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After a decade of domination of club music, Indian sounds are returning to film songs. And not a day too soon.
Even to hardcore lovers of Hindi film music, Feroz Shah is probably not a familiar name. He is a classical harmonium player who makes a livelihood playing for films. Still doesn't ring a bell? Try recalling Pee loon (Once Upon a Time in Mumbai) and the long, lovely and pure stretches of the harmonium that weave in and out of the song, adding immensely to its charms. It was Shah's magical fingers that picked those notes.
The shehnai provides a strong backbone to Gal mithi mithi bol in Aisha. Another shehnai song that a lot of purists thought did irreverent things with the instrument was the cheeky Character dheela by Pritam. The sitar adds to the evocative appeal of Saibo.
Apart from that a whole lot of Amit Trivedi's songs have a classical streak with which he obviously plays around without making heavy weather of it - teasing the listener with a scintilla of raga notes.
Is it wishful thinking? Or is classical music truly in with the younger composers of Hindi film songs? Of course, there was a time when composers like Madan Mohan, S D Burman, Shankar Jaikishen, Jaidev, Khayyam and even R D Burman made it a proud point to base their songs on ragas and used some of the biggest instrumentalists, like Rais Khan, Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia, in their songs. But that was decades ago. Those who have watched the music industry say this is a cyclical thing - after a long patch of imported sounds the Indian music system had to return.
"After every phase of experimentation, Indian film music has always returned to its roots. But how it is used - that changes in every phase. I would equate it to a coil rather than a circle, " says leading music arranger Dhurbajyoti Phukan. He points out that young composers, like Sachin-Jigar and Amit Trivedi, are adapting Indian music to create their own unique music. "They are not exactly using it the way Madan Mohan or Naushad did but modifying it to create trendy sounds. "
Among the most classically sound in the industry, Shankar Mahadevan is particularly impressed with the cool revamp of Indian elements in film songs. These youngsters, he says admiringly, know precisely what they are doing. "They are using Indian music in a hip, stylish way that appeals to classicists as much as others. In the old days, the shehnai would be played in a film in a specific genre, now the instrument is being used traditionally but with a funky touch - for just a texture sometimes. Brilliant, " is how he sums up the revival.
Sachin of the Sachin-Jigar duo is classically trained in vocal music;Trivedi has a great grip on classical elements and Mithoon, whose music for Anwar including the outstanding Maula mere maula and Tose naina lage, merited him many more chances than he was given, comes from a strong line of classical musicians.
"My USP is Indian classical music, not necessarily played traditionally but certainly used as a sound foundation for the song. It is much easier to be expressive with it, after all it is a part of our identity. So why run away from it?" says Mithoon.
One of the reasons for the return of the Indian flavour could also be the fact that sufi elements, folk and qawwali are becoming increasingly popular genres in films. Pritam used the qawwali element with great distinction in Once upon..., intertwining it ingeniously with songs like Pee loon and Tum jo aaye.
"After all, even Munni and Sheila are remixed folk songs. How could we not see a revival of Indian sounds in some garb or the other?" asks Feroz Shah.
If you are a traditionalist it could be a matter of some sadness that Indian elements are now used as exotica in Hindi film songs, that what was once organic to it has been reduced to a frill. But given the synthetic track on which film music had veered off, it also holds the promise of a homecoming of sorts.
Sarangi player Dilshad Khan would prefer to be optimistic. He says the sounds we hear in film songs today are a strong signal that the audiences want back the era of melody. "Public ko wahi khana parosna padhta hai jo woh chahti hai (you have to give listeners what they want). We may, he says fervently, see a return to the days when Indian flavours ruled.
Believe it or not, these Amit Trivedi songs have more than just a whiff of classical music.
Gal Mithi Mithi | Aisha
This would have passed off as yet another smart, danceable Punjabi song but for Trivedi's really inventive detailing and the fact that it is actually set to a grave and courtly night raga, Darbari. Only the deadly combo of Trivedi and and the classically trained Tochi Rainaa could have pulled off this song without making heavy weather of its classical base.
Dilli Dilli | No One Killed Jessica
This is a deliberately loud rock song that careens all over the place to describe Delhi's aggression. This song is based on the somewhat plaintive morning raga, Todi which, works well with the underlying note of grief in the film's story. You could also, of course, just enjoy it for its reckless energy. The vocals by Tochi, Sriram Iyer and Aditi Singh Sharma worked beautifully.
ARE WE REDUCED TO EXOTICA?
Niladri Kumar, who has played his version of sitar - the zitar - for several Bollywood hits, says itt is too early to predict a classical comeback
I am yet to figure out with what intent classical elements are being used in contemporary film songs. Are the composers bringing it in as exotica or as elements they love, respect and want to use as integral aspects of their music? If you look at the music of yesteryears from the days of Naushad and Madan Mohan through the days of Shankar Jaikishen and Laxmikant Pyarelal and right up to R D Burman, you can see how beautifully they integrated classical music into their songs. And the beauty of it is that some of them were not even classically trained in the real sense of the word. But sometimes they showcased a raga so beautifully that even an ustad would be left stumped.
Take for example, how R D Burman composed the Burning Trainqawwali Pal do pal. He may not have been trained but he used raga Kedar so creatively in the song that even a classical musician may not have been able to pull off that effect. That sort of implementation is not visible these days.
We have so long been buried under non-Indian sounds that we have got to a point where the sarangi or the sitar or the shehnai actually sounds like a USP for a song! I mean this is precisely how we treated Western instruments back say in the '50s, like exotica.
I don't have a problem with this approach and there is nothing wrong with not having a classical base. But do you do it with love and respect for the tradition? That will decide what this trend could mean.
- As told to Malini Nair
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