I’ve always been a fan of traditional Indian music. I used to search Limewire for long live recordings of ragas and tabla solos. The best recordings combined severe technical proficiency with a fun, improvisational feeling. The rhythms and melodies were complex, but there was something very satisfying and whole about the compositions, no matter how fractured they could appear if you thought too much about what time signature they were using.
Recently, that interest led me to a new style of music. I’ve been exploring the golden age of Bollywood cinema, the music produced for Indian popular cinema in the 50s and 60s.
For example: the song “Ganga Aaye Kahan Se” (embedded above) is a folk ballad about the sacred Ganges river, sung by Hemant Kumar in the 1961 film Kabuliwala. The film is about a trader from Afghanistan (Kabuliwala meaning essentially vendor from Kabul). From what I can tell, the story is complex, involving murder, shady business dealings, and melodrama. But the song itself, as the lyrics in the embedded video above illustrate, is an ode to the majestic Ganges river, a river central to Indian culture and religion.
The song sounds, at first blush, like the kind of churning, driving folk song that might have been sung by workers on the ganges itself. In fact, despite the very little information I can find about this song on the internet, this video seems to indicate that “Ganga Aaye Kahan Se” is possibly based on an earlier Bengali boatman folk song.
Despite its origin as a churning work song, and despite the very traditional instrumentation, the rhythm section of the song is actually mixed very low. The real star of the song is obviously Kumar’s voice. All of the best Bollywood playback singers had a knack for the hovering and swooping vocal parts that characterized the genre (of course derived from similarly swooping and careening vocal improvisations in classical Indian music). The beauty of Khan’s performance is that he’s not pushing his vocal lines up by force, he’s gently pulling them up. What I mean is, there is a sheer power behind a singer like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (though he’s from Pakistan, not India). And that sheer power is pretty impressive. But Kumar’s delivery is gentle by contrast. Where his singing could compress, it instead breathes.
The result is something that flies less like a rocket and more like a glider. It’s gentle and reverent, which makes sense considering the subject matter. The whole thing is otherworldly, mesmerizing. It’s probably the closest someone like me can get to understanding the mystery and importance of the Ganges river from which the song draws.
Another song I’ve come to love recently is “Sawan Ka Mahina,” a duet performed by Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar. In the film from which the song comes, Milan, the song serves a very modern purpose: as a framing device for a montage demonstrating the unrequited love of a man for a woman. You can see the sequence above (again featuring the river pretty prominently).
The song starts with the man teaching the woman how to sing the song itself. Her confidence grows through the lesson, and we see them spending time together throughout the middle section of the song. It ends with the woman performing the song flawlessly, and to great applause, as a result of the man’s lessons. It’s almost beat-for-beat the exact same kind of scene you’d see in a modern romantic comedy. And the song itself is simple and beautiful.
I know so little about this whole genre and its cultural implications, so if anyone reading this has some direction for me or any recommendations, please let me know.