From Kashmir to Kanya Kumari and Maharashtra to Meghalaya, we are a nation of music lovers who can drown all our differences of cast and creed, political and provincial, communal and cultural, and live together as one people, playing or listening to the same music. Whether it was the verse of sufis and saints, or the melody of Lata Mungeshkar or the folk-lore of Ila Arun, or Indi-pop of Daler Mehndi, music has been the biggest binding force for all times. Music is something that is essential to our living. Not something ornamental, not only something enjoyable, not only something exciting, but something essential as a unifying force in the terrible conflicts that we live in and to live daily with so many horrific events that happen. No speeches or sermons have ever been so effective to unify the nation in diversity as the musical masterpiece, “Mile sur mera tumhara”.
The birth of the Hindi film songs may be traced to the advent of India’s first ‘talkie’, Alam Ara, in 1931,which ushered in the era of singing stars. Their memory may have faded out of many a minds, and even their existance may not be known to the new generations, but what no one can take away is their contribution to Hindi cinema's melodious magic of the 30s and 40s.
K. L. Saigal: Recognized as the greatest singer-actor of the last century, the musical genius became the first to bring music to the masses with his God-gifted voice. His unforgettable melodies continue to enthrall millions of listeners and have become a part of our heritage. Saigal became an overnight super star with the release of the first Devdas in 1935, not so much for his histrionics as for his soulful singing of "Balam Aan Baso Mere Man Main" and "Dukh Ke Din Ab Bitat Nahin". Saigal, who started his career in Calcutta, became a house-hold name in all corners of the country. The entire nation was spellbound by the haunting melodies: "Main Kya Janu Kya Jadoo Hai", "So Jaa Raajkumari, So Jaa"(Zindagi), "Dunia Rang Rangili Baba", "Main Man Ki Baat Bataun"(Dharti Mata), "Karun Kya Aas Niras Bhai"(Dushman), "Babul Mera Nayahar Chhooto Jaye"(Street Singer), "Ek Bangla Bane Nyara", "Ek Raaja Ka Beta Leke"(Badi Behen), "Prem Nagar Mein Rahane Wala"(Chandidas), "Aye Katibe Taqdir Mujhe Itna Batade"(My Sister) and so on.
Surendra: Surendra became a part and parcel of Mehboob's Sagar Movietone, after his very first song, "Birha Ki Aag Lagi More Man Mein"(Deccan Queen) became an instant hit. When "Tumhi Ne Mujh Ko Prem Sikhaya"(Manmohan), from his second movie with Mehboob, became hugely popular with the masses, Surendra made his place for himself as a very talented singer-actor. Then followed Surendra's hit musicals, Jagirdar, Gramophone Singer, Jiwan Sathi, Alibaba, Aurat, Gharib, Jawani etc. Surendra's peak time of a popular singing star continued into the 40s when two of his movies became the greatest musicals of that time. "Bhartrihari", a mythological with music by Khemchandra Prakash, and Mehboob's alltime musical hit, "Anmol Ghadi", with music by the maestro Naushad. The duet from "Anmol Ghadi", "Aawaz De Kahan Hei" has immortalized both Surendra and Noorjehan as the most popular singing pair in movies.
Noorjehan: The musical diva of the 1940s, she was given the title of the Melody Queen much before Lata Mungeshkar came to be known by the same title. Starting the career in Lahore, she mesmerized the masses with her very first film Khandaan and the instant hit, "Tu Kaun Si Badli Mei Mere Chand Hei Aaja". Producers in Bombay raced to capture the prize catch, and soon the singing star conquered India's film capital with her vibrant voice. Hit followed hit: Dharti, Nauker, Nadaan, Dost, Badi Maa, Village Girl. With the Zeenat quawali, "Aanhien Na Bhari, Shikwe Na Kiye" she reached her peak popularity. Then followed her two greatest hits, Lal Haveli and Anmol Ghadi, both co-starring Surendra, with whom she delivered the all time hit duet, "Aawaz De Kahan Hai".
Suraiya: As Noorjehan was the queen of melody, Suraiya was the peoples' choice as the most popular singing star. She generated hysteria amongst the masses that no other singing star, not even Saigal, could generate. The young and the old, the man in the street or at work, they all enjoyed singing to Suraiya's tunes, so captivating and easy to copy. "O Door Janewale", "Woh Pas Rahen Ya Door Rahen", "O Likhnewale Ne Likh Di", "Bigdi Banane Wale", "Murliwale Murli Baja", "Tu Mera Chand Mein Teri Chandni" and many more were hummed in every nook and corner of the country. She retired from films after giving her greatest hit "Mirza Ghalib" and the great hits "Dile Nadan Tujhe Hua Kya Hei" and "Yeh Na Thi Hamari Kismat".
Khursheed: The first of the singing stars, she started her career in 1931, the year when India's first talkie film Alamara was released. She was the only singing actress in the 30s, who captivated the hearts of million with her melodious singing of the immortal songs: "Mohabbat Mei Sara Jahan Jal Raha Hei"(Shahashah Babar), Pahle Jo Mohabbat Mei Inkar Kiya Hota"(Pardesi), "Mori Ataria Hei Sooni"(Beti), "Ghir Ghir Aye Bidaria"(Shaadi), "Jo Ham Pe Guzarti Hei"(Mumtaz Mahal) and many more. Her best period came in the 40s when she was selected to play steller role with the legendary K.L.Saigal in Bhakt Surdas and Tansen. Matching her melodious voice to the one and only one, Saigal, she sang some of her greatest hits in these two movies: "Panchi Bawra Chand Se Preet Lagai", "Madhur Madhur Ga Re Manwa", "Chandni Raat Aur Tare Khile Hein", Ghata Ghanghor Ghor", "Mere Bachpan Ke Saathi" and "Barso Re".
It was in the 1940s that the playback singing was introduced. Whereas the earlier artistes acted and sang their songs on the screen, movies of this period introduced the custom of having actors who did not sing but had other singers do this for them. Many notable playback singers came to prominence in the 40s and thereafter. These playback singers, because of their immortal melodies, became legends in their lifetime.
Amirbai Karnataki: Famous as ‘Kannad Kokila’, her big success as playback singer came with the release of Bombay Talkies’ Kismet (1943). Her songs, ‘Ab Tere Siva Kaun Mera’, ‘Dheere Dheere Aa Re Badal’ and “Door Hato Ae Duniawalo’ became a rage. She reached her peak in 1940s through musical hits like Bharathari, Caarwan, Aamarpali, Shikari, Eight Days, Leela, Sindoor and many others. Mahatma Gandhi was an ardent fan of her song ‘Vaishnav Janto’, which he made a part of his daily prayer meetings.
Shamshad Begum: The legendary classical and playback singer, making her debut in AIR Lahore in 1937, captivated the hearts of listeners with the enchanting depth of her voice. Composer Ghulam Haider used her voice skillfully in some of his hits like Khazanchi (1941), Khandan (1942) andMehboob’s Humayun (1944). Most of her songs were memorable hits – ‘Dunia Mein Ghribon Ko Aaram Nahin Milta’ (Zamindar), Armano Ki Basti Mein Hum Aag Laga Baithe (Shirin Farhad), ‘Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon’ (Patanga), ‘Milte Hi Aankhen’ (Babul), Sayyan Dil Mein Aana Re’ (Bahar), ‘Boojh Mera Kya Naam Re’ (C.I.D.), ‘Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar’ (Aar Paar) and many more all-time hits.
Geeta Dutt: When she was only 15, music director S. D. Burman offered her a solo in Do Bhai. The music of that film clicked in a big way. The biggest hit of the film was ‘Mera Sunder Sapna Beet Gaya’, sung by Geeta Roy. This gave Geeta loads of offers and she became the top most playback singer of the Hindi film industry. Her collaboration with composer S. D. Burman proved very fruitful for Geeta Roy, later famous as Geeta Dutt after her marriage to Guru Dutt. With Aar Paar, both composer O. P. Nayyar and the singer Geeta Dutt scaled new heights. ‘Babuji Dheere Chalna’ and ‘Yeh Lo Mein Hari Piya’ became super hits.
Lata Mangeshkar: The most famous name in the history of Hindi film music, Lata Mangeshkar has always been a unique combination of a God-gifted voice and an unbelievable ability to easily pick up and inherit whatever was taught to her by her father, Dinanath Mangeshkar, a reputed classical singer. The true efflorescence of Lata’s talent was witnessed in 1949 when she sang super hit songs in back to back three blockbusters: composers Naushad’s Andaz, Shanker-Jaikishan’s Barsaat and Khemchand Prakash’s Mahal. By 1950 the Lata wave had changed the industry. Her phenomenal success made Lata the most powerful woman in the Indian film industry.
Asha Bhosle: The most versatile singer of Hindi films, her real breakthrough year was 1957, when O. P. Nayyar used her voice to sing in Tumsa Nahin Dekha and Naya Daur, both movies turning blockbuster musicals. The following year Asha made it right to the top spot with hit songs in films like Howra Bridge, Chalti Ka Naam Gadhi and Lajwanti. The 1970s brought her close with R. D. Burman (whom she later married), who gave her a new hip and happening sound altogether – Caravan, Teesri Manzil, Hare Rama Hare Krishna and many more hit movies. 1980 proved a lucky and prosperous year for Asha as she rocked the show with evergreen ghazals of Umrao Jaan.
Manna Dey: A legendary singer whose singing career spanned over five decades, Manna Dey is a versatile genius. Manna Dey went on to record several unforgettable numbers: ‘Kaun Aaya Mere Man Ke Dware’, Tu Pyar Ka Sagar Hei’, ‘Upar Gagan Vishal’, ‘Yeh Ishq Ishq Hei Ishq’, Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua’, Ae Bhai Zara Dekh Ke chal’, ‘Aaja Sanam’, ‘Ae Meri Zohra Zabin and ‘Aye Mere Pyare Watan’. And who could forget the ‘Ek Chatur Naar’ duet with Kishore Kumar in Padosan? Manna Dey is a flawless singer who could sing any type of song.
Talat Mehmood: When melody ruled the roost in the Hindi film world, Talat remained the number one singer in the 1950s. He was totally identified with Dilip Kumar (Babul, Daag, Tarana, Footpath, Sangdil, Shikast), sang for Raj Kapoor (Ashiana, Anhonee), Dev Anand (Taxi Driver) and V. Shantaram (Parchain, Subah Ka Tara). This period also produced some of the most wonderful duets, pairing Talat with Lata Mungeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt. Talat zoomed to the top with an enviable score of hits – ‘Ae Dil Mujhe Aisi Jagah Le Chal’(Arzoo), ‘Mera Jeevan Sathi Bichad Gaya (Babul), ‘Meri Yaad Mein Tum Na Aansoo Bahana’ (Anhonee), ‘Mein Pagal Mera Manua Pagal’ (Ashiana), ‘Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal’ (Daag), ‘Tera Khayal Dil Se’ (Do Raha), ‘Andhe Jahan Ke Andhe Raaste’ (Patita), ‘Jayen To Jayen Kahan’ (Taxi Driver), ‘Jalte Hein Jis Ke Liye’ (Sujata) and several more super hit songs.
Mukesh: The year was 1945 and Anil Biswas asked him to record the song ‘Dil Jalta Hai To Jalne De’ for the film Pehli Nazar. That song brought a still relatively unknown Mukesh to the altar of fame. A legend was born and in the coming decades his golden voice would be heard in songs from musical hits like Aag, Andaaz, Barsaat, Mela across the nation. In 1949 came another milestone in his life – his association with Raj Kapoor and Shanker-Jaikishan. The chart-bursting success of the music in films like Awaara and Shri 420 spread Mukesh’s popularity all the way to Russia where you could hear people singing ‘Awara Hoon’ and ‘Mera Joota Hei Japani’. Mukesh thereafter flourished right through the 1960s and mid 1970s with soulful hits like, ‘Main To Ik Khwab Hoon’ (Himalaya Ki God Mein), ‘Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan’ (Mera Naam Joker), ‘Maine Tere Liye Hi Saat Rang Ke Sapne Chune’ (Anand) and many more hits.
Mohammed Rafi: He made his mark with Naushad-composed ‘Tera Khilona Toota Balak’ in Anmol Ghadi (1946). Rafi’s first big hit was in Jugnu (1947) in which he sang the duet ‘Yahan Badla Wafa Ka Bewafai Ke Siva Kya Hai’ with Noorjehan. His career took off with the all-time hit ‘Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki’ (Dulari-1949). There was no looking back after that and Rafi ruled as the undisputed king of playback singing till the early 70s. The one who recognized and exploited his immense talent was Naushad. The duo worked together to give several super hits such as Baiju Bawra and Mere Mehboob, to name a few.
Kishore Kumar: It was S. D. Burman who made Kishore Kumar, the superstar singer of the 70s when he chose him to sing ‘Roop Tera Mastana’ for Rajesh Khanna in Aradhna. Earlier Sachinda had made Kishore the voice of Dev Anand in hit films Baazi, Paying Guest, Munimji, Guide, Teen Devian, and Jewel Theif. Another composer who placed implacable faith in Kishore Kumar was Sachnda’s son, R. D. Burman. Kishore’s ability to modulate his voice to suit the personality of the hero he sang for was what made him a star singer. He was as much the voice of dapper Dev Anand, the adorable Rajesh Khanna as well as the angry youngman Amitabh Bachchan.
Paying tribute to superstar playback singers cannot be complete without applauding other melodious voices of the Hindi cinema who at one time or the other sang immortal songs – Hemant Kumar, Bhupinder, Yesudas, C. H. Atma, G. M. Durrani, Bhappi Lehri, Zohrabai, Mubarak Begum, Raj Kumari, Uma Devi, Suman Kalyanpur, Sudha Malhotra and Sandhya Mukherjee. The present generation of playback singers is no less praiseworthy for their continuing contribution to the treasure of beautiful Bollywood melodies: Alka Yagnik, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Sunidhi Chouhan, Shreya Ghosal, Alisha Chenoi, Sadhna Sargam, Sonu Nigam, Udit Narayan, Kumar Shanu, Hariharan, Abhijeet, Balasubramanyam and Sukhwinder.
Lately the magic of Bollywood music has cast its spell crossing all boundaries and nationalities. In U.K., USA , Middle East and South Africa especially, some of the biggest chart-busters include Indi-pop and hit songs from Bollywood movies. Unimaginable at one time, some of the most successful movies from Hollywood, released in recent years, seem inspired by Bollywood musicals. Internet radio has changed daily life of Indians settled across seven seas, as they say. Their subjective experience is magically transformed--the space around them is light and incandescent, the air sings melodies you never imagined . . . you hear olden goldies as well as current hits. When the older songs come on, you're transported to another time and place in India that you thought you had lost in your memory forever. Other times, recent tunes from current Bollywood movies will sound, and you're spontaneously reconnected to your beloved country that you left behind long back. It makes life richer, full of sensory riches as the atmosphere vibrates with the melodious voice of India.