Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Guru-Shishya parampara in Hindi film songs

A common recurring theme employed  in Indian film music is the Guru (teacher) singing with his Shishya (pupil) and gently urging him/her to follow the lines s/he’s singing and then take wing...

Traditionally each ‘Gharana’(reputed house/lineage) of music carried out, preserved and perpetuated their style of music by training new generations as well as students outside their family.  Students typically had to not just attend classes but also spend time with the tutor and his/ her family sometimes even staying in the same house.  (There’s an excellent book on Begum Akhtar by one of her devoted disciples who had to undergo a lot of difficult tasks under the reputed singer’s tutelage)

While this is revered, IMHO it’s the only form of learning Indian classical music and when films employ this theme it produces some superlative pieces of music and its really rare that you find one that doesn’t meet the mark. 

Strangely I don’t see as many examples from South India – I guess mainly because I am not as familiar with South Indian films.  The style of tutoring in the South is also different i.e. mainly through classes/ tutorials - a regimented method like in schools.  There is a song from the ‘all-time great’ Telugu film Shankara Bharanam where they do this but the song's role in the film is actualy in a different setting and doesn't tap into the Guru-Shishya dynamic well.

A good song using this theme usually has a reputed singer (the Ustad/ guru) who has earned his/her spurs and has the Guru's pure voice hitting high notes, with a superlative control.   The song s/he sings is also one of the classical notes (usually devotional and in Brij bhasha or Urdu/ Awadhi) that has been used to train students since ages, with quite a few of them using Lord Krishna and his 'Raas Leela'.  The student is usually a junior singer/ emerging talent (to keep the balance as best and true as possible) and s/he usually doesn’t sing till the lead singer/Guru has done the introduction.

The inter-play produces some fantastic experiences that would be difficult to achieve in a solo performance.  In a lot of songs the Guru gently corrects the student, sometimes offering an easier variation of the song. In some the student moves onto the next line, or has to do the phonetic notes to match the tune.  Even better they do the Aalaap (don’t know the English for this, sorry) or use the Solfege/ tonal scales (Sa Re Ga Ma in India) each matching the stanzas before them.  There are rare times when the student takes the leap and starts owning the song and you can almost feel the Guru beaming with pride.

Even if you don’t know the language you cant miss these nuances when you listen to these songs.  The best Hindi film songs in this genre, can easily be followed as you see this interplay. If Ih ad to introduce some metaphors to illustrate this dynamic: in some of them the mother bird gently pushes the chicks out of the nest, in some the swan leads her flock into the pond and teaches them to both swim as well as plunge their head into the water to look for food and explore the world underwater.  In some of them there’s both a protective instinct, a nurturing, encouraging one as well as one where the student is stimulated and energy and talent transmitted. In a way there is also devotion, and eventually an offering of pure Music to the Gods.  I cannot help getting goose bumps when you can sense this interplay and transfer.

Here’s a short list of some of the films/ songs that had superlative songs.  (These youtube video links might have expired so just do a search by the name/ song to listen to them - also recommend you source the audio files if you can to listen to them fully as youtube videos might have curtailed versions)

·   Bhumika – this movie about Marathi film actress Hansa Wadkar based on her frank tell-all autobiography, talks about how this actress-singer coped with domestic abuse while achieving fame in the era of black and white films.  The entire soundtrack is platinum standard developed by Vanraj Bhatia. But there’s one song which shows the young actress learning classical singing from her teacher and for this song the story goes that Vanraj Bhatia had to chase and plead with one of the lesser known but reputed classical singer who refused, and he eventually used another equally good veteran Saraswati Rane to sing this. Enjoy.

·   Sardari Begum – another priceless collection from Vanraj Bhatia serving as the soundtrack for the film allegedly based on the life of venerated singer Begum Akhtar.  This has a few songs that show her training from her Ustad, as well as later training her daughter and setting the stage for ‘launching’ her daughter on stage. Remarkable pieces not to be missed.

·   Manamohan man mein – where the immensely talented Suman Kalyanpur matches the legendary Mohd Rafi, as a student.  This is my go-to favourite when I seek solace


- 'Aayo kahaan se Ghanashyam' from the film Buddha Mil Gaya.  This has possibly the greatest classically trained voice in Hindi films, Manna Dey as the Guru (If you were to make a list of top 100 songs in Hindi films, I'd say you would need a separate listing for Manna Dey as all his songs could easily be there and it would be unfair to exclude even a single one of them). In fact he is so good that other singers refuse to do cover versions of his songs, as also evident in this where the pupil only comes towards the end as it is unlikely she would have been able to match Manna Dey's singing...

There are a few others which also make it but IMHO didn’t reach the heights of the ones above, either because of the talents or the way the song was constructed which didn’t allow the interplay and the fruition to occur

· "kahaan se aaye badara" from the movie Chashm-e-buddoor

·  "Bhor Bhaye" from the movie Dilli 6  This is from AR Rehman, and while the composition is sublime, it loses out its soul I am guessing because it was dubbed/ Sync Recording (like most songs are recorded today). Each artiste recorded his version separately.  The soul of this song which is the dynamic between the teacher & student comes alive only during a live recording, and can't be substituted through a recording.

There are other genres too which allow inter-play, a dialogue or competition and the best form I know is the Qawwali or a setting of a dance competition. But maybe its me, but I don’t see them reaching the heights that a song using the Guru-Shishya parampara achieves.

IAnd this is inspite of the fact that one of my biggest regrets in life is not to have been being blessed with a mentor, or not being a protégé good enough to earn one, and I am not talking about music here. Well….