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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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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 Tribute to Manna Dey

And with that, goes our last link with the golden era of playback singing in Hindi cinema. Manna Dey, who died yesterday, was the last among the six legends of that era—Talat, Mukesh, Rafi, Hemant, and Kishore being the other five—to depart.

Many critics and musicologists say Manna Dey was the most underrated among his peer group. I personally do not subscribe to that view. Any artiste should be considered underrated if his work would not gain the popularity or critical appreciation that it deserves. Neither was the case with Manna Dey. Music composers always turned to Manna Dey when they needed him. They knew his capability. While he came to be identified with classical/philosophical numbers, many of his songs were chartbusters too. Chunari sambhal gori, Pyaar hua ikrar hua, Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum, Yeh raat bhigi bhigiAe bhai zara dekh ke chalo, and of course, the all time favorite, Ae mere zohara jabi are but just a few examples. I am of course, not counting those that are popular but belong to the category of classical/philosophical numbers which went to become superhits, such as Ae mere pyare watan, Zindagi kaisi hai paheli, Laga chunari mein daag and many more.

The reason he was not elevated to that cult status is because he was never part of any composer’s camp or was identified as any particular actor’s voice. So, he got much less number of songs as compared to others. On the other hand, if you have to calculate the the quality songs sung by any singer as a percentage of all songs sung by that singer, it is a no-brainer that Manna Dey would clearly come on top. It is not that Manna Dey chose to sing only a few good songs. Composers came to him only when they needed him. He was not the default choice. So, he was not underrated; neither by the composers nor by the audience. He was under-used. That did not impact the popularity of his songs. But that did prevent him from being prolific and in the commercial world of Hindi music, that factor worked against him.

A lot of good playlists have been created by admirers and fans of Manna Dey, like this one. So, I am going to refrain from getting into that. What I am doing here is highlighting his contribution to the playback singing in films made in Odia, my mother tongue. 

How many would know that among all the greats of Hindi playback singing of that era—the above six as well as Lata, Asha and Geeta Dutt—Manna Dey sang the most number of songs for Odia movies? How many would know that he was the first among these greats to sing for Odia films?

Manna Dey was brought in by Santanu Mohapatra, the music director, who created a unique identity for himself, even as the other three great composers of that era—Balakrushna Dash, Bhubaneswar Mishra and Akshaya Mohanty—often worked with each other and used mostly the same set of singers. It is Mohapatra who brought in popular singers from Hindi cinema to sing for Odia movies. Manna Dey was introduced to Odia film audience in Mohapatra’s first movie as music composer—Suryamukhi.  Manna Dey, true to his image in Bombay, rendered a philosophical number, Bandhure…Duniya re samayara naee bahi jae re. Lata Mangeshkar too debuted in Odia playback singing in the same movie, with her popular sei chuna chuna tara.

But while Mohapatra kept experimenting with other Hindi playback singers—he brought in Rafi, Usha Mangeshkar and Lata again in his next movie as composer, Arundhati—other composers did turn to Manna Dey when they needed him. I have listed here seven songs he has sung for Odia movies. Interestingly, they are for seven different movies, composed by six different music directors. So, here too, he clearly did not belong to any camp.

And like in Hindi movies, here too, he was always brought in to sing that odd song with a classical/philosophical undertone. As you can notice, six of the seven songs listed here, clearly belong to these categories. The sole exception is Dharichi jebe chaadibi nahin in Samaya, incidentally composed by the classical duo Pt Bhubaneswar Mishra and Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia under the name, Bhuban-Hari.

Here is the list. The information in the bracket are the name of the film, year of the movie, and the composer’s name. 

My respectful homage to this great singer.

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Heartening News: Experimentation is Back in Odia Music

Some time back, I had read an essay by Sarat Kumar Mohanty, one of the most prominent essayists of Odisha, about the crisis of talent in contemporary Odisha (this was most probably in late 90s or early 200s). He had argued how there has been a gradual decline in talent and experimentation from the 60s and 70s in all the areas of creativity—citing explicitly the example of a young Akshaya Mohanty cycling around Cuttack with new tunes on his lips.

For at least three decades—60s to 80s—Akshaya Mohanty stood for all that was new in Odia music. While there were other popular singers and composers—such as Prafulla kar and Bhikari Bal—anything that was innovative and experimentative emanated from the mind of Khoka Bhai, the way Mohanty was popularly called. His music combined the nativeness of Odissa in all its forms—folk, classical, or the newly emerging urban culture of Odisha—with inspiration from across the world—in form, style, and content. While Harry Belafonte’s There’s a hole in the bucket  became a highly odia-ized Mathiare gote kana, Bachchan’s poem Laao laao piya nadiya se son machhari became Dhibara re anide anide mote suna Ilishi. In some others, he used khanti (pure) Odia content to try new forms. Such an experimentation is Odisha’s all time favorite Kanchi Abhijaaana.

For a long time, that experimentation has been missing. It is heartening to see there is some effort, of late. And not surprisingly, leading it from the front is Devdas Chhotray, one of the most prominent lyricists of the Akshaya era, whose other identities include a noted civil servant, educationist and writer. To most Odias, though, it would suffice to say that he wrote songs such as  Paradesi bandhu tume, Kainchi kakudi nalita pitaMate Saila Saila Nakara Guna, and Rupa Shagadire Suna Kania

I first picked up an album called Maya Darpan a little more than a year back from Time N Sound in Bapuji Nagar, Bhubaneswar, a shop I religiously visit on each of my trip to Odisha. When I picked up the CD, what impressed me were both the idea and the guts. It was the poetry of Mayadhar Mansing, something that exhilerated (and to be honest, scandalized) us in our school days. No other poet who was considered a great by our parents generation had anything close to what Mansingh offered. I also felt the exprimentation was particularly adventurous, as both the composer, Om Prakash Mohanty and singer, Susmita Das were unknown names to me, though I must admit that I have hardly kept up with Odia music in the last two decades. “Devdas Chhotray presents” on the top of the cover was  reassuring, though. But when I listened to it, I knew here was a classic. Unfortunately, none of my friends who listen to Odia music had heard about the album, let alone listening to it. I too could not find much in the usual places on the Internet to forward a link.

So, while I was appreciative, I was sceptical too about the continuation of that experimentation. That is, till a few months back, I picked up two more by the same trio—this time the lyricist being Devdas Chhotray himself. One called Hati Saja Kara, was taken from the name of a poem (and a book which I had happened to read) by Chhotray. The other, called Nua Luha Puruna Luha decribed itself as a collection of songs that were introspective and nostalgic—and which claimed that it was inspired by Ghazal and sufi poetry. And both these albums impressed again, though I would confess that I found the Nua Luha…to be a little heavier in terms of lyrics, with melody failing to catch up. That apart, all the three were great experimentation, largely successful. This time, I could get some info on the web about the composer and the artiste.

All the three are released by a label, Mitu’s Music, owned by singer Susmita. I wrote to her and got a prompt reply. The good news is that the songs are available in her website, susmitadas.in, and anyone can listen to these. By the way, some of them are available in Youtube as well such as Dekha hela kimpa from Maya Darpana and Hati saja kara from Hati Saja Kara. 

Better news is that their experimentation continues and in the offing are two more albums: one, Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam, and two, some old radio songs of Akshaya Mohanty, which are no longer available.

I will surely post more on the topic, if I manage to speak to the trio in near future.

While with three albums out and two more in pipeline, this trio lead the experimentation wave, there are some other notable efforts as well. One is an album of Akshaya Mohanty’s unsung lyrics sung by an artiste Namrata Mohanty, called Deepa Jale Deepa Libhe, released again by the artiste’s own label, set to music by the same composer, Om Prakash Mohanty.

Another is recital of Sriradha, arguably the best long poem written in Odia in the last 50 years, by Rabi Satapathy, again released by some unknown label. This is an even bolder experimentation. And while Satapathy does a fairly good job, I would recommend it only to someone who has no other way of reading the poem. The voice is uniform throughout and surely the poem is not. Nevertheless, here I am talking of experimentation and am not into reviewing the work.

One last example I would like to cite would probably not fall in this category—as it is not really a creative experimentation but a commercial one—but nevertheless made me hopeful. It was a collection of children songs such as Jhool re hati jhool, Chaka chaka bhaunri, Dho re baya dho, Itikili mitikili, and Aa aa re bai chadhei. The songs were accompanied by some below average animation, but nevertheless, this is the only Odia CD that I have bought for my five year old son so far, though he has more than 100 CDs of Hindi and English cartoom movies, songs and so on. This, too was released by an unknown label with a Mumbai address. And since then, in each of my visit, I have inquired if there is a second one but unfortunately I have always heard a no.

On one hand, the wave of experimentation makes one hopeful and reassured. On the other, the fact that very little is known about these albums to people who would have loved to lap them up, makes one a little apprehensive. None of them are released by any of the major labels—neither the Saregamas and the Sonys, nor even the JEs and the Sarthaks. In case of Susmita, she admitted that their marketing has been anything but extraordinary.

I just hope that increasingly the new medium of web would be used creatively and effectively by both the artistes and the fans to reach out to the market that may just be waiting in San Francisco, Dallas, London, Bangalore or New Delhi. I promise to keep a watch.

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