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  • Writer's pictureLalit Nigam

Anatomy of an Era

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

Singers arrived, and they departed. Some succeeded; others flopped. Over their lifetime, some became legends, and others fared reasonably well. This topsy-turvy, the rough and tumble of Bombay Film Music has been a reality since its modern-day inception in 1940.

The only exception by way of dates was around 1932 when KL Saigal entered the field with hits in “Yehudi-ki-Ladki,” “Chandidas,” “Rooplekha,” and “Karwan-E-Hayat.”



KL Saigal, Lataji, Ashaji, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar

Reasonably Well

Mukesh Mathur, Talat Mehmood, Hemant Kumar, Geeta Dutt, Anuradha Paudwal


Habib Wali Mohammed, Suman Kalyanpur


Anonymous-Too many to mention

Many flocked to Bombay from India’s villages, towns, and cities whose dreams got dashed on the stones next to the ocean at Marine Drive.

Road to Victory

Born with a silver spoon

Manna Dey- Born into a joint, orthodox family on May 1st, 1919, Manna was blessed from birth since he came into a family where classical music notes ricocheted at all times. Day or night, since they had soirees frequently. Another musical wizard, born in that ancestral house at 9 Madan Ghose Lane, Kolkata, now became an inspiration and a blessing many years later for Manna. The respected Krishna Chandra Dey (KC Dey), despite his blindness, did not want to mope and sulk. He wanted to write songs and create music.

Manna’s legendary youngest paternal uncle Sangeetacharya Krishna Chandra Dey lived in the same house as an accomplished musician. So, not one but two exalted coaches loved and pampered little Manna while molding this child prodigy. Manna had a certifiable musical pedigree.

Mohammed Rafi-When he was 11 years old, Rafi Saheb moved to Lahore with his family. Here he came across several singers of repute - Bare Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Jeevan Lal Mattoo, and Hamid Khan, his brother’s friend, who became his early coaches. They recognized this kid’s talent and so took him under their wings. He started to take lessons in Hindustani Classical Music from Pandit Jeevan Lal Mattoo, who taught him the intricacies of Raag Shastra and Punjabi folk ragas, Pahadi, Bhairavi, Basant, and Malhaar. He later trained under the guidance of Ustaad Abdul Wahad Khan of the Kirana Gharana. He also received lessons under the watchful eyes of Ustaad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala Gharana. Feroze Nizami, a producer at All India Radio, tutored Rafi as well.

Kishore Kumar- As expected, the contacts of Ashok Kumar made an accessible introduction for Kishore. With no formal training in music, he was gifted enough to make good, nay great music. Nonchalantly, he mastered playing the piano.

He began his career by becoming a chorus singer for Bombay Talkies. In 1946, Kishore recorded his first song for the movie “Shikari.” He then sang for Music Director Khemchand Prakash in “Ziddi” (1948) to log a successful piece, “Marne ki duaan kyun mangun..” He lived at home with his family during this period, often visiting Bombay.

Some Early Flyers

Talat Mehmood- Born on February 24th, 1924, in Lucknow to a cultured and conservative Muslim family, he came from a singers family with six siblings, including Talat. His father, Manzoor Mehmood, and sisters sang, which urged him to try his hand at it too.

He used to visit music stores and all-night musical soirees. When he reached adulthood, he decided to enter the film industry despite resistance from his family.

His music training began at Marris Music College (now Bhatkhande Music Institute) under the guidance of Pandit SCR Bhatt in the thirties. His career commenced when he started to sing at The All-India Radio, Lucknow branch, at age sixteen. He sang poems from Daag, Mir, and Jigar. Due to his soft silky voice, he became a sought-out artist.

Lataji-It belies credulity that Lataji’s voice ruled for nearly six decades, drawing the love and admiration of her doting fans. She was a diva who changed the rules of engagement. When she forayed in, husky and nasal voices ruled the roost- Voices of singers like Sardari Begum, Madame Noorjehan, and Shamshad Begum were preferred. The thinness of Lataji’s voice held her back and impeded her early attempts. But within a year, she had changed the popularity metric. In consecutive movies from Mahal (1949), Dulari (1949), Barsaat (1949), and Andaz (1949), she registered mega hits. The crowd now clamored for her thin and high-pitched voice. She had changed the rules of music appreciation

Born to a Marathi Brahmin family, on September 28th, 1929, in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, she was the eldest of five siblings. Father Dinanath Mangeshkar, who coached under the Gwalior Gharana, functioned as both the parent and coach. An accomplished classical vocalist held in high esteem in the theater world, the young prodigy began to sing at an early age under his guidance. Furthermore, she also studied under Aman Ali Khan and later under Amanat Khan and became proficient in classical singing. Music echoed in the air in Dinanath’s household.

Geeta Dutt- Gifted music director Guru Dutt and his brilliant singer-wife Geeta Dutt joined hands to create a talent extravaganza. Such a husband/wife partnership had never existed in tinsel town. During the early years of their married life, one can only surmise the conversation around the dinner table. Both consummate artists, one would guess that they encouraged and inspired each other to rise to dizzying heights in their respective fields. In- reality, they did. They not only shared in their personal life but would be life-laced and intertwined with each other professionally. There existed sparkle and effervescence in their lives, which showed in their output. While Guru Dutt doled out a string of exceptional movie footage in unforgettable films like “Pyaasa,” “Kagaz Ke Phool,” “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam,” and “Aar Paar,” Geeta stayed abreast by rendering memorable numbers in the very same films.

  • Aaj sajan mohe ang lagalo janam safal ho jaaye hriday ki-Pyaasa (1957)

  • Hum aap ki aakhon mein is dil ko basa dein to hum -Pyaasa (1957)-with Rafi

  • Waqt ne kiya kyaa hasen sitam hum rahen na hum tum-Kagaz ke phool (1959)

  • Babuji dheere chalna, pyaar mein zara sambhala-Aar paar (1954)

  • Na jao saiinya chuda ke bainya kasam tumhari -Sahab bibi aur Ghulam (1962)

  • Piya aiso jiya mein samaaye gaye re ki mein ta-Sahab bibi aur Ghulam (1962

Struggles Before Success

KL Saigal- Born in Nawa Shahar Jammu, on April 23rd, 1904, as the fourth child of five children, Saigal excelled and got recognized as the Indian film industry’s first superstar. His father, Amarchand Saigal, worked as a “tehsildar” at the court of Maharaja Sir Pratap Singh of Jammu & Kashmir. His mother, Kesar Bai, loved music, and Kundan attended kirtans with her, where he sang bhajans. At the age of twelve, he sang Meera bais bhajans in the presence of the Maharaja.

Learning music posed a challenge during those times. One needed to be moneyed or be born into a community of singers with a tradition of singing. Hence Saigal had to make do with alternate methods. He sang and acted in the city “Ram Lila.” A Sufi saint, Salamat Yusef held gatherings of musicians and singers at his family’s shrine. Saigal joined in and sang with the crowd. He sneaked into the local “tawaif’s” (courtesan) house to listen to her singing, imbibing her song. Later, he sang the song to himself.

He disappointed his father when he dropped out of school to pursue his interest in singing. Saigal worked as a railway timekeeper and a typewriter salesperson for ‘The Remington Typewriter Company. The last job allowed him to travel. He met Meharchand Jain in Lahore at the Anarkali Bazaar during one such tour, who became his friend and early mentor. Meharchand brought Saigal to Calcutta, where he attended mushaira mehfils. During this time, he also worked as a hotel manager. Subsequently, he got hired by BN Sircars Calcutta-based film studio “New Theaters” for Rs 200 per month. He met established singers like Pankaj Mullick, KC Dey, and Pahari Sanyal.

Hemant Kumar- Hemant’s first coach, the Bengali musician Sailesh Duttagupta, and early inspiration Pankaj Mullick gave him the nickname “Chhoto Pankaj.” Phani Bannerji and Anadi Dastidar subsequently coached him, with the latter introducing him to Rabindra Sangeet. Finally, famous Ustaad Faiyyaz Khan chaperoned him till his early death in 1950. The Bengali film “Nemai Sanyas,” released in 1941, had Hemant’s first recording. His first composition for himself, the Bengali non-film songs “Katha kayanako shudhu shono” and Amar biraha akasha Piya,” happened in 1944. This recording followed several more hymns in Bengali movies, which proved to be a good training ground for his career later at the Bombay Cinema.

On the invitation of V. Shantaram/Heman Gupta, he moved to Bombay in 1951, where under the Filmistan banner, he scored the music for Anandmath, a moderate success. He had Lataji sing “Vande Matram” to a marching tune. He sang for Dev Anand under Music Director SD Berman

Jaal: Ye raat ye Chandni phir kehan sun jaa dil ki daastaan

House # 44: Chup hai dharti chup hain chaand sitare

Solva Saal: Hai apna dil to awara na jaane kis pe aayega

Baat ek raat ki: Na tum hame jaano na hum tumhe jaane magar lagta hai kuch

Funtoosh: Teri duniya mein jeene se to behtar hai ki mar jaayen

After several years of heartaches, the song that elevated him to stardom, this catchy number from the movie “Jaal.”

-Yeh raat ye Chandni phir kehan sun ja dil ki daastaan

Mukesh Mathur- Early indoctrination in music happened through osmosis. Mukesh’s elder sister, Sundar Pyari, was coached by a teacher in vocal singing, while young Mukesh sat huddled in the corner of the room/adjacent room and listened. This coaching was his first encounter with music. After passing the tenth standard, he started to work for the PWD in New Delhi. Through a chance discovery by the celebrated actor Motilal during Mukesh’s sister’s wedding, he shifted to Bombay to live with Motilal. Motilal arranged for Mukesh to be coached in music by Pandit Jagannath Prasad. He also gave him shelter, food, clothes, and security. But it remained up to the budding artist to make his way in the world of playback singing, which he did. He began broke, so his adventure was a rag to riches story.

For four years, he struggled. He got the lead role against actress Nalini Jawant in “Nirdosh.” The movie flopped, which indicated that he best pursue a career as a playback singer. His first break came in 1945. Under Music Director Anil Biswas, he gave Motilal his voice and sang in “Pehli Nazar: The song that adorned all lips that year in India. “Dil Jalta hai to jalne de aason na baha fariyaad na kar .” That introduced his talent to the widescreen. After that, Mukesh’s career started to blossom under Biswas’s mentorship. In Andaaz, he sang for Dilip Kumar, and Rafi Saheb sang for Raj Kapoor. A paradox, since eventually, he became the ghost voice of Raj Kapoor. Famously, Raj Kapoor said, “if I am the body, Mukesh is the soul.” Andaaz gave us some memorable soundtracks, chief among them,

  • Hum aaj kahin dil kho baite, yun samjho kisi ke ho baite

  • Jhoom jhoom ke nacho aa nacho aa gao khushi ke geet hoo

  • Tu kahe agar jeevan bhar main geet sunata jaon sapnon ko banata

Slow & steady wins the Race

Ashaji- A team born in heaven, who conspired on planet earth to create exuberant, lilting melodies, was the Ashaji-Nayyar duo. When Ashaji faced stiff competition from her sibling Lataji and Geeta Dutt, making headway became tricky. Nayyar bridged the gap and encouraged her to develop a style entirely her own. She asserted herself and crept out of Geeta Dutt’s shadow. Her saucy voice had oomph, which could sing a melody of any genre. Gingerly, at first, unsure, she began to experiment. Helen’s shimming, pulsating dance numbers came alive with Ashaji’s sultry, naughty voice. Even though cabaret songs were considered the lowest rung in the hierarchical structure, Ashaji did not shun them. She took all the work that came her way, including cabaret songs. Like Kishore, she added a Western touch and some guttural sounds, which became the recipe for success. She did not play second fiddle to anyone else’s style. She developed a defining Asha version, a version that churned out beautiful songs.

Their association began with Tumsa nahin Dekha (1957) and Naya Daur (1957), and 1958 saw the release of three more: Lajwanti (1958), Howrah Bridge (1958), and Chalti ka naam gaadi (1958). Her successes catapulted her to the top, with her becoming the first choice of this wily director. They conspired once again to spin their magic in the films Phir Wohi dil laaya hoon (1963), Mere Sanam (1965), Humsaya (1968), and Pran Jaye par vachan na Jaye (1974).

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