Saigal blues

An evening of music looked at the golden age of Bollywood through the lens of nostalgia


Sitting in row J, the last row in Epicentre’s modestly sized auditorium in Apparel House, Gurgaon, I had in front of me a sea of grey hair in various stages of regress. It wasn’t difficult to tell that at least half the audience was two-thirds as old as Bollywood, whose 100th year we had gathered to celebrate recently.

Convening this evening of remembrance was Pran Nevile, founder of K.L. Saigal Memorial Circle and octogenarian, who took the audience through the history of music in Bollywood, with a brief lecture first and then an audio-visual presentation. Rene Singh, singer and Nevile’s collaborator, performed songs from the so-called ‘golden era’ of music.

Accompanied by Ustad Badlu Khan on harmonium and Shanti Bhushan on tabla, Rene began with songs by Zohra Bai Ambalawali and Amir Bai Karnataki from the films Ratan and Shehnai from the 1940s, but also traversed the next couple of decades with renditions of “Aap ki nazron ne samjha” and “Mai ri main kaise kahoon” from Anpadh and Dastak, both featuring Lata Mangeshkar’s vocals.

But playback singing wasn’t always the norm in Bollywood, Pran Nevile explained. “The practice of playback singing began in the 1940s with Parul Ghosh and Sulochna Kadam and later, Lata Mangeshkar. But the 1930s were the age of the singer superstar,” Nevile said.

Kundan Lal Saigal, K.C. Dey, Pankaj Mullick and Pahari Sanyal epitomised the singer-superstar, according to Nevile, at a time when the film industry was based in Calcutta and had not yet relocated to Bombay. “Surendranath tried to be the Saigal of Bombay but he wasn’t accepted,” he added.

Although the silent era ended with the production of Alam Ara in 1931, the “first really musical film” was Chandidas in 1934, starring Saigal and Umasashi, Nevile claimed. This was followed by Devdas, starring P.C. Barua, and Achoot Kanya, starring Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar, in the next few years.

In the audio-visual presentation that followed, Nevile played “vintage melodies” such as “Awaaz de kahaan hai”, “Aayega aayega aane wala” and “Shola jo bhadke”, which features Bhagwan and Geeta Bali in attire that doesn’t strike as being vintage today, but would have been considered something of an oddity by audiences then.

The presentation took us through to the colour era, with songs from the restored version of Mughal-e-Azam, but stopped short of discussing the use of music in films today. “These developments cannot be stopped, it is part of the evolution of music,” he said with a curious mix of disdain and helplessness.

It is easy to be suspicious of expressions like ‘golden era’ and the tendency to mythologise the past, but this evening, one made allowances for nostalgia instead.

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