs that became staple bhajans during any festival.  And then there are the patriotic songs.  Songs that bring tears to my eyes and remind me of the sacrifices of generations to win our freedom.  Many of these patriotic numbers were composed by Kavi Pradeep, probably his most famous one being “Yeh mere Vatan ke logon”.  

There are the famous lyricists like the idealistic Shailendra whose poem on the pain of partition impressed Raj Kapoor when he heard it recited at a “Mushaira”.  Raj Kapoor offered him a job on the spot which Shailendra refused.  He was driven more by social causes than entertainment.  Shailendra reached out to Raj Kapoor when he expecting his first child and needed money to support his growing family.  The result was two songs for Barsaat including the iconic “Barsaat mein humse mile sajan” and a legend was born.  The mercurial Sahir Ludhianvi who wrote on a variety of topics but whose chance meeting with an ex-flame and her husband resulted in the song “Chalo Ek Baar phir se ajnabi ban jaayen”.    There was Majrooh Sultanpuri who had a long career spanning decades and as Javed Akthar says composed songs such as “Gham diye mustaqil” for Shah Jahan in 1946 to “Papa kehte hai bada naam karega” in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak in 1988.  Hasrat Jaipuri, Qamar Jallalbadi, Kaifi Azmi, Shakeel Badayuni, Bharat Vyas, Rajinder Krishan, Asad Bhopali, Jan Akthar Nissar, Indivar, Anand Bakshi, Kavi Pradeep, SH Bihari.  I’m sure there are a lot more.  There were certainly more lyricists than music directors and singers.  Some of these lyricists also wrote the screenplays for the movies.  Some of them worked as teams contributing songs to the same movies.  A lyricist that I did not mention is Madhukar Rajasthani.  This oft-ignored and largely unknown lyricist wrote primarily for the small genre of private songs, also known as “Geet” which were private albums not associated with movies.  He has an impressive body of work when it comes to this genre.  These are the lyrics that I never really paid attention to while listening to songs and it so aggravates my wife!

The reason I did not pay attention to the lyrics was that I was focussed on the voice and the melody.  To me, a song is inextricably tied to a singer.   KL Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, KC Dey,  Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mehmood, Mukesh, Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Geeta Dutt, Kanan Devi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Suraiya, Shamshad Begum, Suman Kalyanpur.  These are the voices I listened to while growing up and these are the voices I still listen to.  To me, the quality of one’s voice is an innate gift.  No doubt, it can be honed by rigorous practice but I don’t think rigorous practice can ever transform me into a singer.  I’m not going into the songs themselves, they will take several blogs but a singer had to take more than the lyrics and melody into consideration while singing a song.  They had to impart the emotion to the song.  They had to infect it with sadness or inject the joie-de-vivre as the situation demanded.  The great ones took the actor into consideration.  Javed Akthar recounts how Lata Mangeshkar’s songs when singing for Meena Kumari would have a slightly mellifluous nasal quality to match her voice.  Rafi would inject exuberance when singing for Shammi Kapoor.  The latter would, in fact, confer with Rafi prior to the song recording to indicate how he would enact the song.  Apparently once Shammi Kapoor could not make it for a recording but on hearing the song said that Rafi had sung it just the way he would have liked.  Rafi had put himself in Shammi’s shoes as he sang the song.    Singers would have to get the diction right and learn to breathe.  They had to sing love songs, ballads, tragic numbers, bhajans, songs based on classical ragas, ghazals and qawwalis.  They had to sing in different dialects, in fact, they sang in different languages.  And their personal situation influenced the song.  Rafi’s rendition of “Babul di duayen leti ja” from Neel Kamal is so realistic,  This song, sung by a father, bidding his daughter goodbye as she leaves her home after she gets married is poignant and Rafi’s rendition is so spot on because he apparently sang this just after his daughter got married.  The emotion is raw and apparent in the song.  A few music directors such as C Ramachandra, SD Burman, and RD Burman were accomplished singers.  Some singers such as Pankaj Mullick and Hemant Kumar were equally famous as music directors.  But it was the maverick Kishore Kumar who was an accomplished singer, actor, composer, lyricist and screenwriter.  He wrote the lyrics, composed the music, sang and acted for the song “Main Hoon Jhumroo”.  The following video shows Lata Mangeshkar recording a song for the movie “Henna”.  


These songs ultimately had to be picturized in the movie. This is where the cinematographers came in.  Some songs are shot in exotic locales and others in the studio.  Some songs have the hero and heroine riding a bicycle while others have them in a Studebaker with the hero donning a bowler hat.  The hero sometimes is at the piano singing a heartfelt number.  The hands, however, seem to be dawdling on the keys.  Not with all actors.  Raj Kapoor could play multiple musical instruments and his handling of the accordion while singing “Har dil jo pyar karega” in the movie Sangam looks realistic, so does his handling of the “Daffli” in the movie “Jis desh mein Ganga behti hai”.  Dilip Kumar, on the other hand, took sitar lessons so his handling of the instrument in the movie “Kohinoor” looks authentic.  It does, if you watch the song “Madhubhan mein Radhika nache re”.  Talk about method acting! This song strikes a chord with me.  At face value, it is a song about Radhika who dances in Madhbhan in tune to notes of the flute played by Krishna.  Classic Hindu mythology.  The song was composed by Naushad, penned by Shakeel Badayuni, sung by Mohammed Rafi and picturized on Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan).  All Muslims.  The other day, I came across a post on Facebook with a heated discussion about how Muslims were denigrating India and Hindus in movies.  I wish the folks who were venting their spleen would listen to this song.

Then there is the small matter of actually lip-syncing to the song.  The song is played during the filming so that the actors can lip sync to the song.  The story goes that when “Naina barase, rhim jhim” for the movie “Woh Kaun Thi” was being filmed, Lata Mangeshkar who eventually sang the song was not available for the recording.  The song was sung by Madan Mohan and Sadhana ended up lip-syncing to the male voice and Lata’s version was recorded and added later.  Javed Akthar says that  Lata Mangeshkar apparently considers Nutan’s singing of “Manmohana bade jhute” from the movie Seema to be the most realistic rendering of any song of hers.  She said that Nutan not only got the lip movements right, but her throat movements were also spot on.  Nutan incidentally, sang her own songs in her debut movie.  I must mention here that directors like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt took a keen interest in the composition as well as filming of the songs and their touch can be seen in the songs picturized for their movies.  The initial part of the following video shows how a song is recorded on location.  (It is disabled for playing on this site, you will have to follow the link and view it on YouTube)

 Perhaps the next time I listen to a song on YouTube or Spotify, I should pause and reflect for a moment.  A song stored as 0s and 1s in a file somewhere in the world is converted into packets of information that are sent perhaps halfway across the globe and are reassembled on my device in a matter of milliseconds so I can hear the song of my choice.  This is marvelous no doubt, we take the internet and the technologies associated with it for granted.  But there is a human side to this,  Many many years ago, somebody had a story that they wanted to share with the world.  They secured financing and a script was written.  A movie director decided that a set number of songs were required in the movie and a music director or composer composed tunes for them.  A wordsmith then composed exquisite poetry and a group of musicians and one or more singers rehearsed the song.  They then recorded the song with a few retakes.  Sound engineers got the best recording and these songs were then combined with the film to entertain millions.  If the song was from the 1940s or 1950s, almost all the people associated with that song have passed away, but the song lives on, to entertain future generations.  This song is like a finely crafted sculpture.  It attracts me initially no doubt by its physical beauty but there is a story behind it.  The quarry from where the stone was extracted, the patron who commissioned it, perhaps for a lover and the sculptor who melded his skill with toil to fashion the block of stone into a masterpiece.  There is definitely more to that song and it is worthy of my respect!

If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy the following documentaries/interviews:

2 thoughts on “There is more to that song

  1. Aye Katibe taqdeer….kya mein ne kiya hain.
    Mein kya janoo kya jadoo hain…in do matwalee nainon mein.
    transports us back to another world!

    1. Absolutely, Pratap! I remember you singing Saigal in the train on our trip to Bhadravathi. You did a fantastic job!

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