Category Archives: Musicology

Incomparable SD Burman: The best biographical work on Hindi film music

Incomparable SD Burman is actually a 2011 book, though I read it only recently. Though that is not enough justification for doing a book review after four years, I decided to go ahead because it is a real gem. Moreover, few in India know about it.

The book, written by HQ Chowdhury, a Bangladesh-based professional and researcher, is published by Toitomboor, a publishing house in Dhaka. After looking for it for months (trying my luck with its only distributor in India, who insisted that someone needed to physically collect the book from their Kolkata office by paying cash), I finally got it from the author himself, who fulfilled his promise made to me on a Facebook conversation some months back  to send it to me when he would be in Kolkata next.

Incomp_SDB

Being a reader and collector of books on Hindi film music (written in English)—See the list I maintain on the same here—I  can say with some confidence that this is one of the best books to be published in the genre. But that is still not the best way to describe the book. There are multiple books in the area that stand out. Gregory Booth’s book on musicians is a first-rate work of ethnomusicology; Raju Bharatan’s books on Naushad and Lata are excellent account of the musical and not-so-musical equations between composers, singers, lyricists and film makers; Akshay Manwani’s book on Sahir is an excellent work of research and is immensely readable; Ashok Ranade’s book on Hindi film music is one of the few critic’s perspectives; Manek Premchand’s book on musical moments is an essential connoisseur’s collection.

What should be specifically mentioned about Incomparable SD Burman is that it rises above the genre. The book is what a good narrative non-fiction should be. In other words, it is for anyone who loves reading and has a general interest about the subject. Few pages into the book, you develop a bond with the protagonist—the incomparable S D Burman, in this case—and start living with him.

And mind you, there are three books on SD Burman in English and I have read all of them. While the book by Sathya Saran is nowhere near the other two, the book by Khagesh Dev Burman, originally written in Bengali, is clearly for the reader who is well-entrenched in Bengali music; so much so that, if you are not, you cannot appreciate a significant portion of the book.

Of course, a basic background of Kolkata’s music scene of those days is essential, if one wants to fully appreciate the genesis of S D Burman’s as a musician. It is not that a great researcher and narrator like Chowdhury is not sensitive to that need. In fact, that is where his book really stands out and as I earlier said, rises above the genre books. Instead of assuming that the reader knows about it, he has taken it on himself to give those lessons, in right doses. That is what makes it so valuable as a book. The reader, while learning about SD Burman’s evolution as a composer-singer, gets more than adequate knowledge about the music scene of Kolkata of the 30s and early 40s.

And what a place it was! Not only was Kolkata a musical experimentation hub with such personalities as Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Dilip Kumar Roy, Himangshu Dutt and musicologists like Dhurjoti Prasad Mukherji, it was also the predecessor of the Bombay film music with such greats as R C Boral, Pankaj Mullick, K L Saigal, K C Dey, Vismadev Chatterjee, and Dada Burman himself establishing the rules of modern cine music, which got imported to Bombay. Though it got enriched there, drawing from various regional streams, it must be mentioned that others responsible for that basic foundations such as Naushad, C Ramachandra and O P Nayyar acquired their musical personality in Bombay while the Bengal musicians were already popular in their homeland and established names, Dada included. That is why it is essential to understand Kolkata’s musical scene of 30s in order to appreciate the evolution of Bombay film music. Chowdhury makes you live through that period. I wish the book was available more widely. It is a recommended read for any serious student of musicology of modern Indian music.

Again, unlike Khagesh Dev Burman’s book, Bombay days is not a mechanical, linear description. Some of the best narratives in the book are about S D Burman’s days in Bombay. It does get into popular myths and folklore in adequate doses. For example, the author devotes significant space to dispel the myth that Pancham (junior Burman) mostly scored for Aradhana. It is an important debates in Hindi film musicology because it is not just about one movie; it has significant implications for the Rafi-Kishore debate. Those who think Pancham scored for Aradhana assume that it is he who brought in Kishore Kumar in place of Rafi, who was the earlier choice for Dada Burman. And all of us know what it did to Kishore Kumar’s career!

Chowdhury is clearly a huge fan of SD Burman, as he admits unequivocally. But his book does not suffer from the typical problems you have come to expect from such books in India—that is adulatory, meaningless lines filling up pages; both facts and narration becoming victim to the author’s own opinion and so on. Chowdhury’s book is a solid work of research, ably supported by good narration and story telling. Even when he brings in subjective analyses—you cannot avoid that in a book on any art form/artist—it is always in the featurish style of supporting with quotes, incidents and facts—in the true tradition of narrative non-fiction. Rarely will you find a high-nosed opinion which he thrusts weaving through jugglery of words. In fact sincere efforts like this are probably the best tribute to one’s idol.

Books like these make one hopeful about the future of non-fiction writing on subjects other than history and politics. But the next moment, the availability issues reminds you of the stark ground reality of distribution.

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Pandit Balakrushna Dash: The Father of Modern Odia Music

My blog describes itself as celebrating excellence in the less discussed. I have usually discussed comparatively unsung heroes such as Madhukar Rajasthani or Lucila Pacheco or highlighted the unsung works (Utkala Bhramanam) of famous creative geniuses or comparatively lesser discussed aspects of some of them (Kavichandra or Ravi).

Sangeeta Sudhakar Balakrushna Dash does not quite belong to any of those categories. Not only is he popular across Odisha; unlike, say, Kavichandra, his work and his contribution is well-acknowledged by people from Shyamamani Devi to Lopita Mishra. He is everyone’s Sir.

Yet, on his birthday, there is little news about any celebration.Media has almost no coverage except that of the awards announced in his honour by a Foundation named after him. However, that itself is not surprising about Odisha and Odias. And I do not want to go into that aspect in this post. I have already done enough of that in my post on Kavichandra.

What I wanted to highlight, on the other hand, is this: despite all the acknowledgement about his contribution to Odia music and despite the huge respect for him as an artist and an individual, we (that is most common Odias), still know very little about the immense talent (ପ୍ରଚଣ୍ଡ ପ୍ରତିଭା) that Pandit Balakrushna Dash possessed. The same is true about about many of his direct and indirect contribution to Odia music.

This post is not about measuring/analyzing his entire contribution. It will be a presumption on my part to even try doing that. All I will do here is to highlight a couple of lesser discussed/known aspects of his numerous contributions, without any claim whatsoever about the importance of these aspects vis-a-vis other known/unknown and acknowledged/unrecognized aspects of his music. I must admit that the headline is not quite apt for the post; a better suggestion is more than welcome.

First, let’s attempt to understand his music a little better. What kind of music is Pandit Balakrushna Dash’s music? Especially if he is so many things to so many people: a great performing virtuoso himself; a popular composer of the masses; a leading innovator; and a revered guru.

We all know that it is Pandit Dash who shaped/established what has come to be known as the Kataki style/school of Odissi singing, known for the importance that it attaches to bhava (mood), as compared to the dominance of layakari in the Puri school led by Simhari Shyamsundar Kar and the gamak-pradhan style of Dakhini school (of Tarini Charan Patra and others) ostensibly influenced by the Carnatic style.

Apart from the subtle musical differences, what does it translate to, practically? That becomes clear if we look at the repertoire of the songs that Pandit Balakrushna Dash is famous for. Despite singing traditional Odissi, Champu and Bhajans written by the medieval poets, his signature tunes are not those but a Bitilata jamini; a Nayana sunayanare;  maybe, to a lesser extent Aakula rajani pahi jae... All these are in modern Odia language, written by modern Odia poets. The first two are by Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik while the last one is by Narayan Prasad Singh.

Listen to Bitilata jaimini carefully and you are bound to notice the influence of Ka karoon sajni, one of the most well-known thumris of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was Pandit Dash’s guru. While the influence of his training in Hindustani music (and thumri in particular) is clearly visible, a discerning listener of thumris and Odia music would notice that Pandit Balakrushna Dash’s own singing had little similarity with the Punjab ang (full throated, faster tempo) thumri style sung by Khan Saheb. In fact, I often feel traces of  Purab ang thumri when I am listening to him, though the uniqueness of his Odissi style is clear. It must be said that the bhava in Odissi music is more about the stress on the mood of the entire lyric rather than a lot of emphasis on a few words. So, Odissi compositions are full length songs and not just three-four lines for music to ride on, unlike in most of thumris.

Pandit Balakrushna Dash’s evolution could be compared more with his mentor R C Boral, whom he assisted for some time in Kolkata and who, despite having strong background in classical music, is today identified as one of the founding fathers of Bengali (and even Hindi) film music. Pandit Balakrushna Dash, surely, is one of the two founding fathers of Odia film music in particular and modern Odia music in general (the other, of course, is  Pandit Bhubaneswar Mishra, with whom he scored music for the 1954 Odia film, Kedar Gouri and 1957 movie Bhai Bhai, before going solo in Sri Loknath in 1960). And like Boral and Sachin Dev Burman, Pandit Balakrushna Dash himself rarely sang in movies despite being the most prolific composer of Odia film music in the 1960s. He sang less than ten songs in films in the entire two decades of 50s and 60s.

In short, not only was Pandit Ballakrushna Dash doing his experimentation, he was very clear about what exactly he was trying to achieve. That becomes even clearer when we carefully examine his selection of songs. While others kept to Upendra Bhanja, Gopalakrushna, Kavisurya, Abhimanyu Samant Singhar, Dinakrushna and Banamali; Pandit Balakrushna Dash was the principal voice for the songs of Kavichandra, who himself was a great experimentalist and to whom goes the credit of ushering in modernity in Odia music and theater. Just listen to these songs — Bitilata jamini, Nayana sunayanarePatha anai jhuri, Tore jhuri sangataand you will appreciate what I am saying. They were all songs that carefully transformed us to modernity while keeping the base of our tradition.

And with what superb elan, Pandit Balakrushna Dash composed and sang them? The idea here is not to rake up a controversy. But just listen to Nayana Sunayanare  and listen to Abhi na jao chhodkar, scored by Jayadev for Hum Dono, more than a decade later…and you will never ever say Bollywood never got its inspiration from Odia music!

Though I am not sure about the fact, apparently Bimal Roy had offered Pandit Balakrushna Dash to score music for his films. But Pandit Dash did not like leaving Odisha and settling in Bombay. If that is true, that opens up yet another aspect of this great individual.

Another aspect of him that needs a mention is that while he was singing/teaching Odissi and composing for films, he never forgot the palligeeti. In fact, he popularized it.  His Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansa is an anthem; probably as popular as a Bitilata Jamini. Here too, combination of his music with Kavichandra’s lyrics was a winner. Another such combination, Chaiiti ratile mahula katire was also very popular. In fact, Asa jibana dhana, along with Mudhi nadia and Chaka pari basi tha—the trilogy of songs celebrating traditional Odia food—are today seeing renewed interest among Odias, as many, especially those leaving outside crave for the food.

Among his lesser known works is a beautiful album called Geeta Bhratruhari, released by Saregama in the 90s, in which he set into tune a selection of songs from the Odia translation of Bhratruhari’s Shatakatrayi, in traditional Odissi style. He himself sang a beautiful song, Naba jaubani e, one of the most explicit in the album, from the Shrungara Shataka. The translation was by late Janaki Ballav Pattnaik.

The contribution of Pandit Balakrushna Dash cannot be emphasized enough in a post like this. I promised not to get into this but it is difficult to resist asking this question: when will we learn to respect our talent? On one hand, all of us are very sensitized to the demand of Odissi music being accorded classical status. On the other, we do not even care for stopping for a moment and pay our tribute to the greatest name in Odissi music in modern times. And we blame everyone other than ourselves for our problems!

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Biographies of Maestros: What a simple list tells us about our attitude towards our heritage

I started this blog with a post on books on Hindi film music, written in English. The popularity of that post encouraged me to start a page with a list of such books, which I update regularly. The page and the post together account for the largest chunk of traffic on my blog, even today.

This is what made some friends suggest that I start a similar one on Hindustani classical music—another subject on which I buy and read quite a few books.

On the face of it, these tasks look similar. The objectives of both are the same; it is to help people who may not be pursuing any formal study of music or musicology but whose interest in music is a little more than just listening to good music. In reality, though, the magnitude of challenges is manifold in case of classical music books.

One, the universe is of a different magnitude. There are hardly 50 books on Hindi film music published in English. The list of books on Hindustani classical music, on the other hand, is far longer, considering it is a subject taught and researched formally in many universities across India.

Two, many of those books have been brought out by publishers in places like Pune, Kolkata, Baroda, and Lucknow— all centers of prominence in the evolution of the musical form. Many of them are small and even closed down. Getting anything from their side is next to impossible.

Three, many of these were published long back. Unlike Hindi film music, where there was little before 1980s/90s, some of the books on Hindustani music in English dates backs to 30s and 40s. Many of these books are out of print.

Finally, my reading is confined to two areas: history/evolution of the genres/sub-genres/different gharanas/instruments or biographies (they often overlap), whereas the area itself is vast.

I decided to create a list of biographies, to start with. Of course, that includes autobiographies as well.

After working for a few months on the list—getting essential bibliographic information about each book, such as title, ISBN, author, publisher, year of publishing—I now have a list of 66 such books. But the exercise gave me much more than a list. I observed clear trends; trends that say a lot about our collective taste, how we look at our musical heritage and simply what sells.

This post is actually about those observations and a little analysis of that. I will post the actual list in a separate page.

Here are the essentials. The books can broadly be categorized into three types: autobiographies (eight), biographies of single individuals (49), compilation of biographies of multiple personalities (nine). I have actually read a little less than half of them.

Whose biographies?
The composition of the list itself reveals a lot about what, according to the publishers, interests Indian readers.

Let’s start with numbers. Among biographies/autobiographies of single individuals, Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar is on top with six biographies on him—two of them autobiographies. He is closely followed by the another Bharat Ratna from the area of Hindustani music , Ustad Bismillah Khan—with five biographies of the Shehnai maestro in the list. All but one (that is an autobiography of Pandit Ravi Shankar) are published in late 90s or 2000s—after Hindustani classical music had attained an exalted status and these stalwarts had turned celebrities (read saleable). Most of these books are neither scholarly nor great narratives; they are either coffee table books or basic life sketches written for the completely uninitiated/children.

Baba Allauddin Khan, with five of his biographies in the list, seems to be the surprise in the list. The great maestro (and the guru of Pandit Ravi Shankar) has biographies written by his disciples and grand disciples such as Pandit Jatin Bhattacharya, Ustad Mobarak Hussain Khan and Anjana Roy. Begum Akhtar, with four biographies, is next in the list. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, credited with popularizing classical music among the masses, is the fifth in the list, with three books on him.

Most—if not all—of these biographies are basic treatments/coffee table books.

Another thing to be noted here is that except for Ustad Bade Ghualm Ali Khan, none of the above exponents—who are popular among biographers—are really what most call classical vocalists (exponents of dhrupad or khyal). While Begum Akhtar is primarily the queen of ghazals and somewhat known for her thumris, the rest are all instrumentalists. Labeling Baba Allauddin Khan as an instrumentalist may actually be a narrow view of this great master; nevertheless, the fact remains that most of his disciples are exponents of instruments—sitar, sarod, surbahar, even flute and violin.

But more than those who are on the list, notable by their absence from the list are a number of luminaries—Ustad Inayat Husain Khan, the founder of Rampur-Sahaswan Gharana; Sawai Gandharva, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Mogubai Kurdikar, Hirabai Barodekar , Pt D V Paluskar, and even among the later generations, Kishori Amonkar and Pandit Rajan/Sajan Mishra; not to talk of thumri exponents like Rasoolan Bai and Badi Moti Bai.

Yes, I have still not come across any biography (in English) on each of these great masters. I will be happy to be pointed out if any exists.

There’s just one biography of Khansaheb Abdul Karim Khan, the founder of Kirana Gharana, written by ace discographer Micheal Kinnear. The book is out of print.

There’s one book on Ustad Faiyaz Khan, the most prominent voice from Agra Gharana in the 20th century, by his disciple Dipali Nag, published by Sangeet Natak Akademi. It’s not available in any book store or online shopping site.

There’s one biography (actually a kind of autobiography, as told to his great grandson) of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana, published by Thema, a Kolkata-based publisher, which is now reprinted and is available from publisher through direct order but is not available in any major bookstore or online shopping site.

There’s one small life sketch of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the father of modern Hindustani music education and founder of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, published by National Book Trust.

Precisely one books each on each of these masters—and none of them available widely—that’s the state of biographic literature in Hindustani music.

Isn’t this a comment on our collective apathy towards our own heritage? Or is it worse? In the last few years, the country has conferred Bharat Ratna—our highest civilian award for individuals—on three later day exponents of Hindustani music. Is it hypocrisy, then? Is it that we want to show to the world that we are proud of our heritage whereas in reality, we care very little?

Authors and treatment
One question that follows is why is the market for such books so limited? Is it really that the average Indian reader is not interested in reading books on music? Ostensibly, that seems to be the answer.

It’s not entirely incorrect. But it is only half the story. A look at the author and treatment of these books tells us why it could be so.

Most of the books fall into one of the three categories—narrative biographies, basic sketches and well-produced coffee table books. The last two categories serve specific purposes. Coffee table books sell on the value of quality of production—and are used to showcase one’s love for Indian culture and heritage—while basic sketches are mostly for reference.

The large biographies with narratives are what should ideally reach out to the readers of non-fiction—a community that is steadily growing in India. The books will become mainstream and commercially viable only when it appeals to this tribe.

Today, that is hardly the case. Most of the narrative biographies—both compilations as well as individual biographies—are written by one of the two sets of people: critics and the disciples of the subjects.

Those written by acclaimed music critics and musicologists such as R C Mehta (himself an exponent), Mohan Nadkarni, Ashok D Ranade and Raghava R Menon—whether biographies or history—are for serious readers. The treatment goes more into the finer nuances of music and their analysis and hardly interests the common reader.

Those by the disciples and descendants of masters—such as Pandit Debu Choudhury (disciple and biographers of Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan), Ustad Mobarak Husain Khan and Pandit Jatin Bhattacharya (disciples and biographers of Baba Alllauddin Khan), Dipali Nag (disciple and biographer of Ustad Faiyaz Khan), Sumati Mutakar (student and biographer of Pandit S N Ratanjakar) and Shanti Hiranand (disciple and biographer of Begum Akhtar)— while providing great insight and anecdotes about their masters, are too laudatory and often lack basic objectivity needed in a good biography. Also, often the narrative is too linear and straight, which does not amuse and hence does not appeal to common readers.

There are a few notable exceptions—like Annapurna Devi’s biography by Swapan Kumar Bandopadhyay and Begum Akhtar’s biography by Rita Ganguly even though the latter is a direct disciple of the former—which are very interesting narratives.

The success of other books such as The Music Room by Namita Devidayal and The Lost World of Hindustani Music by Kumar Prasad Mukerji shows that people would like to read good narratives on Hindustani music (actually, on any subject). While the former is a very engaging account of the evolution of Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana and gives nice glimpses into the lives of Dhondutai Kulkarni, Kesarbai Kerkar and some insights into the persona of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the latter is arguably the most interesting narrative about the evolution of Hindustani classical music in late 18th and 19th century.

The answer, then, lies in actually getting good writers of narrative non-fiction interested in the subject. Who will do that is anyone’s guess. Good publishers can certainly play a role, but are they themselves interested in the subject?

Who are the publishers?
After going through the above, the list of top publishers should not be too much of a surprise. Roli Books, which started as a coffee table book publisher on art and has since then has published some good books on Indian heritage as well—like music, travel, food and festivals—sits right there on top, with nine titles to its credit.

Hindustani classical music is now enjoying a kind of exalted status; with the exponents being projected with a larger-than-life image. This has created a market for well-produced books on these personalities with high quality photographs—which has worked very well for Roli. To its credit, it has steadily focused on getting better writers and has even brought in small innovations like collaborating with music publishers like Saregama to bundle music CDs with books. This has created a niche market for such books, which are highly priced and are the more respectable versions of yesteryears’ somewhat dumber coffee table books.

Rupa has always published some of the most unique non-fiction in India and it extends to this area as well. But it must be pointed out that the number that it has comes from the fact that it has published some small life sketches of famous exponents—such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Begum Akhtar—as well. Popular Prakashan, another Indian publishing house, with a track record of music books, with four titles, is the only other publisher which has a significant presence in the list.

General publishers such as Penguin/Viking, Harper Collins, UBS and Orient have token presence, while academic publishers such as Oxford University Press, Permanent Black, Three Essays Collective etc have token presence.

The rest are either smaller niche publications, local publishers or the government publishing units such as Sangeet Natak Akademi, Publication Division and National Book Trust.

In fact, the subjects, the treatment and the publishers are completely in sync and tell a story that is loud and clear: that the commercial market for books on Hindustani music is restricted to coffee table books and basic life sketches. The individuals who have written because of their passion (such as many exponents themselves) without much commercial considerations have been published by smaller publishing houses. Government publishers too have not done enough; i.e, how can you reconcile to the fact that Sangeet Natak Akademi has not published monographs on say, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan or D V Paluskar?

So, what is the way out? It is well beyond the scope of my post here; but just some thinking aloud. In the short run, government initiative could help in researching the subject. Even if a fraction of the research fund that music research is getting is diverted to research on musicology, we will see tremendous result. For the commercial publishers—while they will be cautious about the acceptability—it makes some sense to try roping in good writers to create a commercially viable market for such books.

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The Great Masters: A Timeline View of Top Hindustani Vocalists

Indian music in general and Hindustani classical music in particular is a seamless journey. The musical repertoire is often passed from generation to generation within the family as well as to chosen disciples, within the school of music, called Gharanas. Musicians often amalgamate their learning from the gurus, components from other gharanas, and their own creative inputs to develop what becomes their own distinct individual style, while following not just the rules of ragas but also the traditions of their gharanas.

Time, hence, is an important component of the musical evolution. A broad idea about the times of great masters—when they lived, learned, performed and trained—surely helps appreciate the finance nuances of Hindustani music. This helps the discerning listener to spot trends—how the styles have evolved over years—as well as have a perspective on how different musicians have influenced each other.

Presented here is a simple chart that shows when exactly did the great masters of modern times—the later part of 19th century to today—lived, in comparison to each other. The visual will help understand who was a contemporary of whom, while the colors denote the gharanas to which they belong.

Will appreciate if you point out any major name that I have missed. Please note that, to keep it manageable, I have done this for only the vocalists. I have also included top Thumri singers.

The Life and Times of Top Hindustani Vocalists

The Life and Times of Top Hindustani Vocalists

 

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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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A Book on SD Burman: The Making of The Genius

“The book is nothing but an expression of the man. The book is nothing but the man trying to talk to you, trying to impart to you, some of his feelings,” said Arnold Bennett, in his classic work, Literary Taste, while urging the reader, especially the beginners, to “acquire some biographical information about the writer.” 

Benett’s advice should apply to all forms of creative art, not just literature. An understanding of the creator’s life — its evolution, phases, milestones, and most importantly, all things that have had an influences on the man — can makes us appreciate his work far better.

It becomes almost imperative in something like Hindi film music, which attracted — it still does —  musical talent from across the country, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu; from East Bengal to Goa. These creative people had diverse upbringings, diverse cultures and exposures to diverse forms of folk, popular and even classical music. While Hindi film music (or Hindustani Cine Sangeet as some prefer to call it) is now considered a genre in itself, it is important to understand how each of its early founding fathers contributed by adding their bits while absorbing from other musical genres/sources.

S D Burman: The World of His Music, a book by Khagesh Dev Burman written originally in Bengali and translated to English by S K Ray Chaudhury, serves this purpose beautifully. For not only does it provide a very deep and mature insight into the formative years of Sachin Karta —  as he was known in Tripura and East Bengal, from where he hailed —  but also how he acquired his musical soul.

It would not be exaggerating to conclude, based on information from the book, that Dada Burman was not just a creative genius, but was one of the first serious ethnomusicologists who actually recognized the potential of folk music and roamed around the length and breadth of East Bengal to systematically collect folk tunes and songs, even as he kept improvising and playing those on flute. This musical repertoire from East Bengal, the author claims, would in later years serve as a significant source of his musical inspiration, not just for his Bengali songs but also for the vast treasury of popular songs he created for Hindi films. 

This claim — that folk music formed a major inspiration for Dada Burman’s work —looks credible because even in Bengali, despite being so close to Rabindranath Tagore who was a good friend of his father and despite his close friendship with Kazi Nazrul Islam, the most prominent poet-musician from East Bengal, he never really got too much into Rabindrasangeet and Nazrul Geeti. In Calcutta, he also trained in  Hindustani classical music. Yet, folk music was always his first inspiration.

The fact that he had an erudite father from whom he not just got his musical taste but encouragement to pursue music,  and the fact that he had freedom to roam around collecting and listening to common people’s music even though he was from the royal family of Tripura and the fact that he had his formal grounding in classical music in Kolkata — all contributed to the making of the musical personality that was Sachin Dev Burman. The book does an excellent job of  giving us how this musical genius was made in his formative years.

However, the book’s real insights actually stop there. Though in terms of length, most number of pages are devoted to his Bombay years — providing a lot of information, that too strictly chronologically, which makes the book a lot more usable for those seriously interested in historical musicology of Hindi film music — it does not do full justice to his contribution to Hindi film music, for which he is best known globally. That part of his life is treated as more of a linear history, with no major insights per se, except probably, the relationship of S D Burman with his son R D Burman and how exactly was the junior Burman influenced by his father and where he broke away from the tradition. This insight about the making of R D Burman is not even found in the book on R D Burman, penned a couple of years back by Anirudh Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, which own the National Award for Best Book on Cinema in 2011.  

The absence of major insights on his music making in Bombay and his relationship with singers, musicians, and film makers beyond Dev Anand, are probably because of the an excessive tendency on part of the author to relate all his creation, sometimes at the individual tunes and lyrics level, to Bengali sources, a lot of which are Dada Burman’s own work in Bengali. So much so that at places, it is almost unreadable if you do not know enough about Bengali music.

But then, the author cannot really be faulted for that. He had written it for a Bengali audience, and had probably presumed some basic knowledge about Bengali music. That is the problem in a translation. It is not just changing the text from one language to another. The original work was written for a different set of audience. 

The only complaint, then, is that the words “world of his music” as the subtitle of the book,  sounds a little too grand and exaggerated. It should have been something like S D Burman: The Making of the Musical Genius.

But if you ignore this one aspect — just a little too much of reference to Bengali music — this is one of the best books on Hindi film music on my list of books. While most other books fall into one of the three categories — adulatory passages with sprinkling of some flowery language;  journalistic works based on lots of information and anecdotes; and more scholarly, research based works with great new ideas and findings but difficult to read — this book is a very good balance. It is adulatory but  stops to analyze and even mildly criticize; it is full with facts and anecdotes; and it has some great new insights, especially regarding the making of S D Burman, and to a lesser extent the making of his son, R D Burman.  

(In last few months, a few books on Hindi film music/music personalities have been released. I am planning to move my post on books on Hindi film music to a list in a static page and keep updating that page)

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