Songs leave unique imprints on people and places. In India, especially, songs from films offer a multitude of trajectories for anyone who is more than deferentially familiar with them, contained in or limited by larger prospective areas of film study material. Film songs form a major portion of its popular culture; hence, they are etched into individual and collective memories weaving unique tapestries of such imprints. As there are growing studies of Indian song production and consumption, I see myself having travelled across these trajectories, my memories of them intersecting my local, national, and global journeys. Songs and singers have a great capacity to intrigue and enervate you, charm and choke you, with their virtuosity and subtle (and sometimes loud) communication. The following three cuts are a reflection of such subjective encounters, many of which have long stayed buried without articulation. Here they are hoped to take one on a short journey of three very different experiences linked to three songs in Hindi, Telugu, and Bengali languages. Their evocative and perhaps provocative potential, as linked, montaged yet aggregated experience of an aural cinema, is a good starting point to learn more about Indian film songs.
A rare Lata Mangeshkar song. That’s what it was. I had never heard it before.
But, when my father played it on a Sony multi-player on a late evening, it became a discovery — one of the many songs of the great singer of the subcontinent. It was a lullaby. A few weeks prior to this event, it was played on Chaya Git (10 p.m.) (or Aap ki Farmayish at 10.30 p.m.), a programme that broadcast Hindi film songs – often, the old ones — on Vividh Bharti, to which my father listens avidly. And, on his first encounter with the song, he was in near tears.
His Geminian curiosity put him on a quest for the song; as a retired employee of All India Radio, it wasn’t tough for him to talk to his (retired) colleagues at Vivid Bharti and track the song through their friends to Mumbai’s station. So, soon, there it was, a CD arriving at his doorstep. He clung to it dearly and played it many times, one of which was my visit to him.
I had never heard anything more magical. It was a song composed by Brij Bhushan (Kabra) for the film Pathan (1962), the Hindi lyrics penned by B K Puri. That day, listening to the song I again wondered what that ‘Lata-Mangeshkar-quality’ in Hindi popular film music was all about. Mesmerising. It is something that one is so accustomed to, feel comfortable with; it’s like taking sanctuary under a thick mango tree on a summer day. Even then, you never know what is in store for you until ‘it’ finds you, throws you off guard and makes you carry an imprint of it to the end of all experiences. It is just an experience of, somehow, coming home.
If you lived on the east coast of North America, you’d know how blizzards hit you. And if you passed through one, or just reached home in time only to wake up the next morning to let in a pile of powdery snow through the threshold, then you knew you had it for the day. But, the fun part is when you play old Indian film songs on the system, cooking rice or parathas, and wondering what you’re doing with your life in snow there, you end up singing the song that’s playing on the system. How frequently you sing such songs, and how many, is a different story. You’re perhaps not thinking about songs but about mending those thick, unmusical boots to wear for work the next day. That’s the life of a person straddling two landscapes and two cultures.
On one such occasion, a group of us travelled from Toronto (I was doing my MFA at York University in Toronto) to New York, and to Boston, around the start of the new millennium. There was a big blizzard awaiting our arrival, but we drove through Boston listening to some old Telugu film songs. And what fun it was! Neither the faces outside nor the words of the song had anything to do with each other. We shopped for Indian vegetables somewhere close to Cambridge, cooked an elaborate Indian meal, ate, drank, and finally agreed, along with a television channel, that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was the best and most popular number of the previous century as we chimed our destinies into the new millennium. Pop music? In India? I cannot decide who the best singer can be when I think about it. But I know one thing. That almost all singers sang at least one ‘English song-like number’ — something that had a waltz tempo, and some tune that had an everlasting appeal. You don’t need to know the words to listen to them. So on a blizzard afternoon, you can listen to an English song in your mother tongue like this one. (Well, you can listen to it even when there is no blizzard).
The song was from a 1954 Telugu film Raji naa Pranam (Raji, My Life), sung by R Balasaraswati to a tune composed by S. Hanumantha Rao, whose filmic output is very small. Perhaps this was the only film he scored music for. I’m not sure.
Indian film songs are the most mobile these days. Imagine what life would be without the Internet, and if you cannot play a “Thriller”, a Telugu, Bengali, or Hindi film song of rarity to ‘just listen to it once’. Technology too brings blizzards. Perhaps it brings so many of them, there is so little time to appreciate all…
The only one I remember, sitting in India, on a warm afternoon in Bangalore, is the one of the turn-of-the-millennium. That blizzard is somehow about identifying “Thriller”, and through it, remembering so many other songs that have no connection to Michael Jackson. This summery afternoon brings to my mind, as I write this, a beautiful Bengali song of Sandhya Mukherji that Salil Chowdhury so effortlessly composed. Ask any Bengali friend for its meaning.
The world remembers the best numbers in a certain way; you can remember your songs by playing on YouTube reverentially without consigning them to the crushing feet of time, especially those little gems tucked away in beautiful voices unknown to many who have neither the means nor the inclination to judge.
Featured image: Brigade Road in Bangalore. Photo by Ryan. CC BY 2.0 via ryanready Flickr.