Dravidian Queen: K.S Chithra

t368930681-b1343688348_s400 Mumbai’s film industry is so visible and influential that the ugly term ‘Bollywood’ has become shorthand for Indian popular cinema.  This is not only inaccurate for northern Indian cinema itself, which uses Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Bengali as it’s main languages but it totally misrepresents the films of southern India.

Several hundred kilometres south of Mumbai is the city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras. In this city in 1917, just four (or five, depending on how you’re counting) years after the first Indian feature film was released, an importer of American cars, Mr. Nagaraj Mudaliar, was infected by the movie bug too. Being rich enough to damn the torpedos Mr Mudaliar arranged for a few lessons on the film cameras of the day and was so impressed by his own aptitude he set up South India’s first film studio in the quiet suburb of Puruswalkam.

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Nataraja Mudaliar

His first film and indeed, the first South Indian feature was a retelling of a story from the Vedic epic Mahabharata about a military commander who is so besotted by the beautiful Draupadi that he through a series of means, fair and foul, manages a rendezvous. Unfortunately, he is met by the even mightier warrior Bhima who slaughters him and ends the episode.  The movie was called Keechaka Vadham  (The Extermination of Keechaka) and was a smash hit, netting Mr Mudaliar even more riches.

In his footsteps over the subsequent years Madrasi film makers became famous around the world for their films, many of which were in the religious costume drama mode of Keechaka Vadham. And while I daren’t even think of getting into the history of South Indian film making here, suffice it to say, that films coming out of Madras and later Trivandrum and Hyderabad have been ground breaking, innovative and completely unreliant upon whatever was happening up in Bombay.

And it is especially in the area of music that the Tamil film industry has consistently held its own, and often, superseded ‘Bollywood’.  As eclectic in its inspirations as the northern film industry the Madras-based music directors always brought a more urgent, jagged and exploring edge to their music. Using hiphop, jazz, electronic keyboards and other trends before or more vigorously then their counterparts in the north.

Just listen to some of A.R. Rahman‘s music, especially before he became an international phenom, to get a taste. Of even better, go to the music of his guru, Illayraja or the work of Vijay Anand to really wig out.

It is some of Illayraja’s compositions that we share today.  All of the songs are sung by Krishnan Nair Shantakumari Chithraaka K.S. Chithra South India’s answer to Lata Mangeshkar.  Again, that’s an unfair and inaccurate description. Both are women, yes. Both have made hits too numerous to count by singing in the film industry, yes.  But the differences are more remarkable.

200Chithra is a classically trained singer in the South Indian carnatic tradition and has established an equally hailed and glorious career as a singer of classical/light classical music.  Lata, for her part has released a number of religious (bhajan) recordings but her reputation is firmly based upon her incredible run as the predominant female popular singer of the last two generations. Hear the name Lata and you know you’re going to get a film song.  But if, like me, you hear the name K.S. Chithra you’re probably, like me, going to think first of a ragini or thumri or bhajan.

At the same time where Lata’s vocal register is in the upper end (to say the least) Chithra has a voice that is to my reckoning more nuanced, supple and well rounded. More like Lata‘s sister Asha Bhosle.

I’m unable to speak Tamil so can’t vouch for the lyrical content of these songs but you don’t need to be a linguist to enjoy them.  The endlessly inventive arrangements that see styles and sound elements from any number of genres (from 80s synths to 60s lounge trumpets to slap bass and electronic squelches) popping up in each track, keep things bubbling along and are as interesting as the vocals. That’s why the title of the album has the subtitle “With Illayraja”.  This is a joint effort. A great singer interpreting the work of another great artiste and composer.

Enjoy!

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Track Listing:

01 Indha Vennila

02 Yaaro Sonnaangalaam

03 Vandadhe

04 Chitthirai Maasatthu

05 Manjai Ndhi

06 Kaiyodu Ennai

07 Vaa Veliye

08 Oh My Love

09 Sikkunnu

10 Hey Maina

11 Rathiri Thookkam

12 Oru Pooncholai

13 Pon Maaney

14 Poojaikettha

15 Nethu Oruthara

16 Kankaliley

17 Velli Kizhamai

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More from the Archives: Links Restored

mWPIVofPGHbhNPV1dF9cvSwFrom January 2012: Bengali baul music and folk music from Bangladesh

From January 2012: Mystical Music from Malwa: Kabir and Meera

From January 2014: Sitar Music from Poonchwaley and Bannerjee

 

Just a Harmonium Player: Naushad

Naushad

 

We regularly speak of Bollywood music as if it was a single sort of thing.  Far too often, the phrase is a coded reference for the big-name playback singers, Saigal, Lata, Noor Jehan, Rafi and Mukesh.  And in the popular imagination (certainly in my own naïve one) the beautiful hits of Bombay’s Golden Era have (wrongly) become almost exclusively associated with the singers who brought them to life for the actors and scenes on screen.

 

But before Rafi or Lata or Shamshad Begum got to the studio the song had been conceived, composed, scored and lyrics written by others.  These men (sadly few women have found space in this particular arena) were known as the Music Directors and as far as the film producers were concerned they were as important, if not more so, than the playback singers. Their names came up in the credits before the singers and usually in bigger letters.  The Music Directors had their favourite poets and writers whom they tapped for lyrics to match the melodies. Indeed, by the 1950s, after the first generation of Indian talkies had passed, several composer-writer teams emerged who worked exclusively together: Shankar-Jaikishan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji being the most popular.

 

Today we tell the story of Naushad Ali, one of the truly great men not just of Hindi cinema but of Indian popular culture.  Though not the first important composer of film music–Ghulam Haider,  Pankaj Mullick and others composed the first great music of South Asian film–Naushad is regarded as standing head and shoulders above his peers during the peak of his creative life.

 

A Muslim boy from Lucknow, Naushad had a family that did not support his love of music. To find relief he ran away to the local equivalent of the circus, the nautanki. A popular form of travelling folk theatre that mixed bawdy song, folk tales and religious guidance, nautanki was until the near total domination of culture by cinema, village India’s main form of entertainment.

 

During this informal apprenticeship, he honed his skills on the harmonium (which he also repaired for additional income) and other instruments.  During his time in Lucknow he watched small teams of musicians compose the ‘soundtrack’ to silent films at the Royal Theatre an experience that proved invaluable to the development of his own career as a composer. The musicians would watch the film through, talking to themselves and making notes about what instruments and sounds would work in which scene. Then when the audience came in they would play their ideas live as the reels rolled!

 

The young Naushad set up his own company, the Windsor Entertainers (he liked the ring of the English name) and after some formal training with a local maestro was confident enough to hang out his shingle as a composer.  But Lucknow was an inhospitable place to make a career given his family’s opposition. So, like so many others seeking Lady Fortune’s hand, he made his way to Bombay.

 

It was not easy. He slept on the streets for months, composing music that was rejected by the studios or that failed to make an impression on the public. He earned little more than Rs.50 a month. Yet, he managed to compose for nearly a dozen films and even had the backing of the successful composer Khemchand Prakash but the ‘hit’ eluded him.  In 1944 the Lady smiled.  With the film Rattan Naushad’s music for the songs Akhiyan Milake and Milke bicchad gayi akhiyan smashed through.  He now charged Rs25,000 a film!  The film had cost just Rs. 75,000 to make but the record of the music itself grossed Rs. 3 million! And this is time when record players and recorded music was accessible to the very  thinnest slice of Indians.

 

Naushad Ali, the harmonium repair man from Lucknow, was now a star.  But when he returned home to get married, he was unable to tell his father and uncles that the music blasting from the loudspeakers was in fact his handiwork.

 

Naushad’s music is steeped in Hindustani classical traditions; many of his great hits are based on ragas.  His years as a travelling musician had taken him all across the plains of northern India where his acute ear had picked up folk rhythms and melodies. Like his Lahori peer, Ghulam Haider, he filled his music with these folk elements, giving his music its distinctive feel.  And though he was steeped in the traditions of north Indian music he was not averse to experimenting with western instruments. It is to Naushad that credit is given for introducing the accordion and clarinet to Hindi film music.

 

Naushad and Rafi

Naushad and Rafi

Naushad not only had an ear for a good folky riff but was an outstanding assessor of talent. His ‘discovery’ of the singer Suraiyya in the 1940s shot her to fame.  And though he worked with everyone from Ameerbai, Shamshad Begum and Noor Jehan, his most memorable work was reserved for the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi, who were launched to the dizzy heights of all India fame on the back of Naushad’s music.

 

The number of iconic films Naushad scored is staggering: Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam, Baiju Bawra, Andaaz, Deedar, Ganga Jumna to name just a few.  The massive success of Baiju Bawra marked the pinnacle of his folk-music phase, henceforth, his music would be known for its elegant and rich classical undertone and nuances.

 

The Age of Naushad stretches from 1944-1960 a sixteen-year period when no one could come close to his accomplishments. Yet as the 60s brought new sensibilities and a fresh generation of composer willing and eager to introduce western dance, baila, jazz and even rock music into the mix, Naushad was increasingly marginalised.  And though his star faded and was completely extinguished in 2006, his reputation and contribution to the development of what we now all refer to as Bollywood music is universally acknowledged and praised.

 

Enjoy this slice of early Bollywood music from the masterful Naushad.

 Naushad Naushad_0001

            Track Listing;

AAJ KI RAAT MERE DIL KI SALAMI LELE

AAJ PURANI RAAHON SE

AAJA MERI BARBAD MOHABBAT KE SAHARE

AAYE NA BALAM WADA KARKE

AYE HUSN ZARA JAAG TUJHE ISHQ

BETAAB HAI DIL

DHOONDO DHOONDO RE SAJNA

DIL KI MEHFIL SAJI HAI CHALE AAIYE

DIL-E-BETAB KO SEENE SE LAGANA

DO HANSON KA JODA

DO SITARON KA ZAMEEN PAR

DUKH BHARE DIN BEETE RE BHAIYA

DUNIYA NE TERI DUNIYA WALE

GAAYE JA GEET MILAN KE

GIN GIN TARE

HAMEEN SE MUHABBAT

INSAAF KA MANDIR HAI YEH

JAB USNE GESU BIKHRAYE

KAL KE SAPNE AAJ BHI AANA

KOI MERE DIL MEIN

KOI SAGAR DIL KO BAHLATA NAHIN

KYUN UNHEN DIL DIYA

MAIN DIL MEIN DARD BASA LAAI

MARNA TERI GALI MEIN

MERE JEEVAN SAATHI

MERI KAHANI BHOOLNE WALE

MIL MIL KE GAAYENGE

MORE SAIYAN JI UTRENGE PAAR

PANCHHI BAN MEIN

TARARI TARARI

TASVEER BANATA HOON TERI

TERE SADKE BALAM

TERI MEHFIL MEIN KISMAT AZMAKAR

TU GANGA KI MAUJ

TU MERA CHAND

TUJHE KHO DIYA HUMNE PANE KE BAAD

TUMHARE SANG NAIN BHI CHALOONGI

YEH GOTEY DAR LAHENGA

ZINDAGI AAJ MERE NAAM SE

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