The newspapers were already full of detailed updates about his failing health, and after several years of frailty, nobody could deny a sense of foreboding, even resignation about the news to come. After all, Bhimsen Joshi was nearly 90. Life and death themselves are blurred now for weeks on end by ventilators, stabilizers and all kinds of other gadgets. I have also often asked myself if it really matters that Lata Mangeshkar is still alive, or that Mohammed Rafi and Kumar Gandharva are not, when their voices, their music and the magic they made will forever be alive in my ears and heart no matter what their mortal status. But there still comes that moment of silence, finality and emptiness, and it came last week for one of Hindustani music’s giants.
Working through the emotions that have been running through me the last week led to several dispersed ruminations about memory, music and family. The Anecdote (and more generally the Memoir) is arguably the most powerful means of transmission of knowledge about the social world of Hindustani music. Scholarly histories of Indian music often lament this because of the difficulty of corroborating and documenting it, but the personal or familial memory retains a powerful charge, shaping the public discourse and the aura surrounding past musicians, musical culture and their received history. The gharana organization of musical knowledge and history and the scholarly, historical study of gharanas as discrete units have their own pride of place; serious, expert analysis is likewise indispensable. The archive of anecdotes, however, is like a giant set of lively strands from Salman Rushdie’s famous sea of stories that makes up the historical memory of the musical world, and renders the individual musician at once larger than life and intensely personal, both eccentric and everyday.
Bhimsen Joshi’s exploits, in this genre, are legendary, from his incessant roaming of the country in search of a teacher, to his binge drinking, to his craze for cars and love for driving, to his inimitable, bodily style of singing, to his love for food. I need not repeat them here. The best and funniest one in English, even though it doesn’t really make him come off as lovably as many others do, is in Sheila Dhar’s Raga’n Josh, (pp. 142-145) the brilliant, master text of this “Memoir genre” of Hindustani music. But hundreds of people from Gadag to Gwalior to Kolkata to Patiala have a small, marginal, intensely personal Bhimsen story to tell, and indeed, retelling these stories appears to have been a principal means of articulating the sense of loss and sadness these last few days.
From as long as I can remember, we have told and retold anecdotes about Bhimsen Joshi in our family. My father knew him well as a young man, growing up in the same social, and musical circles of northern Karnataka spanning Gadag, Bagalkot, Dharwad, Hubli and Belgaum, his connections forged especially through his guru Shyamacharya Joshi, with whom Joshi also learned and worked in his early years. Shyamacharya was a quiet, retiring man with a genius for rendering devotional Kannada poetry by Purandara dasa and others into the most soulful Hindustani classical tunes; he also had a penchant for deadpan, one-line observations about the local musical world. If my introduction to the signature melodies of raga Kafi or Tilakkamod or Tilang came through his daasara pada compositions, my initial hazy sense of this rich and quirky world of small-town musicians and music-lovers in northern Karnataka to which my family belonged came from my father and his siblings’ retellings of his quips and observations. Bhimsen stories and the antics they all got up to – humbling a pakhawaj player here, singing a really long Darbari there, a really fine rendition of the Marathi natyasangeet chandrika hi janu sung for nearly ninety minutes, the raga Pilu tune composed for a staging of the Nala Damayanti play, the crazy shopping trip in the middle of it all – were central to these.
The stories that I most enjoyed were of Bhimsen Joshi’s sudden, unannounced driving trips to our house in a tiny town near Pune. He usually demanded a particular kind of Karnataka-style avalakki loaded with raw mango chutney and stuffed fried chillies from my mother, ate a mountain of it, and drove off after pronouncing upon its authenticity. I was too young to remember those visits, but can certainly trace my first memory of a live Darbari Kanada rendition to one of his performances in our town. Many such live concerts were to follow over the years as I became a regular at his Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune and became familiar with his early morning signature performances of Komal Rishabh Asavari Todi or Lalit Bhatiyar, but these too did not wipe out the energy and devotion he generated in the room with a Marathi abhanga concert in memory of our school principal. At Sawai one year, he gave my sister and I his characteristic piercing glance, and asked after my father. We were a bit startled that we looked so obviously like our father that Bhimsen Joshi Himself should recognize us and directly address us so, but before either of us could find our tongues he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t waste time at the coffee stall here – Rashid Khan is going to go up next, find a place to sit down and listen to him carefully.”
And yet, as a teenager I also found myself increasingly dissatisfied. The ye olde, and seemingly pointless, stories bored me and what I perceived as excessive Bhimsen devotion weirded me out. My teenage self could not comprehend why my father had chosen to channel his own stellar musical talent into a personal and private spiritual experience. I fervently sought separate musical tastes, musicians who weren’t so obviously popular, others who were more self-consciously high-brow, and still others who were equally popular but just different. Being part of the Pune musical circles in college, which take their love for their favourite artists rather seriously, just bolstered this sentiment. I craved a more serious, technically informed, musical ear for myself that wasn’t, as I simplistically characterised it then, so rooted in “extra-musical stuff.”
Now I cannot believe I listened to so much Jasraj at the time – what was I thinking?! But mercifully, this effort to get away from the Bhimsen-inflected musical memories, bhajans, taans and bandishes also made me voraciously seek out his contemporaries – Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kishori Amonkar or Amir Khan – as well as a lot of younger musicians. It made my musical ear all the richer over the decades, to be sure, even if not as technically informed as I had dreamed. But in recent times I also find myself returning to some old Bhimsen favourites again and again – an electric live Durga, the joyful Shuddha Kedar that inevitably comes to mind after a rain shower – saawan ki boondaniyaan – the incredible richness of his Malkauns, or the way in which only his sombre and reassuring Shuddha Kalyan can drive away my unexplained and persistent twilight blues. I am in awe yet again of the impossible energy of his music commanding those clouds to gather, umad ghumad, pell-mell, and burst with rain, his eyes just as piercing as his voice, compelling us to follow the trajectory of the notes and visualize the gathering storm.
I confess I am still not fond of his interpretation of many Kannada bhajans – the recordings are harsh and abrupt, and the melodiousness of Shyamacharya’s tunes, which captured the essence of the devotional poem for me, are missing in them. The Marathi ones, on the other hand, are sublime – magic is indeed a Bhimsen abhanga in Malkauns.
Our extended family had occasion to remember many of these stories over the last few days, Shyamacharya’s quips and tunes mixing in once again with replays of some of our favourite Bhimsen recordings – both classical, and “light” ones in Kannada and Marathi. As always, these also mixed in with Dharwad-Bagalkot lore, the older generation’s stories of migrating from northern Karnataka to Pune, their initial mishaps with the Marathi language, untranslatable bilingual Kannada-Marathi puns and jokes, and more.
Listening afresh to the retellings and the devotional tunes, I like to think my more mature ear can appreciate how finely the strands of family memory, musical knowledge and community are woven in them. Instead of merely supplementing or sullying an ideal, objective narrative of biography, either of a gharana or an individual musician, these strands challenge the very claims to such singularity beyond the bare arrangement of facts. They are marginal, as in they do not impinge in any significant way on the “track to greatness” narrative of the musician, nor are they especially technically insightful. But they are rich and ubiquitous. They compel us to acknowledge how such an ‘appreciation’ of individual musicians and our knowledge of the social world of music, indeed, musical knowledge itself, produce and reproduce each other at intensely personal, familial and communitarian levels all at once.
The Bhimsen legacy cannot but range freely across all these levels, much like the great man’s own inimitable voice ranged, and will continue to range, across the octaves. Even to write RIP after such a restless life and voice seems pointless.
For the last few weeks a song has possessed me in a way that very few film songs nowadays do. This song, malaa zaauu dyaa na gharii (please let me go, it’s past midnight!) is the opening sequence of a Marathi film Natarang that is making quite a few waves in Maharashtra. Based on the eponymous novel by Anand Yadav, the music is by a new composer duo Ajay & Atul, and this song is by Bela Shende, who I have heard often before this, but I must say I will listen to more carefully from now on!
Mainstream Marathi cinema, it would appear, is experiencing a bit of a revival after decades of extremely mediocre popular comedy/family sagas, and marginal arthouse themes. This film is about the lives and struggles of tamaashaa artistes – a popular dance/theatre form of some vintage in Maharashtra, and is garnering great critical and popular reviews. I haven’t seen it, but I badly want to!
The tamashaa’s main musical ingredient, the laavaNii, is frequently invoked as maraaThmoLaa, the very essence of popular Marathi culture. The comments on the youtube page for this song totally get the dancing wrong – the choreography and dancing are actually very true to the tamaashaa form. The moves are not always smooth and seamless; the neck and shoulder movements, and especially the rapid jerks of the torso, are all classic actions. Although the influence of classical Kathak footwork and turns is clearly visible, the distinctiveness of this dance, it seems to me, is in these jerks, the feet apart from each other, the rough edges. The main difference from laavaNiis I have seen in earlier films, is that the dancers seem a lot thinner than they used to be. I think they haven’t ‘bollywood-ised’ the dancing here, even the music and look is also unmistakably more modern. Here is another dance from the same film which is also very stylised, but does a great job of following these basic laavaNii moves.
I love the sound of the laavaNii – just the familiar opening dholki rhythms, the ting-ting-ting of the strings, and the footwork is very stirring. The language is bawdy, colourful and deliciously alliterative, with quick back-and-forths between the dancer and her companions, with a high-pitched chorus that backs up her pleas or complaints. Of course, the filmi ones are not always the real thing, but they are still very good.
Here is a classic filmi one, bugaDii maajhii saanDlii ga (I’ve lost my ‘earring’ during that tryst to Satara). I used to sing this song often, way back in school and family musical gatherings. It features the gorgeous Jayashree Gadkar, doyenne of Marathi films of the ’60s-’70s. Sung by Asha Bhosale in the original, it was still pretty melodious, even too melodious for the form, perhaps, but I like it a lot.
One of the last ‘tamasha’-themed films I remember seeing was Pinjara, which I really didn’t care for, but whose soundtrack became wildly popular. It starred Sandhya, a terribly hammy actor who is not known as the most graceful of dancers. Sandhya usually did all her dances like an exaggerated laavaNii, especially the jerky peacock-like neck movements. Even in this one, below, she is over the top. But despite the exaggeration, the song and dance are vintage, raucous laavaNii, and part of film lore – aaho daajibaa gaavaat hoil shobaa he vagana bara nava (Really, Sir! Do behave, what will the villagers say!). I love the opening sequence, where the lines musically mock the pretensions to respectability of village folk, who are worried about what the arrival of this attractive dancer will do to local morals.
Performed by a female lead dancer with (both male and female) accompanists and (male) interlocutors on stage, mainly to a male audience, the laavaNii’s themes are usually explicitly erotic. These songs featured regularly in most ‘rural’ themed Marathi movies from the ’60s, which featured beautiful dancers, well-meaning farmers, anxieties of respectability, ill-fated romances, and evil, mustachioed and turbaned headmen. The kinds of gender roles and stereotypes the form has underwritten or transgressed, its role in shaping a lower-caste, popular culture, and most importantly, the problematic ways in which films have incorporated this popular theatre, have seen some fine historical and feminist analysis in recent times, which I don’t want to reprise here. This post is mainly to share this recent obsession and some old favourites, especially with Mary, if she’s reading this.
I narrowly missed seeing Natarang when I was in Pune last month. I wish I was at Prabhat Talkies right now, watching it with all the noise and whistles around me instead of a few snatches on youtube.
My sister’s dance school had a show for all the students the other day, and it reminded me of a blog post I had drafted months ago, but set aside because I couldn’t get youtube to work for some reason. I had accompanied her to a dance recital that featured four different forms of classical Indian dance – Odissi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam and Bharata Natyam. It was an exciting set of performances, part of a tribute to Sucheta Chapekar, a Pune-based Bharata Natyam (BN) dancer and researcher who has done much to popularize the study and patronage of classical dance in the city. Leading performers also spoke at a seminar about contemporary issues facing their particular dance forms, aesthetics, audiences, etc. As I sat there, rapt, it made me think about how, in always celebrating Pune’s love for classical music, its burgeoning dance community doesn’t really get the critical attention it deserves. Thanks to my sister who dances, choreographs and teaches BN here, I have been lucky to attend quite a few shows, big and small, and think a little bit (as a complete outsider to the art form) about the way in which different forms of haute dance impact ideas of national art and culture, language and tradition, and how contemporary moves shape and reshape these practices, in a madly expanding city whose social face is itself undergoing a rapid transformation.
Given that its aesthetics are so deeply enmeshed with Hindustani music, you would perhaps expect Kathak, the northern Indian courtly dance to dominate in Pune. Above is a superb Kathak piece by the legendary Saswati Sen, in the Satyajit Ray film Shatranj ke Khilari (Chessplayers). Kathak is indeed popular, but it is Bharata Natyam (BN), the southern form originating in Tamil Nadu that has captured the middle-class imagination in Pune. Classes have mushroomed in the city over the last decade or so, some ambitious academies, and others small neighbourhood courses for young school-going girls. Many of these complete the required six-year margam, after which they graduate with their first public performance, the arangetram. Hardly a week passes in December-January or May without an announcement in the newspaper about an arangetram in the city.
These arangetrams are expensive to organize, with the students’ parents footing the bill of the theatre, costumes, musicians, jewellery, etc. Although they can sometimes resemble a debutante ball for one individual dancer, rising costs have compelled several middling families of graduating students to mount a joint effort nowadays. This, in turn, has compelled novel approaches to choreography, in a form that has traditionally revolved around the solitary performer. Many leading BN dancers perform solo; aside from the intensely personal nature of the emotions expressed in the dance, performing solo on stage for several hours also relates to the technical virtuosity of the dancer. Here is a well known BN exponent, Malavika Sarukkai:
But in the new multiple-performer format, there is a lot of innovation in terms of stage configurations and the kinds of items performed. For instance, a lot more emphasis on geometric patterns, symmetric variations, contrapuntal actions in the more physical and technical nritta pieces, rather than on solo stamina. In the abhinaya or expressive, emotive pieces, there seem to be a lot more ensemble dance-drama compositions that build on conversations, narratives and social situations. Below is a fine example of this kind of group choreography:
Another interesting innovation is in language – BN is a dance form steeped in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit, but now popular in a city whose language is Marathi (and increasingly Hindi). Traditional 18th & 19th c pieces continue to form the mainstay of the performances – even though the Marathi dancers in Pune have little direct exposure to the words of these poems. The language of mudra (hand gestures), is of course a primary translator, as is the emotion of the music. But of late, many younger dancers are choreographing pieces from their own languages as well. BN flourished in the Gujarati city of Baroda over the 20th century, at the famous Maharaja Sayajirao University for the Arts, far away from the Tamil heartland, and there is now a sizeable repertoire of pieces in Gujarati. My sister draws on a large corpus of Marathi and Kannada devotional and erotic poetry to compose fresh items, and nearly every arangetram I have attended in Pune has included a couple of Marathi items, even as many of the traditional Tamil pieces have also become more familiar to audiences here.
Of course, the spectre of authenticity looms large over all these experiments. Although it is now often hailed as the pre-eminent form of Indian classical dance, BN is also viewed as part of a particular Tamil heritage and there is no doubt that Chennai and other Tamil sites remain the heart of the art form. Some view these linguistic and musical innovations (with Hindustani ragas, tunes and beats) as inappropriate, doing violence to the core of BN’s aesthetics. And yet, this popularity outside its heartland has certainly contributed to its elevation into classical, national heritage. I admit I am torn. I have never been a big fan of the Ravi Shankar style fusion music that throws strange twangs and twings together (I cannot stand the phrase “world music” and most of what is peddled in its name), and yet (perhaps because I speak Marathi?) I really like and appreciate the experiments that combine Marathi compositions with BN mudra and abhinaya. Part of it is a question of time; all experiments, over time, become tradition, and in the next few decades, perhaps this linguistic variety may well become part of BN’s core aesthetics?
Although steeped in Hindu devotionalism of various (often contradictory) kinds, if my sister’s students are any indication, students in Pune are from all religious backgrounds, and I wonder how this shift from a particular regional and social set of performers and audiences to a much more diverse pan-Indian middle-class is going to shape its repertoire. An important question raised at the symposium was about the ability of these art/dance forms to address changing needs and ideas of family, feminism and individualism – can the love of Radha and Krishna continue to speak, however flexibly and timelessly, to changing notions of sexuality, gender, devotion or romance? Or, like language, music and choreography, how will BN’s core aesthetics (or Kathak’s or Odissi’s, for that matter) engage afresh with the ever-changing social? In this regard, whither their classicism?
Of course, classicism and tradition are themselves modern ideas about the past and seek to fix what is actually a continuously changing process. Scholars have analyzed this “classicization” of BN during the nationalist movement, and even before the nation, the great Serfoji composed some beautiful Marathi pieces for BN as a ruler of a princely state in Tamil country. But it remains to be seen how the resurgent categories of nation and national culture on the one hand, and the pressures of globalized entertainment, fusion dance, reality dance competitions that prize innovation and agility above all else on the other, will influence what young dancers in neighbourhood schools of classical dance like my sister’s aspire to as their career, as their aesthetic outlet, and as their passion.
Part of the Chapekar anniversary celebrations was an evening’s performance by the leading dancers from these different classical schools. One doesn’t usually see these juxtaposed so closely together; while the more geometrical movements of BN slide gracefully into the sensuous and fluid shapes of Odissi or Mohini Attam (the video right above this paragraph) from the neighbouring region of Orissa and Kerala, Manipuri from further northeast is dramatically different. But they had an interesting common thread – nearly all of them performed pieces from the legendary Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, a medieval literary, musical and erotic masterpiece on Krishna’s life. It was a revealing exercise in the sheer potential of choreography and imagination to see the familiar ashtapadis from Gita Govinda figure one after the other in such diverse visual, physical and musical avatars. (That link also has a lot of examples from different dance forms of various Gita Govinda poems)
The piece right above is an Odissi rendition of a popular piece from this text, hariiriha mugdha vadhuu. My sister regularly performs the BN variant of this poem as a slow, langourous and erotic invocation of Radha’s longing for her lover Krishna. That day, the Manipuri dancers presented it in such an upbeat, innocent and decidedly playful interpretation in the Manipuri dance that it took me a while to recognize it through the words! Here is another Manipuri piece, also from Gita Govinda:
Unity in diversity is an extremely tired and cliched, not to say exploitative and delusional, mantra of the modern Indian national imagination, but I am tempted to argue that it is in these unexpected moments, in grasping the beauty of these creative expressions, their commonalities as well as their distinct possibilities, that the phrase gains any meaning at all. I left the concert wishing they had included a Kathak performance in it as well – but here is another famous Gita Govinda poem, yaahii maadhava, where the dancer is upset with Krishna’s infidelity – also performed by Saswati Sen. Set to raga Bhairavi, this is so much more plaintive and weepy than the rather more furious and sarcastic BN interpretation I have seen.
In the end, I gotta say –
1) Some of these videos are short and not of great quality, but I love youtube.
2) Madhavi mami is a bit surprised, but thrilled to bits that her wire baskets have got such a positive response. Let me see if I can get some detailed instructions and post them here. Thanks so much for the feedback!
Tomorrow, the 14th, is my birthday, and I got the perfect present in advance this evening. I got to attend the Sawai Gandharva concert, the annual three day classical music extravaganza. Started by the doyen of Hindustani music Bhimsen Joshi in honour of his guru Rambhau Kundgolkar, a.k.a. “Sawai Gandharva”, the festival has been the pride and joy of the city of Pune for the past 56 years. I never missed it when I lived in India, and the last time I managed to attend was nearly a decade ago. This evening, Madhup Mudgal, a vocalist and student of the legendary Kumar Gandharva, sang the ragas Shree and Yaman.
Punekars (rightfully) think of themselves as connoisseurs of Hindustani music, and performing in this festival is both a challenge and an honour. People attend in the thousands, and an enormous public ground with a huge makeshift tent simply fills up with music and music lovers. But people also sit outdoors on both sides of the tent, bringing their own mats to supplement the ones the organisers provide. Pune’s well-heeled cultural elite sit on sofas or chairs (this is a very tiresome see-and-be-seen kind of arena) but thousands only buy “bharatiya baithak” (Indian seating) tickets, which are grab-a-spot-and-sit places on the ground. The actual stage is too far for most people to see, so nowadays they have large screens in addition to CCTVs. It nurtures the love of classical music in the city and attracts people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s really quite something, and I owe the little I know and appreciate in Indian classical music in significant part to it being there for me when I was in college.
Until a few years ago, the festival was held overnight, on the second Thu, Fri and Sat in December, with Bhimsen Joshi, also Pune’s most beloved local classical musician, performing last in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It used to be chilly then and we lugged shawls and blankets with us at 8.30 pm, spread a mat on the ground and parked ourselves till morning. New and upcoming performers opened the show every evening, and if you liked one you went to Alurkar Music House the following week and looked for albums. You took a nap when a boring sitarist or vocalist played late in the night, but always woke up, walked around the grounds for a bit, looking for friends or celebrities or other musicians here and there, had some tea and batata-wada and came back all fresh for the final artist of the night, usually a senior and famous vocalist – Rashid Khan, Parveen Sultana, Firoz Dastur, Jitendra Abhisheki, Jasraj, Kumar Gandharva, Prabha Atre…. the performance would draw to a close as dawn broke. Here, I attended Kumar Gandharva’s final performance, and it was here that the crowd refused to budge even after Rashid Khan was done, insisting that he sing at least another piece before he got up. The school whose grounds the show rents for the night, had to be postponed for an hour that morning, as Rashid Khan sang a beautiful thumri in Khamaj.
After an ordinance that banned loudspeakers in the city after 11 pm a few years ago, the festival, held in a crowded area of the old city, had to change its schedule and now it’s held from the late afternoon until 11 pm. Initially I was scandalised – Sawai at 5 pm!! How would we listen to early morning ragas? Whatever would happen to the sociality of the festival, with its late night tea stalls and the bleary-eyed analyses the following morning of this artist or that? Actually, it seems to have worked out better than everyone thought, because, like today, we now have afternoon melodies like Shree or Marwa or Bhimpalas instead of Lalit or Todi or Bhairav. And the festive atmosphere has remained quite the same. The only difference is that now I hardly know anybody in the crowd.
After Madhup Mudgal came two violinists, Ganesh and Kumaresh, who play in the Carnatic music tradition. They had the enormous crowd stunned and eating out of their palms for nearly two hours, especially with a ragam-tanam-pallavi that they also explained to the mostly Hindustani-knowing audience. (Don’t miss the macbook in the photo below, which he used to maintain a drone, I think – it was the cause of much discussion in our part of the audience.)
The violins just spoke to me, told me stories, cajoled me into believing their side of the story, made me weep and nod in sympathy and shake my head in disbelief at the wrenching sadness they conveyed. Both brothers were very rasik, and clearly enjoyed themselves as much as the audience did. You know, I think I have a crush!
I was so mesmerised I didn’t stay for the next and final performance by another famous brother-duo, the Hindustani vocalists Rajan and Sajan Mishra. I shall also miss tomorrow’s final show. But it was very overwhelming to come back to incredible music at this beloved institution. It really is the perfect birthday present!
Teaching for this Spring is over, thank God. This has been the longest and most painful semester ever due to some heavy duty personal and professional stress, and now that it is nearly over, I want to dance like these guys in this song, jaate the japan, pahunch gaye chiin, samajh gaye na?” (Was off to Japan, but ended up in China instead, what say?) and throw my limbs and composure to the winds in sheer abandon.
Nothing like Kishore Kumar’s mad comic genius and wildly mobile body, face and voice, to liven up one’s spirits. The film in which it is featured, Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (If it runs, it’s a car) is available fully on youtube. See it – it is silly screwball comedy, as usual, but the soundtrack (by S D Burman), with lots of other Kishore songs, is superb. My favourite is Paanch rupaiyaa baarah aanaa.
The only silver lining to stress is that it keeps my fingers going feverishly. The Ribby Cardi body got done, and I added some buttons right away to see if it fits, closed. To my relief, it does.
Much of the knitting this semester got done as I obsessively watched TV episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, pretty much back to back. Netflix DVDs of TV series are perfect – mindless, and without the advertisements. But I thought I should take a break after an elaborate dream I had one night where Inspector Japp was complaining to me over a beer about Poirot’s dashed interference in everything, and I then took it up with Miss Lemon to tell Poirot to step back a bit, because his success rate was undermining Japp’s self-esteem. I woke up and was half-afraid that I would start lecturing in class in David Suchet’s affected voice and manner.
But last weekend in LA in the hotel room I saw an episode of something called “What Not to Wear” and I think I might have found another guilty pleasure. I cast on the Ribby’s sleeve with a DVD of its episodes. It is SO annoying in parts, but weirdly seductive. I oscillate between analyzing the coded messages the show transmits about the power of shopping and consumption to solve all kinds of self-esteem, body-image, emotional issues (“I want to dress better so my kids can be proud of me” – WTF????), and enjoying the Cinderella or Ugly Duckling story that unfolds every single time. Admittedly, it’s not as bad as another show I saw that night that involved all kinds of surgery and whatnot. Plus the two hosts are irritating and I don’t care for the whole “let’s make fun of you before we do your makeover”, but I’ve seen some of their advice about silhouette and fit and visual illusions on various Ravelry groups as well, and it’s most interesting. And of the few episodes I have seen, all the women were different ages and shapes, and it’s fun to see how they choose outfits for them.
So between Chalti ka Naam Gaadi and a feel-good Cinderella DVD this weekend, maybe my Ribby sleeves will get done soon too. Wish all my readers a relaxed weekend too!
First off, thanks so much everyone for your kind comments on the Swallowtail shawl! It’s speeding away to Calcutta even as I type this, and I’m waiting to see what the MIL says.
The other day some friends and I were talking about the practice, among popular female Hindi film singers, of singing in such a high pitched scale that it made you want to go and hide somewhere. I don’t mind it that much; I think Lata Mangeshkar, who popularized this style, has one of the most beautiful voices ever. Some years back a scholar argued that this high, virginal voice in film music and its move away from more throaty, sensual voices associated with Muslim singers like Noor Jehan or Shamshad Begum came to represent the young, postcolonial Indian/Hindu nation’s anxieties and desires in the 1950s. But this argument, while not without some merit, also failed to explain the tremendous popularity of Lata’s sister Asha Bhosale, whose voice and songs were anything but virginal. Asha Bhosale is tremendously versatile, having recorded both serious natyasangeet, the light-classical Marathi form, innumerable rock-and-roll adaptations for hindi songs composed by her husband Rahul Dev Burman, and also an album with, of all people, Boy George (don’t ask.)
The conversation reminded me about being in the college band way back when, and the fights the girls and boys had over the scales to sing these popular numbers in: the boys would refuse to budge and sometimes the girls had to sing in a weird falsetto to match. I hated doing duets for this reason. For one show, though, I was delighted about one Asha and Mohammed Rafi number, which was doable and a treat to sing. Alas, we couldn’t perform it because the male singer got cold feet at the last minute and refused to come on stage. I remember being very mad. Boys.
The song, O Haseena Zulfon Wali (O Beautiful one with the lovely hair) was one of my favourites from a film I heartily recommend: Teesri Manzil (The third floor). Barring the heroine, Asha Parekh (about whom the less said the better), this film had everything going for it: Shammi Kapoor, crazy contortionist, romantic and comic hero, R.D.B.’s music and a whodunit storyline by Shakti Samanta that was totally, delightfully predictable. This song also features the lovely Helen, the most gorgeous "vamp" dancer in Hindi cinema. I love the sets, the costumes, the zany dance steps; Shammi Kapoor and Helen clearly had a great time cavorting through the song and didn’t mind poking fun at themselves.
I am knitting furiously, trust me, but no visible (or bloggable) progress is being made on any of my current projects. So more distraction from – what else – Youtube!
This song is from Awaara (the Vagabond?), one of Raj Kapoor’s most famous 50s films. Kapoor was one of the leading directors of the post-Independence generation, his films becoming popular not only within but also outside India. We all used to hear, growing up, that the Russians loved his films. Just after I came to the US, I was walking along Harvard Sq. in Boston one day and I heard a familiar film song from one of his films being played on an accordion, by a Russian street performer. On the accordion it sounded vaguely like an Eastern European folk tune (which tells you how much I know about *that*, but I digress). Dang it, I thought to myself, I had no idea Shankar-Jaikishan, the incredibly talented composers for many of Raj Kapoor’s film music, had lifted some tunes from elsewhere.
After he was done, I asked the man what he had just played. Delighted, he yelled, arms wide open, “Raaaj Kapoooooooor!!” After I recovered, I sat by him and asked him if he knew any others. The next hour was spent happily, him playing many of my favourites from Kapoor’s films and me humming along.
This one “dam bhar jo udhar mooh phere, woh chanda” (If only the moon would look away for a moment) is one of those classics, sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh. It is no secret to my friends that I am not a Mukesh fan. His nasal voice always hovers on the brink of the right note, never quite striking it or going fully off key. This one is typical, but still, the song survives him. Both Raj Kapoor himself and Nargis, his leading lady in many of his films and widely rumoured to be the same in real life as well, sing ostensibly to the moon, telling it to hide behind the clouds so they can be alone. Although later songs would often trivialize it through crude depictions of flowers crashing into each other or worse, this song is, in my opinion, one of the best expressions of the Bollywood aesthetic that hinting at physical intimacy was more sensuous than actually showing it on screen.
Seeing this clip after so long, I’m struck by the chemistry between Raj Kapoor and Nargis: they were good actors, no doubt, but they look totally in love. Kapoor also took on a Chaplinesque persona later on that was intensely annoying, but here he still looks quite handsome inspite of the weird hair (he’s a rakish thief in the film) and the early onset of the Kapoor obesity curse. And oh, I totally didn’t notice the strategically placed anchors on Nargis’s shirt earlier.
This title inadequately paraphrases a song I like very much, Nain lad jai hain to manwa ma kasak hoi bekari from the film Gunga Jumna. Yesterday I met some old college pals after a long time, and one of them was, like me, a total old songs buff. We sang many songs together for hours like we used to in college; even though his voice is suited to Talat Mahmood and Hemanta songs, we also remembered and sang this one by Rafi. Of course, I found it on Youtube today.
It’s in the Bhojpuri variant of Hindi, and the video makes the song’s meaning quite clear. Gunga, the hero, is having a good time with his friends, just after having realised he’s fallen for the washerwoman Dhanno (Vyjantimala, who smiles shyly simpers at the end). This was one of Naushad’s most popular soundtracks, using folk tunes and rhythms of eastern UP and Bihar. I love the off-beat whistle and Rafi’s alaap at the beginning and end. The choreography was by Hiralal, who often collaborated with Naushad, and the male dancers’ moves are typical of his style. I like how the colours are quite drab, quite unlike some of the over-the-top costumes and jewellery that typifies today’s Bollywood. The film itself is quite interesting; describing a young man’s turn to crime in the face of rural exploitation, it struck an early note of pessimism against the Nehruvian utopias following Indian independence.
The song features Dilip Kumar (real name Yusuf Khan) was a lot older by the time this film was released in the 60s, but who was the blockbuster star of the 50s. He looked a lot better in b/w. He, more than any other Hindi cinema star, had an excellent sense of music and rhythm. A pukka rasik, you can tell, in all his song sequences. Before Amitabh strode across the screen he was easily my favourite. He also sang beautifully himself; listening to his melodious Laagi nahi chhoote chahe jiya jaye from the film Musafir makes me wish he had sung more. His voice resembles Talat Mahmood’s a lot. He clearly had a ball filming this song. I hope you enjoy it!
I liked posting the knitting obsession film so much that I decided to make a habit of it. I’ve become addicted to Youtube, and it’s wonderful collection of old Hindi film music videos. One song reminds you of another, you wonder if *that* one will be there, and perhaps *that* one, and before I know it, hours have passed. So I thought I’d periodically share some of my favourites with you.
I saw this one after a very long time. From "Tere ghar ke saamne" (In front of your house), a light-hearted romantic comedy where the hero, an architect has to live up to some silly promise he makes to he heroine about building a beautiful house right opposite her father’s palatial bungalow. Stupid story, as most popular Hindi films go, but like most films of the 1950s and 60s, some of the most wonderful music. This one is a solo by my favourite male singer Mohammed Rafi, and picturised on Dev Anand, who was quite the hottie of that generation (and also for a lot of us who grew up after he was past his prime). His slightly-startled expression, the bobbing head, all of it was lapped up like crazy. The woman he’s serenading is Nutan, also a major actress of this period. The stairs they are ambling down are those within the early 13th century minaret in Delhi, the magnificient Qutb Minar. It’s such a simple and impossibly romantic song, I love it.
What good is a blog if not as a diversion from grading?
Warning: lots of music links, and no knitting. The italicized links are direct links to music files.
One of the greatest Hindi film music composers and one of my favourites, Naushad Ali passed away last week. I have been reminiscing and talking about his songs to a lot of my friends since then and a lot of his songs are playing about in my head (and on my music system).
Naushad was my father’s favourite too (for all his inability to string a single sentence of Hindi together, my father is a big Hindi film and film music buff) and I still remember us buying the cassette album of Mother India, and then Gunga Jumna and listening to them together. These two are the albums that make the best use of Gangetic folk music traditions and are among his best ever, especially Dukh bhare din, O Gadiwale and Holi Ayi re Kanhayi from Mother India and the wonderful, wonderful Nain Lad Jaihenfrom Gunga Jumna. Which others to choose? There’s Dhoondo re Sajna and the less known O Chhaliya re Chhaliya from Gunga Jumna too.
Naushad was very successful in adapting these folk tunes of eastern UP to larger, orchestral compositions. One of the things I love about his songs are the interludes between stanzas, or even between lines: small pieces that link up different lines, sometimes helping the singer up to the note where the stanza’s about to begin and sometimes as counterpoints to the main tunes, often sung by a chorus.
But he was also known as the "classical" composer, someone who adapted Hindustani classical ragas to film songs. Here the examples are numerous: many of the songs from Kohinoor, Baiju Bawra (although not a raga based one, my favourite is Jhoole mein pawan ke) and Dil Diya Dard Liya, Mughal-e-Azam (Latabai’s sublime Mohe Panghat Pe in raga Piloo)… He also made extensive use of the piano and what, for the lack of a better word, I’m going to call a western-style chorus (am sure it has a technical name but don’t know what it is). Of the gazillion Hindi songs heroes have sung at the piano, one of the best ever is from Naushad’s masterpiece album, Mere Mehboob: Ae Husn Zara Jaag. (So what if it was the awfully wooden Rajendra Kumar mouthing the words?)
Of course, I haven’t even talked about the decade of the 1940s, when he actually began composing: Andaz (I am no fan of Mukesh, but this one has two great songs by him); Awaz de Kahan Hai from Anmol Ghadi, and many many more. But I think my favourites really begin with the 1950s, probably with Uran Khatola and Aan. (Check out Lata’s Aaj mere man me sakhi, it is so beautiful.)
For me, Hindi film music pretty much died out by 1975. The 1950s decade is glorious, and although there are many composers jostling for genius status, Naushad had a very distinctive style and signature. His were some of the earliest songs I remember listening to obsessively, and I still love most of them, know all the soundtracks by heart. Even though the songs remain and will not really change with his death, it still feels sad to learn about his passing.