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January 3, 2017

Music of the old masters


January 3, 2017

Islamabad diary

They were the founders, the progenitors, of subcontinental film music. Raichand Boral, Khemchand Prakash, Pankaj Mallick, Anil Biswas and Master Ghulam Haider…listen to their music, the tunes they composed, and one is left wondering at their talent and the richness of their fertile minds.

We shall never see their likes again, for the simple reason that music is of its time and these titans, and they were truly that, were also of their time. When their era passed things had changed, Hindustan had changed, cinema had changed, for the better and for the worse, and the new music composers who came after the masters took to a faster kind of music, removed from the classical moorings of the earlier film music.

The mish-mash we hear today can be thrilling in its own way. Baby Doll and songs like Chitti Kalayan which have millions of viewers on YouTube can set your feet moving. There is a charge of electricity in them. But they don’t stay on the mind…don’t stick. They are the flavour of the moment and when the moment passes they are gone…and we look forward to the next fix, the next item song, which again makes a splash while it lasts and is then over.

But the music of the 1930s, 40s and early 50s is not of this evanescent quality. It has already proved its strength and endurance. Go back to it and you will experience at once its mesmerising effect. When evening comes or late at night, alone with sadness and nostalgia, thinking of times gone by, of opportunities taken and missed…when the mood is Khayyamesque, if I can put it that way, the moving finger writes and so on, then mind and heart open to something else: the lasting, enduring music of that golden era of song, en era, as I say, never to return.

You can’t listen to item songs for long. Perhaps if someone is high on crack or cocaine or the other drugs said to be favourites with partygoers these days this can be done. This is a recipe not for insanity, which is to put it too strongly, but certainly a way to get slow in the head. Pop music is for dancing. What would a nightclub scene be without it? But Kundan Lal Saigal, for instance, the Subcontinent’s greatest singer I suppose after Tansen, you can listen to for long stretches, without the effect diminishing.

But a song is only as good as its tune, and this is where the magic of the masters comes in. They composed fabulous music, unforgettable tunes. Then when a Saigal came along, a Khurshid or a Suraiya, it became pure magic, not only for that scene in that particular film, but for the ages.

What did Shakespeare say about his poetry? ‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme’. So it is with the best music. Beethoven, as we are all agreed, is for all time. When the final curtains come down, if we are to believe the scriptures although Doubting Thomases will not, and apocalypse happens, it may be that the heavenly hosts will be borrowing some tune from Beethoven to match the occasion.

Wagner has plenty of fireworks in his music, storm and thunder, and gods entering and leaving the gates, but for that supreme occasion, only Beethoven’s music will suffice.

The internet is one of the greatest inventions of all time. It puts at our disposal resources and capacities that until recently were beyond imagination, past belief. Forget about computing and mathematics. I cannot stop marvelling at the veritable treasure trove of music that it puts at the ends of our fingers.

When I was growing up the only music resource we had was the radio and then only if one was lucky because every household did not have a radio. We listened to Radio Ceylon and All India Radio and even our own radio wasn’t that bad. But Western classical music we never had the chance to listen to. So imagine the luxury of choice available today…the world’s music just a click away. The more you explore this treasure-house the more you discover, until you are befuddled and left confounded…having a hard time believing that up there next to the spheres lie all these riches.

Milestone songs of the masters are there for the taking. You just need your laptop and a good pair of speakers and then you are delivered into another world. Anil Biswas was not only a great composer. He was also a great explainer. Listen to him going through the songs of Khemchand Prakash – his repertoire including music for Saigal’s Tansen, with songs like ‘Sapt Suran Teen Gram’ and ‘Diya Jalao’, and for Mahal with its iconic Lata song, ‘Aaega Aane Wala’. Look at the stunning range.

Lata wasn’t in the first rank of singers to begin with. The leading singers then were Suraiya, Shamshad and of course Noor Jahan, a sensation from the moment she started singing. Lata’s voice was considered too thin. But Anil Biswas, Master Ghulam Haider and Khemchand Prakash encouraged and coached her. With Aaega Aane Wala it became clear that a superstar was born.

If anyone discovered Noor Jahan it was Master Ghulam Haider. Under his direction she sang that lilting song ‘Shaala jawanian maane’ from the film Gul Bakauli in 1939 when she was hardly twelve. Lata came much later. The male sensation of course was Saigal and the young Lata, before she became the star she did, would say that she wanted to marry Saigal.

Singers like Mukesh and Kishore Kumar were all under Saigal’s spell and would try to sing like him. Anil Biswas told both Mukesh and Kishore that they should be themselves. Mukesh was scheduled to record a song but was so nervous that he absconded and went drinking with some buddies. Legend has it that Anil Biswas went looking for him and when he found him gave him a slap across the face. Mukesh returned to the studio and recorded ‘Dil jalta hai toh jalne de’.

Talat Mehmood, as we know, had a slightly quivering voice which was considered a disability. But Anil Biswas told him that instead of being bothered by this he should make this lilt or tremble into his trademark which is what he did.  

Who discovered Saigal? I think no one. It was his destiny to be what he became. His father was a tehsildar and how could a tehsildar of those days, later a successful contractor, countenance a tall, gangly son who was good for nothing, had not done well at school, and who always seemed to be dreaming, lost in another world? A misfit and his father not looking too kindly upon him, Saigal left home in Jallundhar at an early age and to earn a living took up a job first as a timekeeper in Indian Railways and then a salesman for Remington Typewriters.

In Calcutta a friend of his, Harishchand Bali, knew R C Boral. He kept pestering the great music director to try out this Punjabi boy. Bengalis did not have a high opinion of Punjabis when it came to singing and the arts. So Boral at first ignored him. But then Saigal got his chance and he was tried out. When he finished there was a stunned silence in the studio. They had never heard anything like that. The rest we know.


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