Posted in Poetry

AN ODE TO A POET

 

 

His room overlooked the main street. Every day,

The window was a silent witness to an endless stream

Of traffic that flowed en masse; characterless, rudderless,

Though discernibly moving on a seemingly straight road.

The vehicles, though ignorant of his room and the associated sorrow,

Did leave their mark on the window, in the form of dust,

That quickly materialised into a thin, surreal film, making

It difficult for the sunlight to enter his room. Instead,

The rays chose to make brilliant patterns on the floor.

Kaleidoscopic; alternating, oddly, between ululation and pathos.

 

It was a simple room. A small bed with a broken leg,

And torn bedsheets, the holes grinning cheekily and

Sheepishly at nothing in particular. A bookshelf with rat-eaten

Tomes and slim volumes in a horribly molested state of disrepair.

The overall contraption had a forlorn, morose look about it, like

That of an aged, forgotten, misunderstood poet, or, funnily enough,

A grumpy, disgruntled musician, spending his last days in obscure poverty.

With only the torchlight of memory to guide him towards Death’s door.

Next to the bathroom, with its idiosyncratic, familiarly nauseating smell,

Was his study table. Piled high to one side, a bedraggled, confused heap

Of his unpublished stories and poems. Each a living testament to an artist’s mortality.

A repository of dirt, chagrin and pain. Each yellowing page a rusty nail on his coffin.

 

There was not a publishing house in the city he had not visited.

Nor were left any chubby-cheeked publishers at whose face his

Imagination had not flung his threadbare chappals. Each time

They’d take his crumpled, lovingly typewritten manuscript,

On whose pages lay agony’s handiwork, and would

Busily tuck it into an enormous pile of files and correspondence,

Where it would disappear, dissolve, losing its identity among the

Uncaring masses; a dreamy poet among promotion-hungry government officials.

Then, with a terse, cursory flick of two fingers swollen with fat,

They would dismiss him, asking him to come at a particular time

In the near future. Yet already, the whirring blades of the ceiling fan,

Would have  managed to send his unexceptional face into the

Dark labyrinths of forgetfulness; hence, every time he would return,

The guard at the door would grin in mockery, savouring the lad’s plight,

And shake his head in a mixture of mock sorrow and sadistic pleasure.

 

The rays of the setting sun, during their tortuous journey around the room,

Inevitably and invariably missed a tiny corner, where lay, carelessly relegated,

A small table, knee high, its height and prominence complementing each other.

On it lay a framed photograph of our poet. Apart from a layer of dust that

Covered this slice of a sepia past, a fine cobweb hung around his neck, like

A garland that is hung around the dead. An occasional spider skids past, and

It is only the birds, perched at the window, who get a glimpse of this relic.

 

Posted in Poetry

Lullaby

On the wall adjacent to the one
Against which my bed leans is hung
A calendar, for whom the ceiling fan
Is a DJ. He jumps and slides and careens
To the rather morose, mundane tune the latter
Produces, lending the air a dreary monotony.
Yet, every night it is not the songs of
Rafi, Mukesh, Talat, Lata, Asha or Geeta, but the
Plaintive slaps, almost tabla-like, of paper on wall,
And the creaks and fluttering when the latter curves,
Its slim body, that pulls me into the sea of sleep.
For I know that, even if I do trespass into the dominion
Of heaven when my eyes are closed, the calendar will continue
Dancing; relentlessly, faithfully, urging me to go to sleep.

Posted in Poetry

Aval Appadithan (1978)

My rating: 4/5         My certificate: Adults only (I’m 18, so yay!) 

While there never has been a significant parallel movement in Tamil cinema, it could be said that the 1970’s saw the emergence of a young crop of directors who broke away from the formulaic rigours of masala cinema and attempted to communicate something new. They were not completely successful; their movies still had songs, comedy tracks and other tropes like coincidences, but in terms of form (camera angles, lighting) and the subjects they dealt with, their movies were streets ahead of the ones being produced by their mainstream counterparts.

Aval Appadithan falls into this category; and it can quite easily be said that of all the new movies being made at that time, this film stood out for being the most avant garde of them all. Made by a group of students from the film institute of Chennai, Aval Appadithan was considered even by stalwarts like Mrinal Sen as being ‘far ahead of its times’. Interestingly, the cast of the movie included mainstream actors like Kamal Hasan and, surprisingly, Rajnikanth. Most people wouldn’t believe it if someone told them that Rajnikanth acted in such a serious movie like this, but it is very much true. But later in his career, his desire for popularity and fame made him choose escapist flicks, which, sadly, never fully did justice to his talent.

The movie revolves around three characters: Thyagu (Rajnikanth), the head of an advertising company; Manju (Sripriya), his employee and Arun (Kamal Hasan), Thyagu’s friend from Coimbatore who has come to Chennai to make a documentary on women empowerment. Director C.Rudhraiya sketches out his characters very clearly early on in the film; Thyagu is an unabashed chauvinist, who feels that ‘women should be enjoyed, not analysed’, while Arun is a more sensitive, caring person who genuinely wants to improve the plight of women in the country by understanding their needs. While Thyagu is a prosaic person, Arun is a thoughtful idealist.

But it is the character of Manju that, literally, turns on both the men, though in drastically different ways. She is a straightforward, frank and forward woman with an independent mindset with no qualms at all about mixing with men. Yet, strangely, she was the type who never really needed men in their lives; men, in reality , needed her.  In fact, she even has an aversion towards men, owing to their fickle natures, and some murky incidents in her past.

While Thyagu looks at Manju as just another woman to have fun with it, Arun is fascinated by her brashness and her maverick personality. And when Thyagu suggests Manju should help Arun with his documentary, the latter strike up a conversation.

Early on, the audience is witness to a rather astounding dialogue, the memory of which still haunts me AND makes me laugh. For a particular scene in the documentary, Arun wants an actress, a young woman, to speak her views wearing only a towel. Not because he wants to use the nudity to attract audiences, but more to show that there’s nothing wrong in that mode of attire. But the woman is hesitant; she needs to ask her mother, and most probably her mother wouldn’t allow it. To which Manju quips, “Tell your mother you’ll be paid a lot. Then she’ll understand.” What appears to be a rather innocuous statement actually speaks volumes about society.

Manju’s narrates her story to Arun over work, coffee and aimless rambles by the beach. Her flashback includes an irreverent uncle who makes inappropriate advances to her, and an adulterous mother. And mind you, the latters transgressions aren’t shown through the usual closing doors or flowers bending towards each other. They are actually SHOWN having sex, naked bodies et al. When her father realises this, though there are numerous fights at home, he is too weak-minded to actually take any action, which slowly disgusts and saddens Manju.

When she grows up and starts working, she gets to know another man, who’s younger than her by a few years. But when he too tries to take advantage of his proximity to her, she rejects him. He too leaves her in a huff, owing to his getting a new job somewhere else.

To get back her faith in humanity, she starts talking to a Christian priest, and one day the latter introduces her to his son, a dashing young man named Mano. Apart from his charming good looks, he can even play the piano very well, and Manju once again realises she’s getting close to him. But this time, she discerns a security about the whole business, probably because of his kinship with the priest. They get intimate over a lovely song; Ilaiyaraja at his scintillating best. Again, their cuddling has a certain supressed sexuality about it, not the usual cheesiness associated with the movies of this era.

But when, after a tiff with her parents, Manju comes over to Mano’s house for succour, he asks her to wait inside his house while he goes out to get something to eat. After a long time, Mano re-enters with Manju’s father. The latter thanks him, adding, “You have acted like a true Christian!” To which  Mano replies, “Of course sir! Manju’s like a sister to me.”

As Manju recounts this to Arun, she adds rather poignantly, “I wouldn’t have minded even if he had called me a prostitute!”

The scene that follows is one of the most memorable ones I’ve seen in Indian cinema, very similar to Meena Kumari’s tirade in Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam. While it is only my conjecture, I think it is a sort of Freudian transference. Usually when a psychotherapist allows his client to unburden his emotions and let out his/her supressed desires, the psychotherapist becomes a substitute for that person in the client’s past who is the source of the latter’s anxiety. So the client might either start loving or hating the therapist, because he has now become for him/her a punitive father or condescending mother.

In Manju’s case, Arun, though not a therapist by any means, does listen patiently to her every word.  Hence, after narrating this incident, Manju hugs Arun. When he resists, she starts hitting and punching him, thinking, in her heightened emotional state, that he is Mano. She thus oscillates, for the next five minutes between lust and hatred, and pulls Arun towards the bathroom. A most difficult scene this, all taken in one shot, with brilliant acting by Sripriya. After a brief, almost savagely comic scuffle in the bathroom near the commode, Arun finally manages to lift her and place her on the bed, cover her with the bedsheet, and walk away, like a true gentleman.

But it is after this incident, and other varied conversations with Manju’s sister who share the house, that Arun develops a genuine affection for Manju. Manju though, remains, as usual, indifferent.

Troubled by his new understanding of a woman’s mind, Arun visits Thyagu and both start a protracted conversation over whisky and cigarettes, the latter mostly consumed by Thyagu himself. The conversation is almost fully carried out in English. Thyagu repeatedly warns Arun not to delve deeper into such complex matters; its just not worth it. Also, he says, Manju’s not the type for you. She’s ‘a sex starved bitch’ [sic]. To which Arun replies, “You, Thyagu, are a bloody chauvinistic ass.” Pat comes the reply, “Ah! I’m a male ass.” Simply brilliant!

For a particular soap ad, there is a need for a model who could pose naked. Over lunch, Thyagu’s employees comment that they need not look far, since they already had Manju who could do all this (owing to her forward nature). When Manju overhears this, she accosts the man and tells him, “I know an even better person for this job. Your wife!” Enraged, he raises his voice and demands an apology. Thyagu, on hearing this incident, orders Manju to say sorry. She promptly quits, and, while exiting, tells a female employee, “Why the hell is he angry with me? Maybe he doesn’t like the fact that I’m so open to free sex. What’s his problem? I can roam around with whomever I want to (hinting at Arun). Why,” she points to the woman, “I can even roam around with your husband!”

 

When Arun hears of this, he is greatly disturbed. He calls up Manju, but she is pretty clear: she can’t sacrifice her ideals for a mere job; she’s been moulded from a very different clay. The next day, Arun calls up Thyagu and asks him to take her back, thinking Manju will be pleased with him. But much to his surprise, she has already joined back!

And when he meets her on the street, he realises that she is going out to a party with none other than Thyagu himself. Just as he hears this, the man himself walks out of a shop, throws an empty cigarette pack at Arun, and gets into his car along with Manju.

Arun is well and truly shattered. As he tells Manju’s sister when he goes to their home, “I tried so hard to understand her, to help her, but she always ended up doing something contrary to what was supposed to be done. My father’s arranged a match for me in Coimbatore, and I’ve completed my documentary work here. I’m going back today.”

It turns out that Manju’s going out the party was just a ploy to catch Thyagu red-handed. Both of them come out of the hall in between. The lights go out, and Thyagu tries pulling her closer, only to receive a resounding slap on his face. He moves away and laughs nervously, and the lights come on again.

Manju comes home triumphantly, and admits that Arun is the man for her. Her sister gives her a look that says “Seriously, woman?” and then tells her about Arun’s decision.

A few months later, Thyagu and Manju both go the railway station to meet Arun and his wife. In the car, Manju asks the wife, who’s a bit of a simpleton, “What are your views on women empowerment?” After a bit of shocked confusion in the starting, she replies, hesitantly, “I don’t know.” Manju concludes, “That’s why you’re happy!”

The taxi drops her at a point in the beach, and as it slowly moves away from her, the voive-over says, “She will die today. She will be reborn tomorrow. Aval appadithan. (She’s like that only.)

 

 

I must warn you that this isn’t an easy movie to watch. Apart from the rather hard-hitting content, the camera angles, the close-up shots, the bleak, minimal lighting and sombre background score aren’t easy on the mind. But for all those who think old Indian cinema was too dramatic, their views will definitely change after they see this film.

Apart from the brilliant acting, special mention must also be given to Ilaiyaraja’s wonderful songs and score, that always complement every scene and situation. Most importantly, he keeps it silent for a majority of the movie, hence the effect is even more dramatic. Also, Somasundareshwar’s writing. There is this dialogue which my father explained to me, told by Manju, “There was this sea bird that regularly used to feed on the fish being stored on a ship when it was docked at the port. Even when the ship started sailing, it would follow it, have it’s fill and return. But one day, the ship had crossed so far that it couldn’t return at all. Still it tried flying back and got lost. I am like that bird; neither am I near the shore, nor can I eat the fish.”

A masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Erudite Dilemmas

My bookshelf groans in pain. The comic books
Of my childhood weep. Enid Blyton turns in her grave,
As I proceed to delegate her novels to another location,
Where they will languish, gathering dust,
And play host to a range of greedy insects. They stare jealously at
The fruits from the tree of Indian literature that I
Had so eagerly plucked, and pasted on the firmament
Of my mind. Now that they will occupy the elite, highest shelves.
I try reasoning with them, pals of my formative years that they were,
‘There is an acute paucity of space, why don’t you understand?’
Kids that they are, they keep their faces averted and sulk. Broodingly.
Tagore gives a burp. Sarat yawns. Manto swears. Faiz,
That epitome of etiquette, taps his foot impatiently. Karnad glances at his watch.
And I, with deliberate, calculated movements, unhurriedly,
Severe the links with my childhood, and stroke the spines of the beacons of the future.

Posted in Uncategorized

Abstruse Fascinations

I like cloudy skies and decrepit mansions.
Symbols of decadence. Saturated in nostalgia.
With only a ray of sunlight to delineate,
The merciless handiwork of time. I like
The fact that though their existence is irrelevant,
They still stand with their heads held high.
Standing up for a way of life that valued, strangely,
Aesthetics over functionality. We humans are odd creatures.
We inadvertently manage to impress upon lifeless articles,
Our egos, idiosyncrasies, insecurities and absurdities.

Posted in Uncategorized

My favourite Bengali songs

While I know its perfectly weird for a Tamilian to be writing a post on Bengali songs, one thing I have realised is that once you’ve entered the realm of old film songs, you cannot restrict yourself to a single language or region or country. And this not only applies to films.

I was in sixth standard when my mother, when in a bookshop, asked me to try out the Feluda detective series written by Satyajit Ray, translated from the Bengali by Gopa Majumdar. It was an omnibus edition, in two volumes, and my initial apprehension soon morphed into an ardent devotion, both towards the hero Feluds and his creator. While I shall talk about this wonderful series in another post, it is sufficent to say that it paved the way for me to explore other Bengali writers. Soon, I was devouring Tagore, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Sankar (Chowringhee), Banaphool, Parashuram, Saradindu Bandhopadhyay, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay and the rest, though all this happened over three four years.

Simultaneously, I was also attracted to the cinema of Satyajit Ray, and slowly I explored more mainstream movies as well, though my preference lay for art movies as well. Yet, I haven’t watched many Bengali movies, nor have I heard as many songs as to write a whole post on. But the internet proved to be a blessing during my rambles through Hindi songs, and inevitably I stumbled upon a few Bengali gems.

Readers might find a preponderance of Tagore songs, and the whole list might not do justice to Bengali music, but you must understand my limited knowlege of this subject, and that my intention is that while going through the list, you might discover some rare beauties. So here it is:

1. Ami chini go chini tomare from Charulata (1964).Singer: Kishore Kumar. Lyrics by Rabindranath Tagore. Music by Satyajit Ray.

One of my favourite movies, and is generally considered to be one of Ray’s finest. I plan to do a post on this movie sometime, but in this song, which was somewhat of a rarity in Ray’s films, we see Soumitra Chatterjee teasing his siter-in-law, Madhabi Mukherjee. Even if one does not understand the lyrics, Tagore’s language was so beautiful and powerful that it is impossible not to get carried away by his use of imagery. Another trademark of his was to link nature with a person’s inner conflicts and thoughts.And finally, there’s Kishore Kumar.

2. Purano sei diner kotha( Agnishwar) sung by Hemant Kumar. Lyrics and music by Tagore.

Hemant Kumar, along with Debabrata Biswas and Sagar Sen, are generally considered to be  the finest exponents of Rabindrasangeet, and there is ample evidence in this song. Its tune and the strains of the violins in the interlude will stay in your head for a long time.

3. Na jeo na sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Music and lyrics by Salil Chowdhury.

Sounds familiar? Most of you would have guessed from the screen cap only. Though of course, its Hindi version is much more popular: O sajna, barkha bahaar aayi from Parakh (1960). For me, it is one of the greatest melodies ever crafted, and I believe no song can come closer to defining a woman’s feelings than this (feminists might object to this gross generalisation, but I don’t care!).

4. Amaay proshno bole neel dhruvo tara sung by Hemant Kumar. Lyrics and music by Salil Chowdhury.

Kahin, door, jab din dhal jaaye….though the interludes in both songs are quite different. Though I liked the Mukesh version better, according to Salilda, if God could sing he would sing in the voice of Hemant Kumar.

5. Ami bonophool go sung by Kanan Devi from Sesh Uttar (1942).  Lyrics by Kazi Nazrul Islam. Music by Kamal Dasgupta.

A beautiful song from the vintage era, sung by that doyen of Bengali music, Kanan Devi. Also, this movie was directed by P.C Barua, one of the boldest and most liberated directors in the early era of Indian cinema, who dealt with themes such as adultery, women emancipation and unemployment.

6. Kaha no Bina by Sramona Guha Thakurta from Agantuk (1991). Music by Satyajit Ray.

A soulful song from Satyajit Ray’s last movie. It is said that during the shooting of this movie there was an ambulance kept ready outside the studio, owing to his delicate health. Picturised on Mamta Shankar (Pt. Ravi Shankar’s niece), Dhritiman Chatterji, Dipankar De and Utpal Dutt.

7. Jwala jwala chita dwigun dwigun by Debabrata Biswas. Lyrics by Jyotindranath Tagore.

Though this song comes under Rabindrasangeet only, according to Sunil Gangopadhyay’s award winning novel Those Days, it was written by his elder brother, a phenomenally talented playwright, poet, musician, painter and theatre artist, apart from being one of the first Indians to start his own shipping company. He was also the husband of Kadambari, Rabindranath’s muse, and alleged lover (that’s not true though, it was merely platonic love.) A very unusual song indeed, but very catchy.

8. Phoole phoole dhule dhule from Charulata (1964). Lyrics by Tagore. Music by Satyajit Ray.

Too much Ray? I really can’t help it, for over the years he’s almost become my role model! This song comes at a crucial juncture, when Charu realises she’s falling in love with her brother-in-law, Amal. Beautiful.

9. Dure prantare by Usha Mangeshkar. Lyrics and music by Salil Chowdhury.

A fast paced, peppy number of the maestro sung by Lata Mangeshkar’s younger sister, who remained in the shadow of her two immensely popular siblings.

10. Ami dur hote tomari dekhechi. Singer and Music director: Hemant Kumar

 

Ah! Meri baat rahi mere man mein! It’s very difficult to choose between the two versions, though I felt the Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam one was far more sombre.

I must have  missed out scores of other popular Bengali songs. Please do offer your suggestions.

Posted in Uncategorized

Bidding Adieu

Everyone is leaving, one by one.
I too shall leave one day, just like this.
Waiting to depart, expectantly, to some place,
To which I shall have to bid adieu once more, in the future.
For what is life but a montage of farewells?
From the known, the unknown, the painful and the regrettable?

Posted in Uncategorized

Avian Dreams

In our old house, we would be visited by sparrows.
They would hop from chair to table, sofa to the TV,
And create a veritable bedlam around the house. Symbols
Of freedom that they were, we let them be, going so far
As to keeping the windows open, accepting their invasions as an inevitability.
Until one day, they saw the ceiling fan; and so deeply affected
Were they by its mundane mediocrity, having got used to
The nomadic winds and rebellious skies, that, the next day,
We saw them dead on the floor. An expression of utter bafflement,
Writ large on their tiny, placid faces.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Final Flight

Every time he’d go to the bathroom he could hear

Her voice. It would waft in, languidly, playfully

From the balcony above, through the broken ventilator.

Along with shards of sunlight, and ribbons of smoke.

The smell of cigarettes and fire riding the waves like eager dolphins.

And years later, when he would remember those days,

Hours of nicotine, spent in the bathroom, it was this smell

That would personify her, rather than her face, her hair,

Or her eyes. For strangely, and mysteriously, he had never,

Seen her. All he knew, was that she had a sweet voice,

And that she smoked cigarettes, and rattled away on the phone.

 

Inevitably, he began eavesdropping on her conversations.

They were, initially, unintelligible, garbled, but

Were wrapped in honey. Slowly, he could make out

Words like ‘Baby’, ‘Darling’, ‘Sweetheart’, and

Other such entreaties. So, the picture of a guy,

Began forming in his mind. Tall, fair, with a

Slight stubble, probably having a flat stomach,

Or, even six packs! And each time he began painting

This image on the canvas of his mind, he would

Look at himself in the mirror, and frown.

Sometimes, teardrops would chart their course

On his dark face, caked with dirt. The bathroom

Would resound with successive bouts of laughter

And weeping; euphoria and melancholy. And he would

Go back to slurping up her voice, savouring every drop

That rained in, riding the waves of warm sunlight.

 

On some days, she wouldn’t appear on her pedestal at all.

He would prowl around, like a caged lion, anxious, fidgety,

Growling within himself, yet impotently sighing on the outside.

Those times, he would notice, that a strange orchestra played

In the bathroom. Water from the leaking taps would fall

Periodically on to the marble floor. The surreal wetness would

Permeate all around, creating a damp, desultory dreariness

That had its own convoluted melody. The sound of traffic would

Filter in, along with songs from some distant radio, reminding him

Of his inactivity. Birds perched on the trees that leaned invitingly

Towards the window would be chirping, sounding incredibly incongruous

In the city, like a jarring note in a sonata. And then of course, there was the sun,

Who would pour forth his light on the pools of stagnant, radiant water that had

Collected on the floor. Creating stark, startling spectrums on the tiled walls.

And with each mass of faeces that fell into the serene waters of the commode,

Spraying crimson drops of ecstasy, tinged with brown, into the air,

He would be reminded of her absence; and the void, the vacuum,

That formless entity had created would be lit up gloriously

By the mellow light of longing. Such was the strangeness and dubiousness

Of city life, that he had never even chanced upon her downstairs.

Or in the lift. For the uniquely humdrum rigours of urban work life,

And the ensuing liberating nightlife of complete catharsis,

Had ensured their orbits never intersected. Occasionally a few atoms from one

Would trespass the boundary of the other in the form of decibels.

Before coming to rest sullenly, maintaining the status quo for centuries

To come. To remain mere isolated stars in the night sky. Close, yet distant.

 

Then one day, after a long hiatus, she came, like a monsoon storm. Screaming,

Shouting, yelling, she created a tiny tempest in the microcosm they both inhabited.

There will always be fights between lovers, but this seemed to be perched

On the edge of an apocalyptic abyss. Wildly, madly, gyrating around in the

Hurricane of its own words. Expletives and invectives spewed forth like raindrops

Bitter pills in a veritable sea of honey. Then, he saw, a metal bird, the source of

Desire and angst, joy and sorrow, hurtling down his window, catching the last rays

Of the setting sun on its sleek and shining body, the buttons gleaming merrily,

Paradoxically, before shattering to pieces on the ground below. And then, he heard a

Swooshing sound. The flaps of the ventilator fluttered, a pigeon rose in panic,

And for a brief, vivid moment, the frame of the window was filled with the image

Of a woman, an angel, almost an apparition, in a red saree, and hair streaming.

As suddenly as it came, it disappeared. And the world, his world, was enveloped

In a single piercing shriek. Born out of pure terror, a wail from the depths of hell.

The bathroom was briefly shrouded in darkness, and then when there was light again,

There appeared a sound; of bones cracking on concrete, and blood splashing and

Spilling on to the ground. Hurriedly washing his buttocks, he ran to the balcony

And amidst the bobbing heads, black and excited with worry, he saw a mangled face.

Red, bloody; the liquid streaking across the face and hair. Still. And at peace.

 

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My favourite songs of the 1930’s

Your first question must be: the 1930’s? Who listens to songs from the 193o’s? Its true. For most people today, old songs generally refer to the melodies of the Golden Era of Bollywood, the 1950’s and 60’s; that too, only by proper music lovers. Generally people are satisfied with the songs of R.D Burman when they hear the world old, and any older song is usually heard with a pinch of salt, so to speak, frequently punctuated by yawns and bored stares. So the 30’s seem almost outlandish. “Even my grandfather wasn’t born then!”

There is, according to me, one simple reason why the masses ignore the songs of the early decades of Indian cinema. It is because there is only one reason why old songs are heard today: for their nostalgic value. The voices of Rafi and Kishore and Lata carry within them the fragrance of long lost memories, of a time gone by, and brings back thoughts and the incidents of childhood. And the earliest one can go back is to the 50’s, because that is when the senior citizens of today born in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s began experiencing their surroundings. Ask any of your grandparents and they’ll wax eloquent about the 50’s but would hardly remember hearing songs of Saigal or Amirbai Karnataki. But, a person born in, say, 1916, would in the 80’s be considered old, and would remember Saigal. Its all about the shift in perspective over many generations; its all relative.

And so these songs are mainly heard today by film scholars and really passionate film buffs only. Many of them can be found on blogs dedicated to old films, blogs like Songs of Yore, Dustedoff, Conversations over Chai etc. Apart from being analysed for their obvious aesthetic value, the songs from this era also provide us with lots of information about the social situation in the country during that time.

The 1930’s were an important time. With the coming of the talkies, many studios went on an overdrive. The 1932 movie Indrasabha is a good example; it had 72 songs! It was as if the movies of the silent era had been gagged; given the chance to express and they went overboard. But come the latter half of the decade, some sort of semblance came into place, with the reformatory and socially relevant movies of New Theatres and Bombay Talkies.

So here’s my list:

  1. Jeevan been madhur na baaje from Street Singer. Singer: Kundan Lal Saigal.  Music by R.C Boral. Lyrics by Wajid Ali Shah

Street Singer had some of the finest songs of the decade. Using a full scale orchestra, music director Raichand Boral did full justice to the plaintive and soulful lyrics of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Lucknow. I especially liked the last line of the song: ‘Apna jo hain use samajh lo, woh bhi nahi hamara’. It manages to encapsualte the Nawab’s life perfectly; a man forced to surrender his kingdom to the British and then being exiled to the outskirts of Calcutta. It was this movie that catapulted Saigal and co-star and singer Kanan Devi to stardom. Also, note how Boral ends the song on with a grand flourish using this last line, to hit home the irony.

2. Aayee basant, chayee basant, karke solah shringaar from Chandidas (1934). Singer: Pahadi Sanyal.  Music by R.C Boral. Lyrics by Agha Hashra Kashmiri.

Background music was used for the first time in this movie, directed by the very talented Nitin Bose. A wonderful song, beautifully rendered by Pahadi Sanyal, a Bengali actor and singer who would go on to become a legend of Bengali cinema. He also acted in a couple of Satyajit Ray movies as well. Yet when we talk of the legendary singers of the 30’s his name is never mentioned. I was recently watching a documentary called ‘The Story of New Theatres’ on Doordarshan where they were talking about the singers working for the studio. Only four were mentioned: Saigal, Kanan Devi, K.C Dey and Pankaj Mullick. Now of course all of them are legends, but I could see no reason why Pahari Sanyal’s name had to be omitted.

3. Balam aaye baso more man mein from Devdas (1936). Singer: K.L Saigal. Music by Timir Baran. Lyrics by Kidar Nath Sharma

Another Saigal classic, the music for this adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was partially composed by the Assamese origin Timir Baran, a reputed sarod player and former pupil of Ustad Alauddin Khan, who was the father of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and the teacher to Pt. Ravi Shankar. We can see some of his skills being showcased in this song, especially at the interlude, where the music rises to a crescendo before falling down again. Also, this marked the debut of Kidar Nath Sharma as a lyricist, who would go on to become a succesful director, and Bimal Roy as cinematographer. Nothing more needs to be said about the latter. 🙂

4. Piya milan ko jaana from Kapala Kundala (1939). Singer: Pankaj Mullick. Music by Pankaj Mullick. Lyrics by Arzoo Lucknawi

Although people claim Chale Pawan ki Chaal from Doctor (1941) is the first tonga song in Indian cinema, Piya milan ko jaana should actually qualify for this though unfortunately the video of the song doesn’t exist, owing to a great fire that ravaged the vaults of New Theatres. Still, video or no video, this song will always remain eternal.

5. Tumhi ne mujhko prem sikhaya from Manmohan (1936). Singer: Surendra. Music by Ashok Ghosh. Lyrics by Zia Sarhadi

This movie is often ridiculed as the ‘poor man’s Devdas.’ Made in order to compete with the rising star that was Saigal, the movie flopped miserably, though this song has survived the ravages of fickle memory. Though Surendra was to come to his own only ten years later in Anmol Ghadi, the song is more noted for the fact that the great Anil Biswas was the assistant music director. It is an innovative song; Surendra sings the first line, and is interrupted by the female voice (Bibbo, who Saadat Hasan Manto says was called Ishrat Jahan and was most probably sourced from the red light district). This continues till both singing the duet together. I also loved the sitar piece at the start.

6. Nukta cheen hain gham-e-dil from Yahudi ki Ladki (1933). Singer: K.L Saigal. Music by Pankaj Mullick. Lyrics by Mirza Ghalib

I guess this is the first time Ghalib’s ghazal was used in a movie, though it sounds completely different from our common perceptions of a ghazal. But again, a ghazal has got nothing to do with a tune; its all in the rhyming scheme and structure of the lines. Also commendable for a young Bengali music director to set a tune for a complex ghazal like this. Manto, though, in his Stars from another Sky says Bali composed the music for this, but we cannot say for sure. A lovely song, no doubt.

7. Darshan hue tihare saajan from Vidyapati (1937). Singer: Pahari Sanyal. Music by R.C Boral. Lyrics by Kidar Nath Sharma

Story about a fifteenth century bard in Bengal who was known for his rather passionate songs. He goes to the king’s court and ends up having the queen fall for him. One of Prithviraj Kapoor’s earliest films, it was directed by Debaki Bose, one of the pioneers of Indian cinema.

8. Prem ki naiyya chali jalne from Dhoop Chaaon (1935). Singers: Pahari Sanyal and Uma Sashi. Music by R.C Boral. Lyrics by Pt. Sudarshan

First instance of background singing seen in this movie. A wonderfully pacey song with brilliant orchestration. The music troupe of New Theatres was famous all over India at that time.

9. Zindagi ka saaz bhi kya saaz hain from Pukar (1939). Singer: Naseem Bano. Music by Mir Sahib. Lyrics by Kamal Amrohi

Kamal Amrohi’s first movie as a writer (and a young one at that; only 21). Set in the court of Mughal emperor Jahangir, the movie is directed by Sohrab Modi, and deals with notions of justice and equality. Music composed by the relatively unknown Mir Sahib; we only know that C.Ramchandra was his assistant.

10. Teri gathri mein laaga from Dhoop Chaaon (1935). Singer: K.C Dey

More known for being Manna Dey’s uncle and S.D Burman’s teacher, Dey was a great, great singer in his own right, and could effortlessly scale the high notes consistently. He also played the role of a blind, wandering bard in many movies, since he was blind in real life too. But specially challenged have other greater gifts; in his case it was his melodious voice.

Readers might have realised by know that this is a very subjective list with too much emphasis on New Theatres. I have missed out on many songs composed by the great Saraswati Devi from Bombay Talkies, but they must understand it was all about how I liked the songs. Please do offer your suggestions as well.