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Magnificent Obsession: Naushad Ali

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Magnificent Obsession: Naushad Ali

Naushad Ali is one of the few masters the Hindi Film industry has produced. An innovative composer who pioneered the golden era of movie music. Creating in the process an oeuvre of magnificent tunes that continue to hold people spellbound wherever they are played.

Deeply entrenched in our tradition and culture, Naushad had chosen to walk the lonely path of an idealist and refused to compromise with the vagaries of public taste. MOHAN NADKARNI explores the content of Naushad’s music: his inherent classicism and innovative zeal. A rare glimpse of the man behind the myth.

To Naushad, Indian music, be it classical or folk, is not an attenuated relic, but a living influence; its sources and material are pure; its models are original; and the subtle refinements of its rhythm are incomparable. To him, the centuries-old chequered evolution of that tradition is a sustained process of adaptation assimilation and creation.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, May 25, 1985

The author in conversation with the great music director Naushad Ali (right).

The author in conversation with the great music director Naushad Ali (right).

Naushad. The name that has made news once again. With the maestro’s nomination as the first recipient of the Rs. one lakh award instituted by the Madhya Pradesh Government. Named after Lata Mangeshkar, it is the biggest award of its kind in the country, to be given annually for “excellence, creativity, long dedication and continuing performance in the field of light music.” The choice could not be more aptly made. Ironically, though, its winner has been persona non grata with the melody queen for almost a decade now.

The award is timely and doubly welcome in the case of Naushad who has, in the course of a career spanning almost half a century, composed music for 59 movies, 36 of them jubilee hits – 25 silver, eight golden and three diamond. The films are not a part of history. But his 500 odd songs certainly are. They have not only remained trail-blazers in the ever-changing domain of popular music. They continue to be best-sellers to this day and fetch him handsome royalties year after year.

Come to think of it, few maestros could have striven harder to enrich the quality of cinematic music than Naushad and, significantly, at a time when values meant more than contracts, when film music was still untained by box-office considerations, and a spirit of camaraderie existed between the film-maker, the music-maker and the playback singer.

To Naushad, Indian music, be it classical or folk, is not an attenuated relic, but a living influence; its sources and material are pure; its models are original; and the subtle refinements of its tone and exquisite graces of its rhythm are incomparable. He is stepped, above all, in the tradition of Hindustani music – in its history, musicology and aesthetics. To him, the centuries-old chequered evolution of that tradition is a sustained process of adaptation, assimilation and creation and also one of continuous experimentation in achieving something new that is always rooted in the soil. I have yet to come by a film composer from the present generation who has such an unwavering grasp of the fundamentals of our music as this maestro.

I have known Naushad intimately for several years. It is his music in Baiju Bawra that first brought us together. The film simply came to me as a revelation of his innate “Indian-ness” as a composer – of his genius for harnessing what is most healthy, living and significant in Indian music to cinematic purposes. The ‘classicist’ in me discovered in him a like-minded soul and our casual acquaintance matured into an enduring friendship over the decades.

In using a music idiom that is deeply embedded in the indigenous tradition, Naushad made the first great attempt towards promoting a new and healthier outlook on the part of film-makers as well as film-goers.

To Naushad, music is no different from the lyrical content of the song. Few, indeed, can portray in a song, so effectively, the whole gamut of mood and feeling; from gay abandon to the most poignant evocation of sorrow and despair and that too through the medium of blue-blooded but complex ragas like Puria-Dhanashri, Marwa, Desi, Malkanus and Hamir, as also lighter melodies like Gara, Khamaj and Bhairavi. Some of his songs are sad and pensive; some are sublime and profound; and some others frolic-some teasing and even titillating. But they are all pleasing to the ear and fulfilling to the mind. And easy on the lips, too. Like in Baiju Bawra, all the subsequent filmic creations carry that unmistakable Naushad stamp.

Not that he hasn’t experimented with new and exotic forms of musical expression other than classical or folk. He has also shown his flair for blending the traditional with the modern in background music. But then it is there, only to touch the heart-strings, never to rip our ear-drums. Besides, he has even used the vibraphone for a song Mohe Bool Gaye Sanwariya in Baiju Bawra. Yet the base is always essentially Indian and there is no compromise whatever on quality. Even when he resorted to Western-type modes of song and rhythm, as in Jadoo, it was only because the story and its locale demanded it.

It is an irony of our times that a maestro of Naushad’s genius has yet to achieve comparable national recognition. Some years ago, he had politely declined the offer of a Padma Shri, because he felt it had ben given much earlier to youngsters who owed to him their limelight and popularity in the field. Even the prestigious Filmfare Award came his way but once – for Baiju Bawra, although he has had more silver, golden and diamond jubilees to his credit than half a dozen present-day directors put together. For long he has not a single film on hand but he is none the worse for it.

Which is why my delight was all the greater when I met Naushad soon after the announcement of the Madhya Pradesh award. It was a pleasant Sunday morning. He had just come back home – a lovely bungalow, which he has aptly named Ashiana – from his daily stroll at Bandra, that somnolent suburb of Bombay. At 65, he looked his usual self-slim, active and relaxed. I sensed the same old ardour and fervour in him as we proceeded from the portico to the drawing-room.

“Dekho bhaiya, maine lok-sangeet aur sugam-sangeet ka ek aakarshak roop film – maadhyam se janata ke samaksh rakhne ka prayaas kiya hai. Rumba, Twist, Disco ka daur bhi chala. Kintu main inse alag raha. Is majmen se main apne ko dur rakhta raha. Meri sada yeh aakanksha rahi, ki hamari prachin parampara ko jeevit rakha jaaye. Aaj bhi us puraane sangeet ki izzat hai. Aaj ke yug mein bhi who hamare antar ko choota hai, ham mein nayee prerana ka sanchaar karta hai …. Yes, I don’t have any film assignment on hand because I refuse to score music which has no classical base for it. I refuse to give music to Disco films and I have no regrets.”

As in the past, our conversation followed the familiar pattern – in English and Hindi. But not in content and approach, except when, in reply to my reference to the uniqueness of his contribution, he referred to the great composers of yester-year whom, he says, inspired him in his creative endeavour. As he put it: “R.C. Boral, Khemchand Prakash, Punkaj Mullick, Ghulam Haider, Shyam Sunder, Anil Biswas, S.D. Burman mere liye sadaa prerana ke sroat rahe hain. Film – sangeet ke kshetra mein inka karya kabhi bhulaya nahin jaa sakta. In logon ki mahanata isme thi, ki inhone Bharat ki shastriya sangeet aur lok-sangeet ka sahara liya. Hamara sangeet chirantan hai, athaang sagar ki tarah hai … par iske liye mehnat, sadhana, tapasya karni padti hai. Main aaj bhi pyaasa hi hun.”

A new mood was in evidence in the maestro’s conversation. Unlike in our earlier meetings, he talked for three hours about the future possibilities, and not the past achievements. He began to exude his indomitable optimism at the emerging prospect on the film music scene – the resurgence of ghazal and bhajan that is sweeping all over the country. He calls it a timely backlash and declaims exultantly: “The cycle has turned: Ghazal aur bhajan mein desi rang hai!”

Why and how? Aushad sees in this new trend an opportunity for the fulfillment of some of his long cherished dreams. He still entertains the old ambition of remaking Baiju Bawra based on a totally different version. Also, three new films, which he has even titled Chandragupta Aur Chanakya, Tansen Aur Bilas Khan and Athvaan Sur, in that order. He has himself authored both the story and the script in respect of the first three. In the case of the last the story is Naushad’s while ali Sardar Jafri has written the manuscript. These, together with me music scored by him, are presently in cold storage. They have been jinxed, or so it would seem at the moment.

As it happened, Naushad worked on the story and script of the remake of Baiju all over again to eliminate possible problems of copyright. In the process, he brought in radical changes. For instance, the woman dacoit of the earlier film was replaced by a dancer and Emperor Akbar’s character was given a significant face-lift. The music was also entirely new. All of which impressed Harmesh Malhotra, the producer, so much that he undertook its production only to drag his feet after the preliminary stage. He had second thoughts about its success at the box office in the prevailing atmosphere of cacophony!

Chandragupta Aur Chanakya was designed to be a fantasy, based partly on history and partly on legend. Naushad worked on it for two years. He could even find a producer, Kishore Sharma, who spent as much as Rs. 15 lakhs on preparatory work. But for unknown reasons, he gave up the production half-way. Among the cast chosen was thespian Dilip Kumar, to play the role of Chanakya. Naushad’s objective of making the film was two-fold. First, to highlight how the music of India and Greece happened to confront each other nad how the former was influenced by the latter tradition. He visualised an encounter between Alexander the Great and the Mauryan Emperor. Chandragupta and how it culminated in the marriage of Alexander’s daughter Helen, with the Maurya.

To track down authentic sources of Greek music, Naushad made an extensive tour abroad, meeting musicians and knowledgeable musicologists and visiting museums and libraries. He could even manage to collect valuable material for use in the making of the film.

Chanakya niti is the need of our time,” declaimed the maestro, explaining the second but “equally compelling” reason that prompted him to undertake this film. Though he did not elaborate on his point, his observation spoke volumes for his abiding interest in current affairs, especially politics.

Naushad told me that it was the great Sohrab Modi who encouraged him actively to proceed with Tansen Aur Bilas Khan under his producership. But Modi’s sudden death shattered Naushad’s plans. As the title suggests, the story was based on Hindustani classical music and centred round the legendary tussle between the celebrated musician-father and his equally gifted son.

Naushad’s script of Athvaan Sur has been gathering dust with the power that has been in Delhi for the last five years. And thereby hangs a tale. Recounting its torturous journey from Bombay to the nation’s capital, the maestro said that the script was first shown to N.K.P. Salve, then Minister for Information and Broadcasting. “Ban Jayega” was the minister’s assurance on reading it. But nothing came out of it, although Naushad understandably preferred to wait. In between came a series of ministerial reshuffles, after which he met Vasant Sathe and H.K.L. Bhagat, who was still holding the I & B portfolio.

Like Mr Salve, his colleagues warmly commended the script. Harried by the delays, the maestro fervently pleaded with the ministers not to give him any financial support but get the film done through the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). “I shall render my services to NFDC without any obligation,” he told them, suggesting that NFDC along would be in a position to produce the film and manage to distribute thousands of its 16-mm copies for exhibition to the countryside for entertaining and educating the impressionable children “whose tastes are being corrupted by hybrid catch-penny film music of today.” But to no purpose.

No different was Naushad’s experience with Vijay Shankar, former Director General of Doordarshan. In spite of verbal understanding on television rights in respect of its distribution and showing, nothing further has come out of it. I was told that there has been a generous offer from an American organisation to undertake its distribution through educational channels in that country.

The film’s title (which means “The Eighth Swara”, a note that simply does not exist in the Indian octave) sounded quizzical. Nor was Naushad’s elucidation convincing. Quite possibly, the choice was made to arouse curiosity among cinegoers. But that is another matter.

There is another aspect to the film project, where I could not but share Naushad’s anguish in equal measure. He said that on being told about the project, leading lights in Hindustani music, like Nissar Hussein Khan, Bismillah Khan, Bhimsen Jhoshi, Praveen Sultana, Nasir Ahmed, Allah Rakha and Ram Narain came forward to lend their art for the film, free of charge. “They still keep reminding me of the unfulfilled project,” he says, with suppressed disgust.

Our tete-a-tete did not end here. Naushad was still in an earnest mood, keen to talk on related topics. These covered a rapid but perceptive survey of the contemporary musical scene – from the attitude of the film industry to the policies of the official mass media to our musical traditions.

“All producer and music directors are good,” he said, in reply to my question. “All they need to show is a great sense of purpose and a right sense of direction in their work. Too many films on hand is bound to debase the quality of their effort in all respects.”

Naushad points out that cinema is possibly the only industry where the consumer pays for his commodity even before he gets the supply and a chance to judge its quality. “And he doesn’t get his money back even if he hasn’t liked the film!” he exclaims.

No longer do our music directors enjoy the freedom they deserve in their creative work. They have to toe their producers’ line. And what does the audience get? Hybrid, unwholesome music and that, too, in the name of public taste!

“What is public taste?” he asks and answers the question himself: “Public taste is what you make of it, how you shape it how you cultivate it. Don’t give them what they want but make them want what you give them… Haven’t my classical and folk tunes clicked? Why? Because they are simple, direct and unembellished. People have accepted them. My old records are still in great demand. People even go to Chor Bazaar to search for them.”

What has he to say about the role of the official mass media? While Naushad commends their policies, he has a suggestion or two for making AIR’s Farmaish programme of raga-based film music more purposeful. He rightly says that mention of names of ragas and taals must be an integral part of these programmes, as much as the present practice of announcing the names of the listeners who send in their farmaish. This will eventually help the listeners to understand and appreciate the fineries of classical music and mould them into knowledgeable rasikas.

“Doordarshan, too, can do much, more than what it’s now doing in that direction”, he says. He strongly pleads for a series of music lessons and demonstrations through its network. “Classical music was confined to temples and courts for centuries and the common man was never exposed to it. Masses are now its patrons in the changed context and the film industry and official media owe it to themselves to widen, diversify and mature the tastes.”

Equally keen is the maestro’s concern for the plight of old musicians who can’t even hope to make ends meet with all their life long dedication to classical music. So much so that their children forsake the profession to take to other ways of making a more fruitful living. They contrast their plight with the sky-high takings of “halke-phulke-ganewalla” and feel dispirited. As Naushad fervently said: “Un buzurgon ki kadar karo.” It is an appeal to the Government and charitable organizations ostensibly devoted to the promotion of art and culture.

All things considered, Naushad happens to be a maestro who is a victim of politics in the industry and a misfit in the contemporary ways of living and thinking because of his idealistic temperament and approach. But he abhors being sympathized with. It is so characteristic of him that he foresees rapid changes coming over the musical scene which, he emphatically repeats, will help him turn his dreams into reality.


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