The History of Hindi Filmi Music

Text by Vish Krishnan, posted on by Rebala Gopinath (

The Talkie Era
Until 1935

The year 1931 not only marked the beginning of the "talkie" age, but it also naturally became the starting point for movie composers and singers. The playing field became instantly dominated by a handful of strong production studios most of which had their legacy firmly rooted in the silent era. Ardeshir Irani and R.S. Choudhury (Mehboob Khan's mentors) carried forward the Imperial Studios banner. Himansu Rai, the consummate English nobleman leveraged his experience with British and German moviemakers, Shantaram and Master Vinayak joined forces to further foster Prabhat Films, B.N. Sarkar moved his silent movie gear to South Calcutta where New Theatres was founded, Homi Wadia instituted Wadia Movietone, Sohrab Modi joined his mentors at Minerva, and Chandulal Shah deftly moved his Ranjit Studios banner into the age of sound. There were others like Madan Theatres (also Calcutta), but the names mentioned here would provide the bedrock foundation on which the future would grow and prosper.

The attitudes of that age were interesting. Capital was tight and only a handful of privileged and monied gentry could invest in movie studios. Most of them were carryovers from the silent era anyway. Movie-watchers were still the upper echelons of society. The production studio was the feudal lord. Employees of the company would not dream of quitting or moonlighting. And girls from "good families" would not even dream of having anything to do with the performing arts, least of all the cinema.

All that changed when two daring and beautiful young ladies broke the rules. Devika Rani Choudhury married Himansu Rai and stepped firmly in to moviedom. Not far away, a charming Durga Khote joined Shantaram's Prabhat Films in AYODHYECHA RAAJA, their first sound venture. These were still the exception to a rule deeply entrenched in a male-dominated tradition. But a beachhead was now created. Others would follow. Durga Khote can be credited with another first. She could well have been the first freelance heroine of that age. As committed as she was to Prabhat, she also spent some time working with the New Theatres contingent.

Musical tastes round the country were still dominated by the Indian motif - one-dimensional melody that drew almost entirely on classical and folk structures. The performance of music was simple at best. Most of the singers were either from "singing families" with delivery styles set in the tradition of their "gharaana" OR were theatre performers trying hard to get by with simple straight-line approximations of the stated melody. Playback technology was available, but there was no implementation handy for scalable reuse. Out in Bengal, New Theatres tried their first playback experiment as early as 1933. It did not go unnoticed.

This was the state of the early to mid '30s. The alliances were interesting. The East and West were ruled by their respective Holy Trinities. Prabhat was led by Master Govindrao Tembe and his two disciples Keshavrao Bhole and Krishnarao Phulambrikar (with a young Vasant Shantaram Desai still in the pen). Bengal's New Theatres had their answer in Raichand Boral, Pankaj Mullick and later, Timirbaran Bhattacharya. Imperial Studios leaned on their Parsee patrons. Himansu Rai, with his British Production Company, was still dependent on European craftspersons for music among other things. Bombay Talkie, created in the mid-'30s would hire Khorshed Homji and Ramchandra Pal as their constant composers, but that was a few years away. Funded to a degree by Ram Daryani, Sagar and National Studios brought in maestros Pransukh Nayak and Ashok Ghosh. Chandulal Shah's Ranjit Studios flexed its musical muscle through classicists like Jhande Khan, Banne Khan and protege Rewashankar Marwari.

The somewhat negative perception of cinema's musical occupants, pervasive as it was, never quite influenced the classicists of any age, really. In the mid-'30s, grandmasters like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam sought to use the movie medium to further the cause of literature, music, national integration, the independence movement, and on and on.

Emergence of Hindi movie song
Late 30's

And then it happened. Ram Daryani, a visionary financier, brought a 20 year old tabla player from Calcutta to work with the Sagar Movietone orchestra. It is to the credit of composer Ashok Ghosh that he took young Anil Biswas under his tutelage, and further, gave him enough freedom to create the first real orchestra for a Hindi movie song. In parallel, the Himansu Rai-Devika Rani team launched Bombay Talkie, hired the orchestra-minded Saraswati Devi as their composer, and further strengthened the foundation of a Western outlook, however simplistic it might have been at that time. The groundwork was launched for the Hindi movie song.

The first few songs to hit the nation as a whole may well have been from ACHHUT KANYAA and some contemporary Sagar Movietone productions. The time was 1935-36, and if this is where it started, we might have a candidate here for bringing in the Golden Age.

In the meantime, just out of the blue, New Theatres hit a home run. They augmented their singing talent through Sehgal's voice. A Punjabi singer far away from his native ambience seemed well at home in Tollygunge, South Calcutta.

With all the busy ins and out, Bombay had its weather eye cocked on an already well-established studio out to the North somewhere. Dalsukh Panchholi was an astute businessman. What did this business-oriented Lahori know of music, anyway? Some of life's happiest events hang together by threads of serendipity. Had Panchholi not created GUL-E-BAKAAVLI (1939), Baby Noorjehan may never have become known to the world at large. Had he not hired Master Ghulam Haider to do the very traditional, staid and Punjabi music for it, the songs may never have hit the headlines. And Panchholi might never have hired Master Haider to do KHAZAANCHI in 1941, but for a string of such chance events. And where would the Hindi movie song be today without the pioneering framework provided by KHAZAANCHI? We have fast-forwarded through the latter part of the '30s here, but let us get to 1941 and KHAZAANCHI. Master Haider consciously broke away from the dull and monotonous delivery of the '30s song. It was not without pain or criticism. Every generation has had its maverick. That he was, and knowingly so. KHAZAANCHI has gone down in history as the movie that defined the very structure of the modern Hindi song, much in the style of Von Neumann who, only 5 years later, defined the essence of stored program execution. Neither the structure of the Hindi song, nor the essential sequencial program execution model have changed much or at all since their inception. In that respect, Ghulam Haider hailed the age of modern Hindi music.

To summarize the '30s, the professional scene consisted of salaried employees in a handful of movie studios the vast majority of which were brought forward through profits from the silent age. Noorjehan, Ghulam Haider,and Anil Biswas were the frontline names. Looking at the content, we must examine the constituents - the melody, the orchestration, the singing style and ability, the lyrics, and in some ways also the picturization. The dominant singers of the age were KC Dey, Pankaj Mullick, Shanta Apte, Govindrao Tembe, Ashok Kumar, Devika Rani, Surendra, Wahidan Bai and sister Jyoti, Bibbo, Manju and a few more. In a category all by himself stood the theatrical and Sufiana singer Kundanlal Sehgal. Some of his most famous songs had already been created, and he was just warming up.

More coincidence. The rapid and profitable emergence of the movie during the '30s, while remaining the sole property of a few studios, engaged the entire nation. What had started as the entertainment of the upper crust had trickled down to practically all layers of society - deep enough to threaten the legacy social outing. One such example was the Natak Mandali tradition of Maharashtra. Attendance dropped to all time lows. Mass defections occurred, both in the audience and the performers. Families whose wherewithal was the Natya Sangeet medium felt the most pain. Several went bankrupt. Alcoholism, a very natural companion of the performing arts, only aggravated the suffering. None knew this better than Dinanath Mangeshkar. Five children, a young wife, and nowhere to turn to. Once the darling of the Marathi stage, he now had trouble finding familiar faces in the business. In desperation, he accepted his oldest daughter's insistence upon finding a job for herself. In this quest, 12-year old Lata Mangeshkar was introduced to Vinayakrao Karnataki. But there was something else. She also signed up for a National Level Talent contest that had recently been labelled the KHAZAANCHI competition. The Northwestern frontier shuddered as the typhoon hit home. A Marathi-speaking winner of all things! Master Haider, the man whose runaway success had contributed the name to the contest, would stop to take notice. Seven years from the day, he would fight tooth and nail to permanently change the sound of Hindi music. Some milestone this. The writer must submit here that no matter when the Golden Era is said to begin, its life must include this landmark event of Lata Dinanath Mangeshkar winning the KHAZAANCHI competition. This voice has provided even our best composers with the motivation to produce the very best of melodies.

Sehgal: mai.n kyaa jaanuu.n kyaa jaaduu hai, in do matavAle nai.nno.n me.n ..

Pankaj Mallik: ye rAte.n ye mausam ye ha.NsanA ha.NsAnA ..

War and to Indian Independence
The Early 40's

The war in Europe seemed far enough away, and yet, the movie industry felt its impact in a rather indirect fashion. The Indian scene had its own domestic perturbations. Politically, Quit India was significant as were the down and dirty war profiteers. Not all the sinners were blue-eyed blondes as some history books would have us believe. Ashish Rajyadhyaksha speculates that many Indian businessmen profited unabashedly during the early period of the war and the Bengal famine. The movie studio was a popular front for channelling illegal money. No wonder the early '40s saw an explosion in the number of production companies on both sides of what would be the new India-Pakistan border. But Bombay remained the centre of all capital. With the increase in the number of movie productions, the traditional and feudal studio employer of the '30s could see the walls crumbling around the notion of salaried patronage. The spectre of freelance artists started to become real. The emerging studios, eager to get rid of the blood money that they were bulging with, started to outbid each other for the topmost professionals. This led to "freelancing" by composers and singers. Anil Biswas might have been a pioneer in this regard without realizing it.

A few other facts are interesting. Himansu Rai died in the early '40s leaving the fragile management of Bombay Talkie to its fate. Mehboob Khan decided to part company with his Sagar and National patrons. And playback singing gained momentum as cinema music demanded a better deal than the constriction it met at the hands of limited talents. Oddly enough, one of the first few "pioneers" of playback, Suraiyya Jamaal Sheikh, would essentially spend a career singing mainly for songs filmed on herself.

Anil Biswas, a longtime Mehboob friend, decided to part company, and left Mehboob Studios floundering for a few years in the quest of a stable musical guide and composer. Bombay Talkie stepped into an antithesis phase with a major exodus of some big names. And on a completely different front, Noorjehan, Panchholi, VM Vyas and Ghulam Haider all individually contributed to the invisible skyline connection between the souls of Bombay and Lahore. All of a sudden, the world was smaller, more talented, and utterly competitive.

The '40s witnessed some of the quickest changes in the way the industry operated. Bombay Talkie, once the "big blue" of the industry, could be seen floundering. The days of stable employment were coming to an end. Artists, young and old, high and low profile, from all walks of the industry, were now on their own. New studios emerged notable among them being the one founded by Abdul Rashid Kardar. His musical soulmate, Naushad Ali, injected a new sound into the spirit of the young Indian movie. Mehboob started his productions with a flourish. Bombay Talkie brought in Anil Biswas and brother-in-law Pannalal Ghosh. New singers, better sounding and accomplished than those of the previous decade, suddenly appeared in the recording studio. Parul Ghosh, Kanan Devi, Amirbai Karnataki, Arun Kumar, Snehprabha, Zohrabai Ambaalewaali, and to be complete, Noorjehan, were all household names already.

BASANT and KISMET were big names. The latter is probably still the biggest hit in the history of Indian cinema (normalizing for inflation, population growth etc).

Lata and Nurjehan 1, 2, 3, 4.

Lata: pa.nkh hote to u.D aatii, rasiyaa o zaalimaa, tujhe dil kaa daaG dikhalaatii ..

Nurjehan: Kyaa mil gayaa bhagavaan tumhe.n dil ko dukhaake ..

Zohrabai: a.Nkhiyaa.n milaake jiyaa bharamaa ke, chale nahI.n jAnA ..

Naushad man ta.Dapat hari darasan ko aaj, more tum bin biga.De sakal kaaj ..

The Golden Era
50's to 70's To come

Manna Dey Aaja sanam madhur chandani mein hum ..

Asha torA man darpaN kahalAye ..

Rafi ai gulabadan, ai gulabadan, phuulo.n kii mahak kaa.NTo.n kii chubhan ..

Kishor Kumar aa chal ke tujhe, mai.n le ke chaluu.n ik aise gagan ke tale ..

Mukesh dil jalataa hai to jalane de aa.Nsuu nA bahaa fariyaad nA kar ..

The Modern period
70's to 90's To come

R. D. Burman o hasInaa zulfo.n vaalii jaanejahaa.n, Dhuu.nDhatii hai.n kaafir aa.Nkhe.n ..

Yesudas jab diip jale aanaa, jab shaam Dhale aanaa ..

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