Manek Premchand is not only one of India's finest musicologists of Indian film songs, but also an author with a delightfully graceful style.
I have been following his books right from his first venture, Yesterday's Melodies, Today's Memories, and have had the honour of writing Forewords for all of them. If you are a lover of Indian film music of the golden period, you must surely have read his three other books, too: Musical Moments from Hindi Films, Romancing the Song, and Talat Mahmood-The Velvet Voice (I hear this one has been nominated for the 2016 Award by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Indiana, USA for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research).
In this, his latest book, Hitting the Right Notes-Hindi Cinema's Golden Music, Manek Premchand has given a masterly over-view of the grand feast of golden music that our Indian film songs have bestowed upon us, from 1931 till almost now.
Manek's collection of songs featured is mind-boggling; almost like an encyclopaedia-and his style is as elegant as ever.
Keep it up, Manek. We now await your next magnum opus!
The great author Irving Wallace is known for his bestsellers like The Man, The Plot, and The Seven Minutes, all works of fiction. But all these came after he was successful. Earlier, for twenty struggling years, to stay out of debt, he wrote for many journals what they advised him to write on. But he still devoted a fraction of his time to what he felt like writing, with no idea at all if it would ever be printed. This free time he called Sunday, because Sunday was the Lord's Day, when you could be yourself, without being anyone's slave. These writings were non-fiction stories that would later be brought out in a book called The Sunday Gentleman.
My own book is a compendium of non-fiction stories too, many of which have been printed as a newspaper column on Sundays. It has therefore been that day of the week that in a sense has most validated my calling, and so I was tempted to borrow Wallace's title for use in this book. On more reflection, though, the idea of my being a Sunday Gentleman didn't fit. For, unlike Wallace, I never had to write to escape being in debt, and since I can't hold a candle to his talent, I shouldn't be building a bridge too far. Also, no matter what spin one gives it, a lift is a lift. It is also true that since these stories essentially celebrate the greatness of just one subject-the Hindi film song of the time when melody was queen-the title should have more relevance. So, it became Hitting the Right Notes-Hindi Cinema's Golden Music.
To expand a bit on what follows, this book is a collection of stories that attempt to explore the great music that was once made in Hindi cinema, the musicians who made it happen, the instruments that were part of the narrative, and hundreds of associated ideas that confluenced to make it happen. This is especially true when tracing the aesthetic treatments given to specific songs, as also in the dissemination of genres. In the book we will find a story on the only Hindi film Gandhiji saw, as also the influence by a Spaniard named Francisco Casanovas on the music that came out of Kolkata in the 1940s and 1950s. There are essays on parallel harmony and counter-melody, as also on songs that end on a high pitch, and why they are made to do so. There are articles that attempt to demystify ghazals, with plenty of examples from our cinema. Other stories tell us about rhythmless songs the west calls senza misura, as also the significance behind background songs, with examples again. All such academic subjects are offered in a page-turning, reader-friendly way, and needless to say, the other, simpler subjects are also treated in the same absorbing fashion. Instances of such subjects would be songs featuring the horse-trot beats, the music of OP Nayyar and Shiv Kumar Sharma, actresses playing the piano, the presence of the dance form called Laavni, and so on. All the stories in the book are sparked by the myriad facets of our wonderful music, and many have not been offered earlier in any way, anywhere.
The musicians and their work, the instruments and their use, the films and their art, all these have already been in place. But the magic they have created in the minds of many millions of people, not just India-wide but also globally, is of such incalculable proportions that we can always do with more and more curating. Most of us have a thought to begin with anyway, but some of us like to hear fresh perspectives too. These articles thus gently peel away the many layers from the tunes of the golden age of Hindi film songs, so that our enjoyment and knowledge quotient reaches higher altitudes.
Music historians and aficionados generally accept that the 1950s and 1960s were the Golden Age of Hindi Film music. It is roughly during these two decades that great artistes descended upon the film-making scene in Bombay, to offer excellence in the various areas of the complex business of cinema production. Most of these people showed up without formal training, but in spite of that-or perhaps because of that-they were able to bring their skill and passion into just about every facet of film-making, to leave their footprints behind for all to see or hear clearly. This point about leaving a footprint behind because of no training is not to downplay the role of education, not in the least. But there is at least some body of evidence to suggest that in many cases education, while building safety nets, does pinion many a bird to render it flightless, the time in classrooms also dousing its fire to fly. On the other hand, a surprising number of artistes across the world and across different time periods have been successful without getting a school or college degree.
But, while wonderful music was made in those years, it is by no means restricted to those two decades. The quest for originality and excellence has always been the basis for creativity in enjoyable tunes. But, more than from other times, the songs of the Golden Age live most happily with us, giving us joy far in excess of the music that was made before or since. These melodies do not seem to have come with an expiry date. Is that an accident, a fluke, or a case of a few one-offs? It is none of these. Think of the words of John Ruskin: "Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent efforts. There must be the will to produce a superior thing." That is what it is then, a case of the will and intelligent efforts.
The will to produce a better product needs all that artistes can summon up: time, enthusiasm, effort, imagination, a certain restlessness, and more. Hitting The Right Notes is an effort to understand the tidal wave of such enthusiastic imagination, and the relentless search for musical excellence. It is an attempt to understand the charge of the collective passion and let's-do-it enthusiasm that teams of composers, arrangers, instrumentalists, sound engineers, singers, and songwriters brought to the recording studios time and time again. These are years characterized by the originality in musicians who created timeless melodies, which have sometimes been so beautifully called Sculpture in Air.
The stories that follow have been grouped under different headings, namely The Dances, The Instruments, The Poetry, The Many-Splendored Facets, and The People. In some cases, such compartmentalisation is not sharply defined, or can be put under more than one heading, so I request your indulgence. Many of these essays have been featured substantially in the Sunday editions of DNA Jaipur, and when I got lucky, they have been shared in other editions of the newspaper chain as well. A few articles have shown up in a variety of other journals too, such as Mumbai Mirror, The Afternoon Dispatch and Courier, The Pioneer, Hindustan Times, etc. Some of the essays talk about coming events, a future that may now have become past; as such, I hope that when you confront such a 'future,' you will understand and bear with me. In any case, at the end of each essay we have mentioned the date the essay was published; that should help.
I am indebted to everyone at Manipal University Press, especially Ms Neeta Inamdar, for their renewed trust in me. Others whose encouragement and direct help in this project kept me buoyant are Siddhartha Basu, Kalpana Pant, Lata Jagtiani, and Monica Kar. Thank you is the least I can say.
North Indian Music (290)
Original Texts (60)
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