For Years now, coffee shops and bars have come alive with never-ending debates among music aficionados on which was the defining decade of Hindi film music. No one’s won that argument yet. Let us instead take a step back and look at how the music changed shades, down the decades.
Hindi films being an offshoot of the traditional drama/jatra/tamasha/nautanki culture, the music in the 1930s and early 1940s was theatrical, with limited but baroque instrumentation, more reliance on major scales and decidedly slow in tempo.
1950s was the first decade of an independent India, with Bombay revelling in its new-found status as the capital of Hindi cinema. Shankar Jaikishan’s expansive 100-piece orchestration in Awara (1951) was celebratory of that spirit. Their big-bang sound reflected their confidence and was their contribution to Hindi film music. Salil Chowdhury’s playing field was western classical music and Indian folk, charting out soundtracks like Madhumati (1958) and Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Naushad, one of the highest paid composers of the 1940s, stayed close to genres like Hindustani classical and UP folk. SD Burman went further east, digging into the roots of East Bengal folk, switching quickly to western in the West-inspired noir sagas of Baazi (1951) and Jaal (1952) while composing to Urdu poetry in Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959).
Each was distinct from the other. But they collectively laid the foundation of the Sixties’ sound in all its diversity. With the exception of C Ramachandra, Shankar-Jaikishan and Naushad, none of the others really hit their peak in the 1950s.
It seemed as if the entire galaxy of stars had been lined up in the same decade, the 1960s. The curtain raiser to the “1960 Nite” was Shankar-Jaikishen’s big sound that continued to get stronger; they made music for tragedies (Dil Ek Mandir, 1963) as well as the frolicking score of Shammi Kapoor’s Junglee (1961), and showed remarkable range — from the classical-based Jhanak jhanak tori baje payaliya (Mere Huzoor, 1968) to champagne evenings in Paris. In the 1960s, OP Nayyar’s talent in melody became more apparent than his (commonly perceived) hoof-trot rhythm, as evident in daydreamy scores of Mere Sanam (1965) and Kashmir ki Kali (1964). Madan Mohan, with three haunting Lata ghazals, scored his first big box-office hit in Woh Kaun Thi? (1964). His ghazals with Talat Mahmood and Lata in Jahan Ara (1964) too would become golden oldies in the years to come.
Roshan monopolised the qawwali territory with three pearls in Barsaat ki Raat (1960). The sheer throttle behind Ye ishq ishq hai showed how the qawwali could set up a pulsating climax to a movie. Roshan also has to his credit the composition that was voted the ‘Best Ever’ in an Outlook poll in 2006 — Man re tu kaahe na dheer dhare from Chitralekha (1964).
Salil Chowdhury became almost synonymous with the flute. The intro flute solo in Lata’s Ja re ud ja re panchi (Maya, 1961) is like an requiem for the era. Rabindranath Tagore would have been proud of Chowdury for the way he musicalised the father-daughter separation in Ae mere pyare watan (Kabuliwallah, 1961). Jaidev, arguably the unluckiest man in Hindi film music history, composed the immortal score for Hum Dono (1961). Despite this, Navketan never used him again. His quantum of solace would have been the fact that Lata called Allah tero naam as one of her 10 most favorite numbers.
Meanwhile, SD Burman had guided musical history to a new milestone in Guide (1965). In Jewel Thief (1967) too, the dark shades of Dev Anand in a starkly different avatar, was supported by Burman’s blues-based background scores.
Playback music had finally carved out an independent identity of its own. Each year was a new trip to Planet Melody. Suddenly, there were wannabe shaayars in every college and friends’ circle. An occasional heartbreak was an excuse to break into Shakeel Badayuni’s Mili khak me mohabbat; Sahir’s Mai zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya was like the licence to enjoy the sunshine of youth. If the girl was still undecided about saying yes to you, you would rehearse Shailendra’s Har dil jo pyar karega who gaana gayega before you met her next. For the multi-timing street-smart, there was a ready excuse by Majrooh Sultanpuri: Ye dil na hota bechara. For the coy women of the era, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan’s Aapki nazron ne samjha seemed to express all that unsaid heartache.
Midway through the ’60s party, the Batmen landed up. Laxmikant-Pyarelal kangarooed into the top slots with Parasmani (1963) and Dosti (1964). After a seven-year wait, RD Burman’s career zoomed up with Teesri Manzil (1966) and then Padosan (1968), bringing rhythm, brass, woodwind to the forefront, while retaining his folk DNA. His innovations included a double-track recording for the first time in the number Kya janu sajan (Baharon ke Sapne, 1967), the Bossa Nova beat in Asha’s Mar dalega dard-e-jigar (Pati Patni, 1966) and the Echolite in the Manna Dey number Pyar karta ja (Bhoot Bungla, 1964). Pancham also taught the industry the importance of background music in the screenplay — Teesri Manzil (1966) and The Train being examples. The more sedate Kalyanji-Anandji took firm steps in Himalay ki God Mein (1965), and Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965). While melody peaked, in came newer arrangement styles coupled with confident experimentation like subtle use of western instruments, and secondary percussion that accentuated (and not replaced) the core melody. The importance of technicalities such as balancing, sound mixing, and acoustics became obvious.
Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle were in their mid-30s or early 40s and in the prime of their lives. Their dates were full, many weeks in advance of the recordings. Manna Dey was a niche player but an important one. Mukesh continued his pathos-laden streak of the 1940s and the 1950s. While the star-singers of the early and mid-1950s, Talat Mahmood and Geeta Dutt, receded into oblivion, Mahendra Kapoor, after a decade-long struggle, became a popular Punjabi voice. Towards the end of the decade, Kishore Kumar, the singer and one of the busiest actors of the 1950s, made a critical choice (prompted by Anandji) of getting full-time into playback singing. His decision struck the Bombay coast like a tornado in late 1969 with Aradhana. There would be no other voice like Kishore Kumar’s.