Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The latest from the Bollywood Book Club

I recently picked up a slender little book called Light of the Universe: Essays on Hindustani Film Music, which I had seen cited in somebody or other's footnotes. The author, Ashraf Aziz, works as a Professor of Anatomy at a medical school, so that should stop me from whining about the distractions of my day job. In only 126 pages he discusses all sorts of interesting songs (most, of course, that I'm not familiar with), and makes several persuasive arguments.

These include: a strong statement that film music is neither debased classical music nor commercialized folk music, but a true musical genre in its own right. Also, the idea that while people like Ravi Shankar got a lot of acclaim for musical bridging East and West, earlier composers and music directors (including many of my faves -- C. Ramchandra, O.P. Nayyar, Shankar-Jaikishan, and of course S.D. Burman) had been doing that for years, without getting any particular credit for it. He points out, the extent that they didn't merely copy popular western musical styles, but combined elements and instruments to create something new.

"It is as hybrid as the contemporary world" (p. xxv), and "the cinema song continues to mediate between the home and abroad, the city and the village, and between the now and the now that has dissolved into then" (p. xxvi). In my case, it mediates across the decades, across the globe, across languages, to a completely unknown and unforeseen audience. Not bad for something deemed at the time to have nothing but "inferiority and frivolity" (p. xxii).

Another brief chapter makes a good case for Indian society undergoing a reactionary shift similar to the one the United States went through after World War II: that after Independence and Partition, women were pushed back into what was perceived as their traditional "place." He (possibly controversially) attributes the Lata Mangeshkar monopoly to this trend, one that would also explain why she was so often called upon to sing in the high-pitched, "little girl" style that Noor Jehan had used occasionally, for particular effect.

While reading this book's opening chapter on Noor Jehan, I sprung for a 5-disc set of her songs, and so far, I'm willing to concede that she was, in fact, all that. But that's a subject for another day.

The last thing I wanted to mention is a quote on the work of lyricist Sajjad Hussain (whose work is pretty much only available to me on YouTube, until I do more research and track down some more box sets). So here's a few videos:

"Kahan ho kahan mere jeevan sahare"

"Yeh hawa ye raat ye chandni"


Anyway, Aziz's comment: "Repeatedly one hears that Sajjad's songs are 'remote,' 'obscure', and 'difficult' ... We live in an astoundingly complex and obscure universe. It is, therefore, naive and unreasonable to demand moronic simplicity in everything." (p. 34)

Wow, it's nice to hear someone say that out loud!

1 comment:

bollyviewer said...

Umm... does that mean that I dont have to cringe for my tastes when my friends boast of liking Hindustani classical music and talk knowledgeably of thumri and raag maalkos? I actually like as-yet-uncredited geniuses like Burman (&Sons), OP Nayyar, Shankar-Jaikishan, et al? Where do I find this book? I need it ASAP to boost my self-confidence! :-D

"one that would also explain why [Lata] was so often called upon to sing in the high-pitched, "little girl" style" - I thought she always sang in that style, because thats how her voice is! Her speaking voice is also remarkably childish and high pitch. One big reason why I prefer Asha Bhosle.