Friday, February 8, 2008

Rasik Balmaa and other stories.

Hello, Hindustan ka Dehradun? Hello?
Hello, main Rangoon se bol rahaa hoon,
Main apni biwi Renuka Devi se baat karna chaahta hoon.

Mere piya gaye Rangoon
Kiya hai wahaa se telephoon!
Tumhaari yaad sataati hai
Jiya mein aag lagaati hai... the first song I registered in my head as a Hindi film song. Yes, even before Ek, Do, Teen. The song is from a film called Patanga made back in 1949, and had caught my attention as a 3 year old because the song made delightful rhymes with words like Telephoon and June, Rangoon and Patloon.

Aji lungi baandh ke karen guzaara, hum bhool gaye patloon
tumhaari yaad sataati hai, jiya main aag lagaati hai

While I got none of the pant-forgetting love that the two shared across the border over a telephone, what I did get was that this was a song I liked very much. As also this other song that came to my notice during about 1989-90, called,

Afsaana likh rahee hoon, dil-e-beqaraar ka
Aankhon mein rang bhar ke tere intezaar ka

Years later when I tell the yuppie-crowd-with-the-Iron Maiden-shirts that surround me, that this song was actually sung by Tun Tun, or Uma Devi as she was known then, the spectrum of responses beats even the ones 2001: A Space Odyssey got on its release.
Some are awed; because the 70's to them is old, and 40's was the time Adam and Eve lived and they weren't aware that music existed then.
Some are nonplussed; they look at me and say nothing, but sport a look that screams "There is such a thing called life; we have one."
Most are just amused, and do nothing to hide it. "You listen to Porcupine Tree. And you are talking of a song by a fat comedienne from the 40's. Dude, what time are you from?"

I don't know what time I am from, but I certainly know what time these songs take me to.

They take me to a time we went to sleep listening to Chayageet and Aapki Farmaaish on Vividh Bharti, and wondering where or what this Jhumri Talaiyya was exactly and how poor it must actually be that its people had to write in incessantly to a radio station to play their favorite song. (And wondering who exactly named their children Bunty, Chintu and Pinky and if they managed to live through school without at least one attempt at slashing wrists, their own or someone else's.)

It takes me back to the time when we would wake up bleary eyed to grudgingly get ready for school, refusing - with all the defiance a 4 year old could muster - to drink milk, promising to not dirty the uniform by slinging mud at other kids, and listening most intently to a voice on Bhoole Bisre Geet, even as Amma was expostulating her own brand of catechumen ("Tumbaa thaley haraTe maaDbeDa, puTTa - Don't be too cocky, sweetheart" - how well she knows me that woman) while carefully parting the always stubborn (Brahmin-boy oiling notwithstanding) mop of hair.
Now I realize that the song I heard back then was,

Rasik balmaa...
Haaye, dil kyun lagaaya tose, dil kyun lagaaya?
Jaise rog lagaaya.

I remember asking Amma, "Amma, who is singing in that box?"
"That," she said, "is Lata Mangeshkar."
"Manga-na?" (Monkey-aa?)
"Adu neenu, eeg horaDu late aaythu" (That is you, chipmunk. Now leave, it's getting late.)

To a mind that was limited by vocabulary and oblivious to the adequacy of metaphors, the voice was cotton-candy good. It felt like coming down a big slide, or going upswing in a giant swing. In other words, it stayed.
Exhilaration as a word would take a lot more years to become part of my lexicon, but I can safely say now that, that was what I felt on a lazy weekday morning, with the ghoda-gaadi with its langda-chaacha fussing impatiently. (Did anyone else go to school in a ghoda-gaadi? I think not. Wait, my brother did too.)
That was probably where my tryst with old Hindi film music began. And like the voice that has defined it over 65 years, that too has stayed.

We are a family full of crazy film music fanatics. And temple fanatics. And Kannadiga pride fanatics. So much so, we were conditioned to do a full saashTaanga namaskaara if there came on television a picture of the Shringeri Sharada Peetham, or the Kukke Subrahmanya Temple, or the Raghavendra Swami MaTha in Mantraalayam.
Also, we were expected to stand up and show respect every time a picture of Sir M. Vishveshwaraiah turned up on TV, pinocchio nose-Mysore peTa and all. To Amma, he was everything she ever wanted her sons to be.
The ultimate Kannadiga symbol of pride, she would beam. (This despite him being a Telugu Brahmin - Amma's least favorite kind, and him having married four times, a most ghastly act in most Ammas' eyes). But nothing could or can shake her belief off the fact that Sir MV was the greatest Kannadiga ever. And the brother and I gladly obliged her by standing up for a moment every time the great man with the big nose was shown on TV.

To my 5-year old analytical self, this standing up and showing respect act extended to anybody I considered great. Like, great.
And so, Amma still tells all who care to listen, that her little son was so taken in with Lata's singing that he stood an entire half hour when a concert of hers was airing on TV. I, of course, choose to not believe her. I could never have been that stupid, being my line of argument. Which of course doesn't hold out for long, for mothers have amazing memories when it comes to letting the world know of the tales of half-their-chromosomes' stupidity.
"Aane mEle koorslilla antha Agra-ne egr hOgO haag kirchidde neenu, gotthaa?"
(Do you want me to start on the tale of you threatening to uproot Agra with that shrill cry of yours, just because you couldn't sit on a frikkin elephant?)
"Or the time you almost agreed to go as Gommateshwara for the fancy dress competition?"
"You have been stupid appa, Monkey boy. Just you say yes to whatever I say. Doing fancy MBBS from fancy college does not take away the fact that you were the kid that almost peed in his chuddies watching the Zee Horror Show."

Okay, may be she is right. And why not, I say.
Lata, despite whatever people might say about her deteriorating vocals ("She sings like she is getting a tonsillectomy done without anesthesia") remains the only one I have ever considered being close to perfect. Listen to any of her songs between 1947 and 1969, and the one thing that strikes you most is how effortlessly beautiful the singing is. It's like pouring hot wax into an intricate mold. It sets just right.
Be it her songs for such excellent music directors as Salil Choudhury, Madan Mohan, SD Burman or Sajjad Hussain, or mediocre ones like Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji or RD Burman (HOW overrated is this one! Pah.)
Be it her excellent abhangas in Marathi or her path breaking Adhunik Sangeet in Bengali or her pitch perfect Meera Bhajans in Rajasthani, the woman has crafted each song with a felicity may be even she is not aware of.

Which is why, it is a little disconcerting when the 20-something crowd of today shows an Andekhi anjaani si or a Hum toh bhai jaise hain as an example of the "legendary Lata prowess" and wonders what the fuss is all about. "And the Bharat Ratna? For that one?"
Their apprehension, unfortunately enough, is not misplaced. If we, the self-confessed Lata fans continue to listen to her, it is more for an emotional reason than vocal, so to speak. It is in reverence to the woman who once possessed the best set of vocal cords that God ever created. For, we will never forget that it was Lata who gave us Mohe bhool gaye saawariya, or O sajnaa barkha bahaar aayee, or Kuchh dil ne kahaa, or Ae dilruba nazrein milaa or thousands others like these.

Through Lata began my understanding of Hindi film music.
The dholak beat became synonymous with Laxmi-Pyare,
convoluted but delightfully 'breezy' tunes swung the baton to Salil Choudhury,
easy-on-the-ears meant Chitalkar,
too-many-violins-too-high-a-pitch meant Shankar Jaikishan,
and so on.

The greatest accomplishment of Hindi film music as I have come to realize, is a position it and only it can lay claim to - that of furnishing a song to every human emotion known. The second greatest, as I now understand, is its innate egalitarianism.
For every Eena Meena Deeka, there's a Haal-e-Dil yun unhein sunaaya gaya. For every Jinga-lala-hoo, jinga-lala-hoo, hurr hurr, there is a song that makes most of words I have never understood, like AngDaayiaan, karvaTein, kashmakash (Is it some kinda dish, this Angdaayi, that every one is khaa-ing angdaayi?). It appeals as much to the masala-chai-sipping-Dostoevsky-discussing crowd as it does to the auto-driver-who-swears-by-Himess. I have yet to come across a kind of music that has enthusiasts belonging to a spectrum as wide and as varied.
(I agree "Hindi film music" in itself isn't a genre, but we talk broad categories here and it certainly qualifies to be one.)

It is imperative here that I tell you all that this is no isolated statement. I am very catholic when it comes to music (No maa, for the last time, that does not mean I am Christian and No, my name won't be Fernandees or Jaan or Jaarj).

MSS appeals to me as much as much Opeth does. I do believe In The Court Of The Crimson King is the greatest ever progressive rock album, and that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best ever album, of any genre. I enjoy Iron Maiden as much as the next guy (not if the next guy is my brother, then no). I could hang posters of Ustad Amir Khan on my walls, and would pay to watch Susheela Raman perform.


if I were to ever consider a form of music to be after my own heart,
if I were to ever think of the one aural experience that has come to define my musical sensibilities,
it would have to be being lulled into sleep as a young child with the little black Philips transistor crackling a fine crackle, and singing,

Dheere se aaja ree akhiyan mein
Nindiya aaja ree aaja, dheere se aaja
Chupke se nainan ki bagiyan mein
Nindiya aaja ree aaja, dheere se aaja...

P.S.: This post is a direct fallout of my getting a job at a radio station that specializes in old Hindi film music and has some fun people to work with. So yay me!

P.P.S.: I realize the post has been most unMonkey-like and very self indulgent. So, you guys can fill the comments section by telling me a, your earliest memory of any music and b, your favorite Hindi film song (preferably pre-90's)

P.P.P.S.: I also realize how lame this is, but hey, cut slack maadi.

P.P.P.P.S.: And all you Pineapple Thief-ridden kewl asses, do listen to some of these "boring-no-electrical-guitar-and-GOD-no-distortion" songs. They will not give you an abscess in your butt. I promise. And even if they do, come to me, I will drain them. May be that will get you off your high horse.