Those magical, lilting, haunting melodies of old Hindi film songs have captured the hearts and souls of the nation for generations and continue to do so till today. Some of the songs are so popular that even youngsters hum them―bridging the yawning generation gap. Raj Kapoor singing Mera joota hai Japani and Awaara hoon, a defiant Madhubala piping up, Pyaar kiya toh darna kya, Shammi Kapoor rocking the world with his raucous Yahoo, Dev Anand stylishly clicking his lighter as he sings Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya are images that are etched in people’s memories forever. Indians all over the world have lived with them for generations and will take these memories with them up there to the other world. I imagine Kishore Kumar yodeling to the gods in the high heavens, as Suraiya and Geeta Dutt join him in singing a divine medley.

Hindi film songs and melodies are eternal and some have endeared from the 1930s to the present day, bringing in waves of nostalgia. Ever wondered what is the reason for their popularity? When you take songs from the fifties and sixties, the primary reason that instantly springs to our minds is their lilting melody and soul-stirring lyrics. Of course, the role of playback singers who lent their magical and mellifluous voices granting those songs their requisite emotions is equally important.

These old songs were ethereal and mesmerising, thus surviving the vagaries of changing times and choices over so many generations. And that was primarily because most of the songs were based on classical ragas and their ageless appeal was simply irresistible to the listeners. Secondly, the intrinsically moving lyrics added to their beauty. In those days, the profuse use of Urdu words granted the songs a deep poetic value.

The lilting tunes enhanced the captivating quality of these songs. Last but not the least, were the singers who lent their golden voices to these wonderful songs. Their talent was rich, and this is apparent from one fact alone: that their singing careers did not last just for seven to eight years but for decades! They continued to sing literally till either their health gave way or they finally took a quiet sanyas to evade the present-day music, which seemed jarring in comparison to their soulful songs.

Arti Mathur

Among the popular artistes were the melody queen Lata Mangeshkar, her sister Asha Bhonsle, Suraiya, and Geeta Dutt. The male singers were the unequivocal all-rounders Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar, and Talat Mehmood to name a few.

Music directors like S D Burman, Naushad, and Madan Mohan lent exquisite melody and lyricists like Shakil Badauni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Sahir Ludhianvi rendered remarkable words to the songs to leave their indelible mark on our hearts. Madan Mohan and Lata Mangeshkar made an excellent team and she sang scores of songs for him. They include the immensely popular numbers: Lag ja gale se phir yeh hansi raat ho na ho from Who Kaun Thi and, Wo bhooli dastan lo phir yaad aa gayi from the film, Sanjog. The haunting tunes and the moving lyrics of these songs were so irresistible that present-day artistes are still happy to sing these covers in their shows.

Lata Mangeshkar’s talent was special and was reflected in the three moods of songs she presented in the 1960 K. Asif’s blockbluster, Mughal-e-Azam. The tragic tones of Mohabbet ki jhooti kahani pe roye can reduce anyone to tears; that naughty lilt to her voice in Mohe panghat pe Nandlal ched gayo re and the defiant overtone in, Pyaar kiya toh darna kya are spell binding.

Lata Mangeshkar’s talent proved hard to beat. She along with her sister has been the star of our Hindi film world. It is not surprising that she has more than 50,000 songs to her credit in a career spanning several decades.

From that bygone era, we have some more unforgettable songs like the duet, Yeh raatein, yeh mausam nadi ka kinara yeh chanchal hawa by Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhonsle reflecting a sense of romance and purity of love that brings joy to the heart. Then, a hugely popular song, Ek ladhki bheegi bhaagi si by Kishore Kumar reveals the innocence and ethereal beauty of the hauntingly beautiful actress, Madhubala and the former’s talent for effortless singing.

Mukesh sang Mera joota hai Japani and Awaara hoon for Raj Kapoor, the main member of the Kapoors, the first family of the Indian film Industry. The two made an amazing duo complementing each other’s style. Mukesh has sung innumerable sad songs which we still hum to date. They stoke certain dulcet emotions, and a certain heartfelt tug of pain in our hearts.

The list of songs that we remember from that era is endless: Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana de, Gore gore o bankey chorey and so on.

Have you noticed how spontaneously the older generation bursts into song after a satisfying dinner with friends? It enhances the mood exponentially. We also turn to these euphonious songs when in a pensive, disturbed or tranquil mood. The music takes us to a subtle note of peace and calm….

That’s not to say that all of today’s music doesn’t match up. Some songs are exceptional and no doubt will be remembered decades from now. But it is also unfortunate that in the last 4-5 years, the quality of our music has plummeted from the sublime to cheap item numbers with senselessly pathetic lyrics and equally forgettable picturisation. But I suppose, this appeals to the masses. Nevertheless, we still have some wonderful singers like Shreya Goshal, Kavita Krishnamurthi, Sonu Nigam and others. But alas, many others have joined the populist bandwagon, and sometimes agree to belt out numbers that might have a modern, catchy beat, but can be discordant, jarring and often trashy.

The fifties and sixties was probably the last decade of the black and white era of the Indian film Industry. The hues and shades of the era also had something to do with it and cast an impressive and mysterious air to the films and its songs.

This was the golden era of Indian film music for the old timers, the time just after the classical tones of K L Sehgal, Shamshad and Mubarak Begum paved the way for the (then) new wonders Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle.

The two decades are also synonymous with All India Radio and Radio Ceylon that played almost all of the old-timers’ favourite songs. As I end my melodious tribute, I am thinking nostalgically of the end of this lockdown when we music lovers can once again sit together and burst into song.

Any takers for setting up an impromptu mehfil on Zoom?

Arti Mathur is a passionate lover of classical and light music. She learnt music from the age of five and pursued it as a subject till graduation when she passed with distinction in vocal music.