Indian Music In Transition: The Initial Decades

Indian Music In Transition: The Initial Decades
As the Subcontinent was going through a difficult transition in 1946-48, from a restive British colony to two hostile nations, male singing in Indian films was also going through a profound transition.

The Indian music and singing started with the very first talkie film, Alam Ara (1931); a film that had more songs and less talking. Its most popular song was “De De Khuda key Naam”, a minute and a half long, sung by Wazir Muhammad Khan in a heavy, throaty, manly voice. That set the tone of Indian singing for the next decade and a half. The 1932 film Inderasabha had 71 songs – most of these being a minute-and-a-half long but some longer – in its 211 minutes duration. They included "31 ghazals, 9 thumris, 4 holis, 15 songs and 7 quatrains. This is a world record that still holds, and is unlikely ever to be broken. The link here gives the complete list of these songs. Unfortunately, despite an extensive search, none of these songs could be found online.

undefinedFor the next four years, the actors would sing their own songs; mostly live with the accompanying orchestra hiding behind camera or surrounding trees. The first playback song “Main khush hona chahu,” a puppet dance sequence, sung by KC Dey, Suprava Sarkar, Parul Ghosh and Uma Shashi Devi, was recorded for the Nitin Bose-directed film, Dhoop Chhaon (1935). Its music directors were RC Boral and Pankaj Mullick. K L Saigal too came on the scene at about the same time. He was first hired by RC Boral and his first films as actor cum singer were released in 1932. His voice in the prevalent style of male singing was the most suitable and he came to rule the industry. Film Devdas (1935) had songs by him and KC Dey. The songs by Saigal for this film (“Dukh key ab Din” and “Balam aaye baso meri man mein”) are still popular. No one remembers KC Dey; to the extent that the song sung by him for Devdas (“Teri Maut Khari”), uploaded on Youtube, lists KL Saigal as the singer. His nephew, Manna Dey, whom he introduced in films, too sang his first song "Gayi tu gayi Seeta sati” for film Ram Rajya (1943) in the heavy manly voice but soon settled for his sweet Bengali style melodies, typified by his “Laga Chunri mein daagh, Chupaon kesay”, or “Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandni Mein Hu”; a change of style that has made him immortal.

From his singing in Devdas till his death in 1947, male singing in Indian films was dominated by KL Saigal. He was the king that no one could dethrone, though he lacked versatility. Those who emulated his style found a niche in the industry. They included KC Dey, Pahari Sunyal, Pankaj Mullick and CH Atma. Pankaj Mullick was a music composer too, whose song for Nartaki (1940) “Madh bari rut jawan hey remains a personal favourite. CH Atma’s 1953 songs “Main Ghee Ka Diya Jaloon” and “Preetam Aan Milo,” again personal favourites of this author, are very similar to Saigal’s style but wouldn’t appeal to young ears. In fact, few people would recognise any of the above listed names as singers, except, of course, the name of Saigal.

Rafi's first song Tera khilona toota balak" was for Anmol Ghari (1946), a film for which Tanvir Naqvi wrote great lyrics and Noor Jehan sang unforgettable songs. But Rafi’s singing is very ordinary. He became famous and set his tone in Jugnu, (1947) in a duet with Noor Jehan singing “Yahan badla wafa ka bewafai key swa kia hey.” With Dillagi (1949) songs, especially "Is duniya mein arre dilwalo, dil ka lagana theek nahin", he sang from the tip of the tongue for which he attained worldwide fame for his signature tone.

Rafi continued experimentation with versatility. It is interesting to note that in two songs written by Tanvir Naqvi for film Shahzada (1955), "Aati hey Meray samne anchal to taan Kar" and "Mera Nam fatafat, Mera Kam jhatapat," Rafi rendered them in a style that subsequently became the trademark, ‘tongue twisting and rhythmic yodeling’, of Kishore Kumar.

Kishore Kumar

On the other hand, Kishore Kumar too came on scene about this time. He, like Mukesh, was enamored by Saigal, the then reigning king of singing. His first song "jeenay ki duayyen kyon mangoon", lyrics by Moin Ahsan Jazbi and music by Khemchand Prakash for film Ziddi (1948), was a poor copy of Saigal's style. However, he in turn had been entranced by Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) and Tex Morton (1916-1983), and followed their yodeling style with perfection.

The new emerging king of Indian singing was Rafi. Mahendra Kapoor, Kumar Sanu, Sonu Nigam and many others are professional children of Rafi. Saigal lies issue less. Saigal died in Jan 1947 at the peak of his career. Had he lived another decade, he would have found himself a lonely soul with no one wanting his wooden acting and few wanting his waning singing style. The last film he sang for was Nashana whose music was composed by Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, when KKA’s music didn't carry his unmistakable poignant style.

Stamp commemorating Pankaj Mullick

The first haunting music by KKA, which makes him immortal, was in film Intezar (1956) and that continued in his subsequent films. Till Parwana (1947), the music of KKA had not found its trademark and unmistakable haunting character. His music in Intezar, Jhoomar, Koel, Ghonghat, Heer Ranjha, etc is easily distinguishable as KKAs, but his composition in Parwana, though good, is of a very ordinary style. In the 1950 film Nishana, his future style is faintly discernable in the songs by Shamshad Begum (“hato jao pare, mat chairo”) and Geeta Bali (“ghar aaja balamwa re parde e e e e siya”). However, KKA found his cadence in Intezaar (1956) with the voice of Noor Jehan and lyrics of Qateel Shifai that produced immemorable and immortal gems like "Chand Hsaey Dunya Basey", "Jis Din Se Piya Dil Le Gye", "Aa Bhi Ja" and "O Janey Waley". Even Lata termed this music as one of her favourite from Pakistani films.

Mohammed Rafi

Saigal died in his ancestral city of Jullundur on 18 January 1947, at the age of 42. His first hit had been Mirza Ghalib ghazal “Nukta cheen hai gham e dil, composed by Pankaj Mullick for film Yahudi ki Larki (1933). This started the 16-years-long Age of Saigal. Towards the end of his life, he had become a heavy drinker. His looks in his last films betray his disintegrating physical condition. However, before his death, he was able to sing three more hits under the baton of Naushad Ali for the film Shahjehan (1946). These are "Mere Sapnon Ki Rani", and the more popular pair of "Ae Dil-e-Beqaraar Jhoom" and "Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya". Parwana (1947) was his last film, released after his death, in which he sang under the music of Khawaja Khurshid Anwar. The four songs which Saigal sang in Parwana included the very popular "Toot gaye sab sapne mere."

Naushad Ali

Qateel Shifai

The Indian film industry has made tremendous progress since its inception nearly a hundred years ago. Meanwhile, the industry in Pakistan showed excellent promise in the initial years after the 1947 Partition, but then orthodoxy, religious biases and an anti-cultural sentiment tore in to the soul of the new country. The Indian film industry had been nurtured by Parsis, UP- and Punjab-origin Muslims and Bengalis. The blockbuster films of 1946 were Anmol Ghari and Shahjahan; films that had a bulk of Muslim actors, singers, directors and writers.

This starting asset should have given birth to a vibrant film industry in Pakistan – which is an essential component of soft power and culture. Alas, like many aspects of national life, the film industry, too, miscarried. The revolution in singing led to new artistic heights in India while Pakistan only produced occasional and irregular gems; but they too fizzled out by the 1980s, leaving the nation a cultural wasteland.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: