Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Film Music from Pre-Independence India

The dawn of India’s independence also saw the beginning of the Golden Era of Hindi film music, writes Narendra Kusnur

The king of melancholy songs, KL Saigal, was the biggest name in Hindi film music before Independence, and passed away at the beginning of 1947


When it comes to India’s Independence, the word ‘shehnai’ has a special significance. On August 15, 1947, shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan performed at New Delhi’s Red Fort. On the same day, PL Santoshi’s film Shehnai was released. It had music by C Ramchandra, and featured the hit song ‘Aana Meri Jaan Sunday Ke Sunday’, sung in one version by Ramchandra, Meena Kapoor and Shamshad Begum.

The film came six months after the death – on January 18, 1947 – of the legendary actor-singer Kundan Lal Saigal, undoubtedly the biggest name in Hindi film music before Independence. Though he made his debut in the 1932 film Mohabbat Ke Ansu, which had music by the legendary Rai Chand Boral, Saigal’s first hit was Yahudi Ki Ladki later that year. Music credits were shared by Boral, Timir Baran and Pankaj Mullick, who composed Mirza Ghalib’s ‘Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil’.

From 1932 to 1947, Saigal had numerous hits like Devdas, President, Street Singer, Dushman, Tansen, My Sister and Shahjehan, among others. His ‘Jab Hi Dil Toot Gaya’, composed by Naushad and written by Majrooh Sultanpuri in the 1945 film Shahjehan, is considered to be among the ultimate sad songs. Saigal’s last film Parwana was released posthumously in 1947, and was composed by Khurshid Anwar with lyrics by DN Madhok and J Naqshab. Suraiya sang the female vocals.

The Hindi film music story began with the first talkie Alam Ara in 1931. But there had been other landmarks before that. Before vinyl records came on the scene in the early 20th century, music was recorded on hollow rolls called cylinders. Those who recorded in this format included legendary singer Gauhar Jaan, classical vocalists Alladiya Khan and Bhaskarbua Bakhale, Parsi singer Allah Bandi and Marathi natya sangeet great Balgandharva.

The history of cylinders has been traced wonderfully in the book The Wonder That Was The Cylinder by AN Sharma and his daughter Anukriti. It talks about how H Bose was the first Indian to manufacture and trade cylinders in India, and even mentions recordings of Rabindranath Tagore’s recitations and filmmaker Dadasaheb Phalke’s voice after he completed his epic silent film Raja Harishchandra in 1913.

Gauhar Jaan, originally an Armenian named Angelina Yeoward, was the most prolific singer till her death in 1930, recording over 600 songs. Most of these were later released by the Gramophone Company of India (popularly known as HMV and today called Saregama India) on 78 rpm vinyl records. She mostly sang thumri and related forms, besides classical taranas, and was described as the ‘Gramophone Girl’.

One of her contemporaries was Malka Jaan. It is said that Begum Akhtar, who went on to be called the Ghazal Queen, was so influenced by Gauhar Jaan and Malka Jaan that she decided to sing in their style, rather than opt for film music. She, however, worked with music director Anil Biswas in the 1942 film Roti.

Ghazal Queen Begum Akhtar was initially heavily influenced by playback singers Gauhar Jaan and Malka Jaan

Beginning of soundtracks

The first talkie film was released a year after Gauhar Jaan’s death. Naturally, Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara flagged off the trend of soundtracks. The film had seven songs, but interestingly, there is ambiguity about who composed its music – neither the music director nor the lyricist was credited. Irani claimed to have written the lyrics himself, only using pump organ and tabla for the music. However, while some say Ferozeshah Mistri gave the music, others credit it to B Irani. ‘De De Khuda Ke Naam Pe Pyaare’, sung by Wazir Mohammad Khan, is acknowledged as the first song of Hindi cinema, though Zubeida sang most songs.

Initially, the trend was to have many songs. Early talkie films like Shirin Farhad and Indra Sabha had over 40 songs, and they were used in continuity to develop the narrative. But that trend died down, and music directors settled for eight to 10 songs per film.

Among the music directors, Boral and Pankaj Mullick were the pioneers, with Timir Baran taking forward the tradition. All three worked on Devdas, released in 1936. Boral had hits like Chandidas, Vidyapati, Street Singer, Lagan and President, and was said to have a fantastic partnership with Saigal. Mullick composed for Yahudi Ki Ladki, Badi Bahen and Dushman, among other films, continuing till the mid-1950s. Baran maintained a balance between classical and film music, composing Pujaran, Adhikar and Raj Nartaki.

The 1930s also saw releases by two female music directors. Jaddan Bai, mother of 1950s star Nargis, composed for Talash-e-Haq in 1935. The following year, Saraswati Devi provided music in the landmark film Achhut Kanya. The song ‘Main Ban Ki Chidiya Banke’, sung by Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani and written by JS Kashyap, was a huge hit, and Devika Rani’s ‘Udi Hawa Mein Jaati Hai’ attracted the connoisseurs.

‘Main Ban Ki Chidiya’ from Achhut Kanya, which was a super hit and is hummed cheerily even today

Film music takes off

By the mid-1930s, a few definite trends were emerging. The most obvious one was that songs had become an integral part of cinema, and in some cases, people went for repeat viewing just for the songs. Secondly, with All India Radio being set up as a full-fledged station in 1936 (though there had been earlier attempts to develop the medium), songs slowly became an integral part of its content, besides news bulletins.

The third factor was that music often depended on the film’s subjects. A large number of films were classified as historicals, mythologicals, patriotic, socials and family dramas, and the musical themes would vary accordingly. Finally, though film music was a big attraction for the masses, there was a large following for classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic. The Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar, Punjab, and the Madras Music Season were the major festivals. A small section also tuned in to jazz, and in Mumbai, trumpeter Chic Chocolate was a major attraction in the 1940s.

In film music, this was the era of the singer-actor. Performers like Saigal, Zubeida, Pahadi Sanyal, Khurshid and later in the 1940s, Noorjehan, Surendra and Suraiya sang their own songs. There were exceptions, of course, with actors like Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor.

The first case of Hindi playback singing took place in the 1935 film Dhoop Chhaon, whose music was credited to Boral and Mullick. It was a group song set in a theatre performance, and the singers were KC Dey, Parul Ghosh, Suprava Sarkar and Harimati, with lyrics by P Sudarshan. However, the trend took its time to take off, with Saigal continuing to act and sing, inspiring others.

Surendra, who paired with Noorjehan for the immortal number ‘Awaaz De Kahan Hai’ in Anmol Ghadi

Playback gains importance

By the early 1940s, playback singing had slowly gained in importance. The 1941 film Khazanchi, which had music by Ghulam Haider, featured Shamshad Begum on most songs. In the 1942 movie Khandaan, Ghulam Haider had Noorjehan sing songs filmed on her, with Shamshad Begum doing playback for others. Noorjehan remained a singing star in the 1946 film Anmol Ghadi. Her hits included ‘Awaaz De Kahan Hai’ with Surendra and ‘Jawaan Hai Mohabbat’.

Music director Anil Biswas used the full chorus for the first time in the 1943 film Kismet, which had Amirbai Karnataki as the main playback singer. Interestingly, Karnataki had started off as a singing star but later shifted to playback singing, working extensively with music director Khemchand Prakash. She also rendered Narsinh Mehta’s bhajan ‘Vaishnava Jan’ in the 1940 film Narsi Bhagat, with music by Shankarrao Vyas, and earned praise from Mahatma Gandhi.

Besides Karnataki, the early female playback singing greats were Zohrabai Ambalewali, who worked with Naushad in Rattan, and Rajkumari. Though she later sang her own songs, including a few in Anmol Ghadi, Suraiya initially did playback for actress Mehtab. Among the men, G.M. Durrani and C.H. Atma had some successful songs, with the latter singing the non-film hit ‘Preetam Aan Milo’. Among the music directors, Gyan Dutt was prolific, and Husnlal-Bhagatram had embarked on a career that would pick up after Independence.

The period from 1942 to 1946 also marked the debut of playback singers who would become legends after Independence. Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi started their Hindi playback careers during that period, though they got their first big hit later. Asha Bhosle had begun singing in Marathi films. Manna Dey made his debut with Tamanna in 1942, with uncle KC Dey composing. Mukesh had a huge hit with Anil Biswas in the 1945 film Pehli Nazar with ‘Dil Jalta Hai To Jalne De’, and Geeta Dutt first recorded in the 1946 film Bhakta Prahlad. Lyricists like Kavi Pradeep, Qamar Jalalabadi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kidar Sharma, D.N. Madhok and Tanvir Naqvi made a mark.

That brings us to 1947, the year of Independence. Besides Shehnai, the four most successful films were Jugnu, with music by Firoz Nizami, Do Bhai, by S.D, Burman, and Dard and Elaan, both by Naushad. Besides ‘Aana Meri Jaan’, the biggest hits were Geeta Dutt’s ‘Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya’ from Do Bhai and Uma Devi’s ‘Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon’ in Dard. The stage had just been set for another era, and by 1949, we would begin what has often been described as the Golden Period, something which would last a quarter century.

10 hits before Independence

‘Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon’ from Dard

1 Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil – KL Saigal, Yehudi Ki Ladki (1931)

2 Main Ban Ki Chidiya Banke – Ashok Kumar & Devika Rani, Achhut  Kanya


3 Chal Chal Re Naujawan – Master Suresh, Bandhan (1940)

4 Vaishnava Jan To – Amirbai Karnataki, Narsi Bhagat (1940)

5 Sawan Ke Nazare Hai – Shamshad Begum, Khazanchi (1941)

6 Preetam Aan Milo – C.H. Atma, non-film (1943)

7 Dil Jalta Hai To Jalne De – Mukesh, Pehli Nazar (1945)

8 Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya – K.L. Saigal, Shahjehan (1945)

9 Awaaz De Kahan Hai – Noorjehan & Surendra, Anmol Ghadi (1946)

10 Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon – Uma Devi, Dard (1947)


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