Unsung heroes

Published : Oct 23, 2009 00:00 IST

SONGS have always been the mainstay of Hindi cinema or what is popularly known as Bollywood. Even today, when technology and its attendant vice, cacophony, have virtually taken over, music albums of commercial Hindi films continue to sell very well not only at home but abroad where there are large emigre populations from the Indian subcontinent. Singers, lyricists and composers they are actually known as music directors continue to be loved and acknowledged by an adoring public, but the people behind the scenes who have made a particular song a huge hit remain unknown. They include various musicians who form the orchestra and arrangers who write down the notations both in the Western and Indian styles, direct the musicians and conduct the orchestra during the recording of the songs. Gregory D. Booth, an anthropologist from Auckland, New Zealand, has made a splendid effort to bring to the forefront the real, unsung heroes behind the creation of Hindi film songs. He has, through painstaking research, located and talked to old and new musicians, arrangers, sound recordists and other personnel connected with the making and recording of songs. Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbais Film Studios is Booths heartfelt and deeply perceptive tribute to the people without whom the recording of film songs in Mumbai would not have been possible. His book records a large chunk of oral history of an art form that the Hindi film song was, and occasionally is even today despite the trying circumstances in which it is made.

There is an indifferent 2005 snapshot of Anthony Gonsalves, master orchestrator and fine violinist, who worked with composers such as Shyam Sunder, S.D. Burman and Madan Mohan. He was the teacher of Pyarelal Sharma of the famous Laxmikant-Pyarelal composer duo. He taught his protege, as he taught many a young musician, violin, European staff notation and Western music theory, including the rules of harmony. He underlines his own role thus: I was known for my willingness to teach. I would teach anyone. I didnt mind about religion or caste or any of those things. Lata [Mangeshkar, the famous singer] arranged a hall for me in Bandra so I could teach there. I taught how to play for the films because mostly they had not done this kind of work before.

Anthony Gonsalvess photograph suggests the anonymity thrust upon him by the Mumbai film industry despite his huge contribution towards the making of its most vital component music. A similar fate awaited other very talented Roman Catholic musicians from Goa. Among them were Sebastian D Souza, arranger for Shankar-Jaikishan and O.P. Nayyar, whose hand in the phenomenal success of their music in the 1950s and the 1960s was never publicly acknowledged and was predictably forgotten; Chick Chocolate, trumpet player and arranger; and Braz Gonsalves, saxophonist and Jazz band leader.

Rarely did a musician become a successful composer. Laxmikant Kudalkar, a mandolinist, teamed up with the violinist Pyarelal Sharma to form the highly successful Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo. A bit earlier, in the late 1950s, the musician duo of Kalyanji-Anandji came on the scene. They, too, had a long career lasting over two and a half decades. Kalyanji had shot to fame imitating the sound of the been on his newly acquired claviolin, an electronic musical instrument, for the song Man Doley Mora Tan Doley under composer Hemant Kumars guidance in the film Nagin. The year was 1954.

A less, far less, satisfying career in composing came Dattaram Waadkars way. He was the life and soul of Shankar-Jaikishans rhythm section, bringing forth all his knowledge of Indian and Western percussion instruments. There is a photograph of him playing the tabla at a Shankar-Jaikishan rehearsal with the great Lata herself. Composing under his first name, Dattaram revealed a flair for melody as well. The song Meethi Meethi Baaton Se Bachna Zaraa from the film Qaidi Number 911 was a nationwide hit. This was followed by an even more successful bunch of songs for another film, Parwarish. But success as a music director (the composers of film songs were a modest lot, they never thought of themselves as artists), for reasons unknown, eluded Dattaram.

Then there is the strange case of G.S. Kohli, whose pulsating dholak graced so many of O.P. Nayyars compositions. His skill as an arranger was duly recognised by his mentor. Kohlis songs for Shikari caught the listening publics imagination, especially Tumko Piya Dil Diya. Again, for some inexplicable reason, Kohlis career as a music director came undone.

The tabla player Sattar teamed up with his colleague Lala to compose music for films. The Lala-Sattar duo also fizzled out after a few films. It is widely believed that most instrumentalists and arrangers who aspire to compose for films can at best achieve modest success. The latest example is former arranger Uttam Singh, whose composing talent is way ahead of his contemporaries but has not received the recognition it deserves.

The pay for musicians and arrangers in the olden days ranged from poor to, at best, modest; the better ones were, of course, compensated adequately. Dattaram Waadkar recalled the pay scales from the 1950s: Then in recordings we were paid by the CMA [Cine Musicians Association] rates 85 rupees per shift [for A grade] or 110 for first class, like that. My rate was special, 120 rupees.

A lot of songs were being recorded then, as were background scores to films. A good musician could earn an acceptable living from films in Bombay, sometimes a little more. Producers, many of them of the fly-by-night type, would want the services of the musicians for little or no money. After a recording, a producer asked participating musicians to come for their money to his office after a few days. One of them, Cawas Lord, went to collect his dues. The wily producer asked him what instrument he had played in that particular session. Lord told him that he had played the maracas. The producer replied, I cant hear any maracas! Why should I pay for something I cant even hear?

The formation of the Cine Musicians Association in 1952 remedied the situation quite a bit. Instrumentalist, arranger and composer, Vistasp Balsara (better known as V. Balsara) recalled how bad things were before: Work had to be stopped due to non-payment and all that. It was about the rate; the producers were not willing to pay our rate. This was sometime in 1951, just before the CMA was started. Once an agreement was reached about session timings and a structure for overtime, the CMA saw to it that it was paid on time. Jerry Fernandes, then a young musician, recalled, Once we founded the CMA, then the producers had to bring the money on the set [meaning, the recording studio] itself. And if they didnt pay, we didnt play. If they dont pay, we send them a notice, and if nothing comes, then we tell the musicians, Dont play for this man.

The Hindi film industry suffered from a bad debt syndrome. Things came to a head in 1974 when musicians went on strike for four months, suffering great hardships. There was an improvement in their situation over time. In the mid-1980s, the musicians were earning a reasonable living. Bosco Mendes, who played the trombone, was working two or three times a week. Many people were working 14 hours a day. It was an interesting, even adventurous, life then for a musician.

By far the richest film industry in India, the Hindi film industry was, until recently, when the distinct possibility of an overseas market comprising a large subcontinental audience opened up, reluctant to adopt new techniques and technologies for sound recording. The soundtrack for Sholay, possibly the greatest blockbuster in Hindi cinema, was done on a six-track mono with one track for the monitor. In effect, it was five-track recording. The music had to be taken to London to be transferred to stereo. But that was in 1975. Dolby sound came in 15 years ago. Its acceptance until recently was reluctant. Musicians and arrangers carried on despite the odds and often produced exceptional results.

A.R. Rahman was seen as the man who threw the spanner in the works. Shankar Indorkar, a veteran oboeist, summed up the nearly changed musical scene in Hindi films: I got called to Madras [Chennai] to his studio. In his studio there were so many keyboards, it was as if every keyboard that ever came to India ended up in his studio. Like, you know that claviolin that Kalyanji-Anandji used? I used to see that in their music room a long time ago. From that instrument to the latest instrument, he [Rahman] had everything. He was a keyboard director.

Rahman made Indorkar play for half an hour. Play anything, whatever you want, he said. It was evident that Indorkars oboe and English horn would be in Rahmans computer and would be used with suitable alterations or as they were, as and when the occasion rose. Other composers have followed suit. Viju Shah, son of Kalyanji, has also gone electronic. His compositions, like Rahmans, have a distinctly synthetic feel.

The last true composer in Hindi cinema was Rahul Dev Burman, whose grasp of both Hindustani classical he had learned the tabla and also the sarod, the latter from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and jazz was enviable. He died in the mid-1990s. Since then composers have come and gone, their songs as ephemeral as the films that featured them.

Musicians and arrangers loved and remembered the old composers as much for their melodies as their generous, colourful personalities. O.P. Nayyar was easily the most adored music director of his time. He appreciated his musicians wholeheartedly. In a particular recording session, he gave Jerry Fernandes an extra thousand rupees for playing a beautiful obbligato (counter-melody) that was not written into the orchestral score.

These days producers with huge, inflated budgets cut corners when it comes to putting music into their films. They just do not want to spend money on the music or devote the required time. Recording studios have shrunk in size. As one seasoned musician observed, certain recording studios look like small bathrooms. Musicians no longer play or rehearse together. It is just one person at a time being fed other parts of the so-called score through a pair of headphones.

Booth deserves thanks from all lovers of old Hindi film music. He has done what no Indian scholar has done he has brought to light and put into perspective the struggles of the many talented musicians working in Hindi films for well over 60 years.

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