Mumbai’s Keep Alive, a pioneering organisation in reviving the ‘Golden Oldies’ of Hindi film music was founded by Manohar Iyer whose passion for his mission can only be matched by his obsession for purity and genuine melody in film music derived from classical music.
Manohar Iyer is a true Mumbaikar. His only obsession during boyhood, school and college days and a banking job was Hindi film music on the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon. His day started with the 30-minute programme of old film songs at 6.30 am and covered every other offering like Ek hi Film ke Geet, Bhoole Bisre Geet, and Binaca Geet Mala. Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, Rafi, Mukesh, Talat, Shamshad, Lata, Noorjehan and other singers were his permanent heroes and heroines. However, he was jolted to unpleasant reality during the 1980s when film music became more of noise and less of melody.
Famous lyricists, composers and singers were fading away. This was too much for Manohar who in the 1990s, along with friends, founded Keep Alive to preserve the great tunes from the past and honour their creators.
There could be few better persons to talk about the tremendous influence of classical music on Hindi film music. When I interviewed him at his Andheri flat, Manohar spoke about this unique link with authority and eloquence. Excerpts:
Hollywood and Bollywood are more than a hundred years old. Hollywood had a special category of films called ‘musicals’ with several songs. In India we could not visualise even a single Hindi film without songs.
Trace this back to our roots. In our life we had a song for every occasion, joyous or sad. Our people were hardworking and often sang to relieve the monotony of their work, like the boatman, the farmer, the hawker, and the bullock cart driver. The ruling classes like the monarchy and rich patrons encouraged this trend.
When cinema arrived, it had to reflect this trend
What about the era of silent films?
There was no music from the screen. Often musicians sat on the aisles and created music which did not interfere with the action on the screen. The sons of music director Ghulam Mohammad once told me their father had performed this way for shows like Harischandra Taramati.
Then the talkies arrived. And with them, the songs.
The early movies were seldom original. Everything was theatrical and loud due to primitive recording techniques and lack of sophisticated mikes to catch the sound. The stage had always been enormously popular and its influence affected this new arrival. The dialogue and the singing had to be loud. Anyone who wanted to be in films had to sing as there was no playback singing system. Often, even the dialogues were sung!
What factors influenced early Hindi film music?
Any system of music cannot function in isolation; it has to absorb prevailing trends and then evolve on its own. Early Hindi film music was heavily influenced by semi-classical and classical music, folk music and Rabindra Sangeet. These were ageless forms of music, they dealt with our life, the bhakti theme and were readily available. Classical singers and musicians were invited to sing in films.
Early Tamil cinema had its Bhagavatars who were chosen only because they could sing and they played sages, court musicians, Narada Muni, bhakta-s and so on. I remember names like Honnapa Bhagavatar, M.K. Tyagaraja Bhagavatar and renowned vidwans like Musiri Subramania Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam and even Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar enacting ‘musical roles’. How was it in early Hindi cinema?
Not much different. Kanan Devi, K.C. Dey, Pankaj Mullick and others were trained singers. Surendra and even Ashok Kumar (Kismet) got a break because of their looks and singing talent. K.L. Saigal was not trained in classical music but learnt the nuances fast. His immortal Babul mora from Street Singer was Bhairavi at its best. Films like Tansen, Bhakta Surdas and Bhartruhari featured classical tunes in a big way. The classical trend in film music was always there, later it had to compete with rhythm.
When did that start?
The post-war generation had different tastes. War generated black money, some of which was used to make films. The studio system collapsed. In film music, some of the purists and traditionalists died or retired. Of course, film music in the 1950s still had lots of melody but with increased rhythm. The earlier songs of Shankar and Jaikishan (Barsaat, Daag) had more melody than their later ones with their rhythm element. Even Naushad Saab had to compromise a bit in the sixties.
This rhythm. What was behind it?
Heavy orchestration, too many instruments, technological invasion. The impact was towards more foot tapping. A melodious song did not need that kind of orchestration. Among our composers S.D. Burman and Madan Mohan strove till the end for melody. But in the post-1960 films the accent was clearly on rhythm and orchestration, though great composers saw to it that there would be some classical numbers in their compositions. It was not easy to include the vast and great assets of classical music in film songs which had to be sung in three minutes. Yet some composers succeeded in this.
Can you name them?
Baiju Bawra, Shabab, Naubahar, Hamdard, Basant Bahar, Mughule- Azam, Chitralekha, Amrapali, Kohinoor and so on. Even ‘rhythm king’ O.P. Nayyar gave us the unforgettable Mann more baawrain Raagini. Composers like Jaidev, Vasant Desai, S.N. Tripathi and Khemchand Prakash could be termed ‘purely’ classical.
Which are the classical raga-s generally favoured in film songs?
There are many. Bhairavi should top the list, used effectively by Naushad and Shankar-Jaikishan.The former used the traditional form (Tu Ganga ki mauj in Baiju Bawra), but the latter modernised it a bit (Barsaat mein, Ae mere dil kahin aur chal, from Daag). In fact, Babul mora and Madhukar Shyam hamare chor are classic Bhairavi. Other popular raga-s are, Yaman, Sivaranjani, Pahadi, Darbari, Piloo, Khamaj, to name a few.
We had a wonderful group of playback singers. How would you rank them in rendering classically tuned songs?
They were all equally good. Mohammad Rafi, Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar, K.J. Yesudass, Suresh Wadkar and now Shankar Mahadevan. Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle and Kavita Krishnamurthy were in a class of their own.
What is the message you convey through Keep Alive?
Don’t be misled by the ‘popular’ label. Such songs are overplayed and lose their charm. My songs go beyond films which are commercially not A grade. I look beyond the routine ‘popular’ label and classically oriented songs with all their nuances — murki-s and harkat-s, meend-s and taan-s, sargam and alap-s — are the best. By and large, my audiences agree with me and that is why Keep Alive occupies a special place among the city’s music lovers.
(V. Gangadhar is a veteran freelance journalist and columnist)