The Millennium Thumris of Hindi Cinema

(Updated on 14 January 2015 with addition of a few new songs)

I was sifting through a lot of new Hindi film songs to create a small dance playlist for my seven year old, based completely on his farmaaish, as my own knowledge in the area is next to nothing. I stopped suddenly—hamari atariya pe aaja re sanwariya dekha dekhi tanik hui jaaye. Is it a film song? From 2013/14?

Yes, it is; from the 2014 movie, Dedh Ishqiya. And thankfully, the voice is familiar. Or let me put it this way—the only voice in today’s Hindi films, that is familiar to me: Rekha Bhardwaj, a sort of enfant terrible of experimentative Hindi film music of today. The composer is Rekha’s husband, Vishal Bhardwaj, a hugely talented composer, who after so many successful film scores, is still, in my mind, best identified as the composer of jungle jungle baat chali hai, patta cala hai; arrey chaddi pehne ke phool khila hai phool khila hai, from Hindi Jungle Book aired on Doordarshan in my childhood (mid-80s).

Since my pleasant discovery about a month back, hamari atariya… from Dedh Ishqiya has caught the imagination of general public. The media is full with stories on how this “Begum Akhtar thumri” has managed to “revive” an interest in thumris, whatever that means. Yes, for most of us, this is a Begum Akhtar thumri, even though many thumri singers, including thumri queen Shobha Gurtu have sung it. Yet, Rekha holds on to her own; as hers is an open-throated rendering, in contrast to Begum Akhtar’s silk smooth flow. Her mature but rustic voice makes it a different piece altogether. And don’t fail to notice the slight but impactful difference in mukhda. In Begum’s version, it is, hamari atariya pe aao sanwariya dekha dekhi balam hui jaaye; what Rekha and Shobha Gurtu sing is hamari atariya pe aaja re sanwariya dekha dekhi tanik hui jaaye. The more sophisticated aao goes well with the Ghazal style singing of the Begum.  

Though hamari atariya… has managed to catch the attention of the public, it is not the first time that a film thumri has become so popular; neither is it the first time that an already popular thumri has been used in films in the voice of a playback singer. [Throughout this piece the word thumri has been used as a generic name for thumris, dadra, kajri, hori, chaiti and all such sub genres.]

Thumris have been used in films right from the very early days of talkies. Rajkumari had sung a number of thumris in the 30s. K L Saigal had sung a popular thumri, piya bina nahi aawat, way back in 1935, in Devdas. And who can forget, Saigal’s baabul mora naihar, in 1938 movie Street Singer? Ask anyone about the song; though the Wajid Ali Shah thumri has been sung by maestros down the ages—from Malka Jan to Alisha Chenoy, and many in between including Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Girija Devi and Shobha Gurtu—it is Saigal’s version that most identify with. [Here is my earlier post on Babul Mora…]. Without taking away credit from Saigal Saab, films do make it reach the mass and help in popularizing. If today people know so much about this song and its history, it is a lot because of it being made popular by Hindi cinema.

There are many traditional thumris that have been sung by playback singers in movies. Bajuband khul khul jaye, one of the most widely sung thmris—by such greats as Ustad Faiyaaz Khan and Sureshbabu Mane—was sung by Lata Mangeshkar in a movie and the same was used in a 2006 movie. Kahe ko jhooti banao, another favorite of Ustad Faiyaz Khan sahib, was so beautifully sung by Manna Dey in Manzil, while Yesudas did a soulful rendition of one of the signature thumris of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab, ka karoon sajani aaye na balam, in Swami. In addition to playback singers, classical singers, right from Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to Shobha Gurtu and Begum Parveen Sultana have all lent their voice to thumris in films.

The idea behind this piece is not to list thumris in films and get onto a history of that. There is a good piece on that topic here, which contains a fairly comprehensive list of film thumris. However, I am yet to see a title from Saregama, called Thumris from Films, though there are many such compilations, on say Ghazals or simply Classical Songs or theme bases songs such as monsoon songs.

The objective of this piece is two-fold.

First, it is to point it out that the use of thumris has not gone out of favor with our music composers even today. Here, I list of thumris used in films post 2000, with information on films, singer and composer, with links to those on the web. I do not claim it to be a comprehensive list but is just enough to prove the point. The format is Song, Film, Singers, Music Director, Year. I have given links to the songs on the web.   

While the title of this post comes from the fact that all these thumris are from Hindi films in the new millennium, from there too is derived my second point, or rather a set of questions.

Should film thumris in the new millennium be restricted to use in traditional settings, as most of these are? After all, are thumris not the songs of love, separation, longing, and even desire? Aren’t they the perfect choice to be used as background scores in even urban set ups, urban themes, targeted at discerning audience?

My thought is not completely new. The song, aane do, from film, Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye as well as aiyo piyaji from Chakravyuh are examples of what I am talking about. Yet, both the singers, Soma Ghosh and Ustad Rashid Khan are accomplished classical singer. Does one need to have an ear for classical music to appreciate these songs?

I believe in the new experimentative cinema, with a balance of sensibility and entertainment, thumris— especially those in the slower Benaras style—can be a perfect fit to create that mood of melancholy to passion; restlessness to just sublime desire.

Some purists may not like the idea. But isn’t it the purists on the other side—some khayal singers—who are responsible for the second class treatment given out to thumris today with a “semi-classical” tag? Aren’t thumris rich in their expression of moods rather than just musical showmanship? Can that not be the perfect accompaniment for a visual medium like cinema?

I am not an expert to offer my conclusive judgment on this; but as a listener and lover of thumris, I would like the genre to reach and be appreciated by a wider audience. Cinema is a perfect medium to achieve that objective. With directors who are challenging all known boundaries in cinema, and talented musicians like Vishal and Rekha Bhardwaj, there has never been  a better time to try this out.

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Filed under Hindi Film Music, Indian Classical Music, Music, Musicology, Uncategorized

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