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A new book reveals the life and worth of the anonymous musicians who made Bollywood’s golden melodies

Written by Amritadutta |
December 7, 2008 11:26:54 am

A new book reveals the life and worth of the anonymous musicians who made Bollywood’s golden melodies
In 1977, a man in a ridiculous top hat burst out of an Easter egg as Kishore Kumar trilled, “My-name-is-An-thony-Gon-saal-ves”. The movie was a hit and Amitabh Bachchan’s rap act entered the gallery of Bollywood golden moments. But who was Anthony Gonsalves? The answer lies in Majorda, a village in Goa, where Gonsalves lives with the memories of the years (1943-1965) he spent in Mumbai’s film industry, making and teaching music. A violinist who taught Pyarelal Sharma, one half of the famous Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo of composers, Gonsalves worked as an arranger for many film scores. He is also the starting point of Gregory D. Booth’s new book Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios.

Gonsalves is at the heart of this book, says Booth, because he represents both the anonymity of the musicians who played the signature music of Bollywood films and their presence in our lives. Gonsalves’s name has instant recall (its place in the song was Pyarelal’s ironic tribute) but his contribution remains unacknowledged. The melodies performers like him made spilled over into our lives and became markers of our memories while they remained—as so many told the author—behind the curtain. This book, in some ways, is their curtain call.

Booth introduces you to Chic Chocolate (a.k.a Antonio Vaz), one of Bombay’s leading jazz musicians in the 1940s who composer C. Ramchandra spotted at a restaurant and hustled into the industry. The result of this musical encounter was the first Latin percussion sounds in Bollywood . Listen to Cawas Lord drumming up some fun on his bongo in Shola jo bhadke from the film Albela (1951) to know what Chic and his band brought to the music. And if you can hear the strains of the oboe in any score from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, you are listening to Lallu Ram Indorkar, the only oboist of the industry in that period.

This is not the first time that Booth has turned his focus to India’s “hidden or perhaps voiceless musicians.” His last book was Brass Baja: Stories From the World of Indian Wedding Bands, an exhaustive work on “another music tradition that most Indians haven’t really thought about”. Booth teaches at the University of Auckland and has been playing the tabla for 30 years now—he was a student of Zakir Hussain. He embarked on this book because he wanted to know “more about the process of music making in Mumbai. “It seemed best to ask the musicians,” he says.

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Behind the Curtain is an oral history of the industry from the 1930s till the late 1990s and includes interviews with numerous musicians, composers, arrangers and engineers. Booth marks out three distinct phases. From the 1930s to 1950, musicians were salaried employees of film studios. From 1950 till the 1990s was the time of the Old Bollywood, when independent producers financed films and musicians worked as freelancers. They were paid by the hour—by the producer and not the composers who enrolled them.

This was the time of the large film orchestras, when as many as 100 musicians playing instruments as varied as the sitar and the maracas, the drums and the accordion, recorded a song with the playback singers “at a single take”. As music composers grew in clout, their orchestras grew larger and so did the costs.

Booth takes us to an industry humming with different sounds—and identities. As the film industry consolidated itself in Bombay, the city by the sea became the destination for many musicians—and the host to an experiment in multiculturalism. The trickle from Calcutta included not just composers like Salil Chaudhuri and Hemant Kumar but saxophone player Manohari Singh and cellist Sanjoy Chakravarty. One of the largest groups of musicians were Goan Christians—men like Gonsalves and violinist Jerry Fernandes who entered the industry in the late 1940s as it offered better financial returns than a career in jazz and military bands. Taught since childhood to read and notate music, they became indispensable to music directors like Naushad, Ramchandra and Shankar-Jaikishen who were looking to recreate the sound of orchestras that Hollywood films resounded with. The musicians were a bridge between two musical traditions—the Indian melodic one and the Western sound that revolved around harmonies and orchestration.

Somewhere in the middle of Booth’s fascinating book, the notion that one R.D. Burman opened the doors of Bollywood music rooms to Western music gets badly bruised. If Burman found Louis Banks at the Blue Fox restaurant in Kolkata in the 1970s, Ramchandra had done that years ago with his overture to Chic Chocolate. Arrangers like Anthony Gonsalves, Kersi Lord and Sebastian D’Souza worked to integrate Indian classical and folk styles with orchestral scores; some also composed the interludes and the countermelodies. D’Souza arranged the score for Naushad Ali’s Basant Bahar, a classical soundtrack if ever there was one.

“This was the first example of fusion music,” Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, who has scored for films himself, tells Booth. Much before R.D, music composers were on the look out for global sounds —from Latin-American percussion rhythms to jazz. And the musicians who trooped to their rehearsals and recording sessions for much of the 30 years of Old Bollywood’s lifespan brought many of those sounds to the studio. As Booth notes , “Stories that credit music directors with Hindi film music’s eclecticism are telling only part of the story. They were, in one sense, borrowing the musicians who played the various styles and content of eclecticism.” Teamwork was part of every music director’s creative workshop and none more so than R.D. Burman. But the brilliance and adaptability of the instrumentalists were recognized only in their small professional circles.

The transition to the system of production which Booth calls New Bollywood began in the mid-1990s, as liberalisation gave musicians access to programming and multitracking technology and the new-age corporate producer slashed budgets. The sound of a hundred musicians playing together to reach a crescendo could be recreated in a tiny studio with one synthesizer. By 1998, the careers of these musicians were over.

One of the most poignant moments of this history is of Shankar Indorkar, the son of the original oboist of Bollywood, meeting A.R. Rahman in his studio in Madras. “He (Rahman) says, ‘Just you play something. Play anything. So I played something…just some thing. Maybe half an hour. From low to high on both instruments (oboe and the English horn). Whatever I could think. And he just recorded everything. He paid me and I went back. And after that he never called me. Because he had all my sounds. So you could say he has me.”

Musicians never had a chance of lasting out such profound change. “You can’t beat technology and capitalism,” says Booth. You can only remember and look behind the curtain. The music, after all, is still playing in our hearts.
Behind the Curtain (OUP, Rs 695) will be in bookstores in January

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