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Can Traditional And Folk Music Serve The Silver Screen?

by Mohan Nadkarni


First Online: December 29, 2006
Page Last Updated: October 31, 2016

The emergence of film music as the most potent medium of mass entertainment has had serious repercussion not only on the stage but also on traditional, folk and modern music. The author, a musicologist, writer and music critic of long standing, discusses in this article the challenge posed by the silver screen to our indigenous traditions and explains how it can still be met, given a proper sense of purpose and direction on the part of the captains of the film industry.

Film music came into vogue in India in a modest way along with the talkie in the early thirties. Today, it has emerged as the most powerful medium of mass entertainment. In fact it enjoys national status, having broken all barriers-religious, linguistic and regional and the voices of its singing celebrities are heard not only in the remotest corners of the country but also the world over.

To say that music is a major component of an Indian film is to make a rather specious understatement. It is the very staple food of every Indian motion picture. The box-office takings of a cinematic venture depend very largely on its musical content.

The early pioneers in film music they are too numerous to permit mention in a brief article like this: suffice it to say that the distinguished line-up includes maestros from Maharashtra, too, like Keshavrao Bhole and Master Krishnarao-drew their inspiration from the classical and folk traditions and scored music of perennial appeal and beauty.

Winds of Change

The winds of change began to blow over every field of human activity with the attainment of independence. We were ushered into an era of speed and hurry which let people little leisure to give any thought to art and culture in their proper perspective. What is more, the people at large impelled by the craze for change, with accent on modernism, clamoured for newer and newer kind of music. This encouraged reckless experimentation towards evolving something new which, as it happens, hardly belongs to the soil. A curious blending of indigenous forms of expression and an imitation of the most ordinary western airs and tunes emerged in the process. And that is what goes to make an average film song even today catchy in form but ephemeral in character.

Strange but true, this brand of hybrid music has served to suit the box office designs of the film tycoons. Always keen on seeing what sort of music fills their coffers and what type of songs fills the cinemas, they vehemently assert that the masses want nothing else.

It is here that the challenge has to be met.

True, the aesthetic sense of the masses cannot be expected to have that degree of fineness which a cultured mind is generally supposed to possess. But that hardly means that the film industry should provide them with unwholesome distractions. The film industry, as a most potent instrument of mass education and entertainment, owes it to the masses to widen, diversify and mature their taste, not vulgarise it.

The attitude of the Hindi film industry to indigenous music in general and Hindustani music in particular would thus seem to be one of coldness and apathy, even calculated repudiation, of the previous value of our own music traditions and significance of their continuity.

Basic Misconceptions

The popular misapprehension in the film world about classical music is that this "music of long hours" is utterly unsuitable for the screen. Is that why films for their music fare largely take to cheap western airs for sheer effect?

The film world evidently understands classical music in terms of elaborate techniques and embellished modes of expression with which alaps, dhamars and khayals in the Hindustani tradition are sung in concert halls, radio and television. No sensible person would ever insist that music of this variety should constitute the musical fare of films!

Hindusthani music and for that matter, any music of contemporary tradition, can well serve the silver screen. The chequered history of Hindustani music is itself a sufficient testimony of the wide range of its applicability through the various phases of its evolution. To deny its applicability to the film world would be to deny its fine variety, may its very evolutionary Character that has enabled it to survive through the ages.

Is not the massive and dignified dhrupad, an essentially Hindu product, assume the colorful and tantalizing features of khayal? Is not the vivacious and seductive thumri, with its numerous popular variations like chaiti, kajri and barsati, a marvel in musical experimentation?

What is more early pioneers, as mentioned at the outset, as also traditional maestros of the present day like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, have shown how classical and folk music can lend itself to the needs of the screen Hindustani music abounds in a rich variety of tunes, known as ragas and raginis. Each of these melodic patterns is associated with a specific time of the day or the seasons of the year and is designed to express certain emotional reactions. And these pioneers have shown us how effectively pure classical tunes can be employed and rendered in a simple and unembellished manner to suit any particular situation and how the musical score composed of such tunes can remain indigenous and authentic both in content and quality but divested of all high-brow airs-and yet enjoy a tremendous mass appeal.

Rich Folk Resources

This is no less true folk music. It is equally rich, though it varies with different regions. Moreover, it is still in vogue in the unsophisticated strata of society of this vast country. Suitable and judicious adaptation of folk music in films will undoubtedly impart infinite variety to the music content of the latter.

To say all this, however, is certainly not to ignore or overlook, much less belittle, the bold attempts which continue to be made by several of our composers and music directors to harness a genuine indigenous idiom to a conscious purpose. The musical score in some of the filmic ventures is truly imaginative and commendable.

Take for instance, the whole range of film ditties in the recorded album popularized by the Gramophone Company of India and titled "Classical Songs from Films", in five volumes, as also the latest discs presenting the music from "Bhumika" and "Meera" (the latter released by Polydor). These bear glowing testimony to the talent, imagination and innovative acumen of some of our contemporary composers like Ravi Shankar, Naushad, Anil Biswas, S. D. Burman, O. P. Nayyar, Jaidev, Madan Mohan, Shankar Jaikishan, Roshan and nearer home, the late Vasant Desai. The songs, based on ragas and raginis presented with modern orchestration through the voices of our top playback singers under the baton of these composers and conductors, acquire a blending that is at once unique, lyrical and refreshing.

Sadly enough, such attempts appear to be rather sporadic and few and far between. It would almost seem that the film financers and producers, in most cases, impose the old adage "he who pays the piper calls the tune" on the music directors and composers. Those who refuse to oblige fall by the wayside, making it possible for a new tribe of music makers to emerge, who revel in purveying hybrid catchpenny tunes.

And all this in the name of public taste! When will the captains of the film industry realize that public taste is what they can make of it? When will they show a better sense of purpose and clearer sense of direction in their approach to art and culture?

See Also:

Topics pn Indian Music
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