Romancing The Song: Hindi Cinema’s Lyrical Journey
Author: Manek Premchand
Jharna Books; pp 654; Price: Rs 1,500
THE words have always mattered. In the world of Hindi film music, the lyricist has most often been an equal contributor. After all, hundreds of songs wouldn’t have been so sublime, if it wasn’t for the charm of their lines. Yet, barring a section of passionate and knowledgeable music lovers, the role of this community has largely been overlooked. In many cases, people know entire songs without knowing who penned them, and sometimes, music companies release compilations without mentioning the writers.
Lyrics, of course, have their own beauty and depth, and the great lyricists have been geniuses in their own ‘write’. Keeping this in mind, it would be essential for Hindi film music followers to read Manek Premchand’s latest book Romancing The Song: Hindi Cinema’s Lyrical Journey. It not only talks of the most talented songwriters to have graced Hindi film music, but makes a deep study of different themes under which songs have been written, and how songwriting has changed with time, keeping in mind the political, social and even technological scenario of the day.
On first reaction, it would be very obvious to state that Manek has done a great amount of research for this book. But honestly, what he’s written is the result of much, much, much more than pure research. He’s monitored songs of every era in elaborate detail, analysed the findings of his studies, offered his own explanations, and even compared how songwriters have approached similar subjects differently with their individual styles.
Besides being a consultant with Saregama India, show compere and radio personality, Manek has earlier written Yesterday’s Melodies, Today’s Memories, which profiled the best-known singers, composers and lyricists of the golden period till 1970, and Musical Moments from Hindi Films, which listed and described 435 of the greatest songs released in the genre. He’s worked on his latest book for around five years, and quite clearly, this is a labour of love and the result of enormous passion for and deep understanding of the subject.
In Romancing the Song, Manek divides the lyrical journey into four 20-year periods, beginning in 1931, when talking films were introduced in India. En route, he mentions numerous lyricists, their songwriting styles, words they loved to use, the composers and singers of the songs, the filmmakers who emphasised on meaningful music and even how certain subjects or themes were popular or fashionable during specific periods.
The 654-page book has a foreword by Gulzar, keynote by LK Advani, curtain-raiser by eminent radio personality Ameen Sayani and ‘Last Word’ by santoor maestro Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma. The names of so many lyricists are mentioned that it is impossible for this blogger to include each and every one. But from the early era, we have Kidar Sharma, Agha Hashr Kashmiri, DN Madhok, Arzoo Lucknowi, Aah Sitapuri, J Nakhshab, PL Santoshi, GS Nepali and Zia Sarhadi, to name a few. The use of poetry by Ghalib and Meerabai is also considered.
They are followed by Shakeel Badayuni, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra, Rajinder Krishan, Kaifi Azmi, Kavi Pradeep, Hasrat Jaipuri, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Qamar Jalalabadi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Indeevar, Bharat Vyas, Asad Bhopali, Anand Bakshi, Naqsh Lyallpuri, SH Bihari, Prem Dhawan, Gulshan Bawra, Neeraj, Yogesh, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Nida Fazli, Amit Khanna, Shahryaar, Ravindra Jain and Anjaan, among others. Among today’s writers, the songs of Prasoon Joshi, Sameer, Irshad Kamil and Swanand Kirkire have been featured.
Short profiles of the lyricists have been reserved for the end of the book. Most chapters focus on specific themes, including songs from historical films, the steam engine, bird-related songs, shama-parwana, communal harmony, India’s independence, women-centric songs, use of English words, songs on the moon and sky, rain songs, festival songs, alcohol-related songs, the flower power era, the disco era, parody, cabaret songs, mujras, the arrival of obscene lyrics, the current trend of Punjabiyat, topori lingo, so on and so forth. Specific genres like ghazals and related forms like rubais, nazm and doteenya, qawwalis, devotional numbers and patriotic songs are covered in depth.
Besides the lyricists, songs of films by Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, BR Chopra, the Navketan banner, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nasir Hussain and V Shantaram are covered extensively A glossary explaining meanings of commonly-used words is helpful.
From the above description, it is obvious how much detailing and hard work has gone into this book. From the reader’s perspective, however, a few additional points need to be mentioned.
- Though this book is broadly recommended for anybody who’s into Hindi film music, either deeply or in passing, three types of people should specifically benefit from it.
- Musicians, comprising singers, composers and lyricists, who are especially interested in learning about the thought process, creativity, word-usage acumen and poetic skill that went behind the making of some classics. The younger generation of lyricists, in particular, will find a wealth of inspiration and motivation in these pages.
- The hardcore music follower, who’s always in search of more information and trivia. Even the self-confessed music encyclopaedia will hopefully discover dozens of new things here and probably understand his favourite songs in a fresh perspective.
- Those who are fond of the genre, but have limited knowledge of lyricists or even songs as such– those who know songs without knowing who wrote them, who know the tunes without knowing the words, or who know the mukhdas without knowing the antaras. With its relevant explanations and translations, this book may help enhance the knowledge of such people.
- Each person may have his or her favourite era of film music. So even though the book covers the entire 80-year span in detail, some readers may not be interested in the earliest phase, while others may detest songs from the past 20 years. As such, it might be worthwhile to go through the Table of Contents, and choose whatever would be of more interest.
- This blogger’s personal observation has been that a section of diehard music lovers, specially the extra-knowledgeable and passionate ones, also tend to be extremely opinionated and biased. They may find the work of some lyricists great, but in their opinion, some of the others are mediocre or over-rated. Naturally, such people think their view is correct. Since Manek’s approach towards each lyricist has been totally unbiased, and based on his contribution to cinema, it would be ideal if such readers keep an open mind, rather than let personal prejudice come in the way.
- While Manek has published the lyrics of so many songs of different time periods, one may tend to skip songs one hasn’t heard before. Obviously, if one knows the tune, he or she will be more interested in reading the lyrics. But at times, one can also discover some wonderful poetry even if one isn’t familiar with that song. Maybe one can get to hear unknown yet beautiful songs that way.
- Finally, one may always find personal favourites missing from the examples taken in this book. Personally, for instance, I wondered why ‘Kuch toh log kahenge’ wasn’t included, though three other songs from Amar Prem are mentioned. Ditto with ‘Main shaayar badnaam’ from Namak Haraam, ‘Aye meri zohra zabeen’ from Waqt, and the three Aandhi songs ‘Tere bina zindagi se’, ‘Tum aa gaye ho’ and ‘Is mod se jaate hain’. Similarly, when an entire chapter has been dedicated to train-based songs from the 1931-50 period, later super-hits on the same subject, like ‘Rail gaadi’ (Aashirwaad) and ‘Gaadi bula rahi hai’ (Dost), have been omitted.
All these songs were lyrical beauties, undoubtedly. But while each reader may have his or her own list of missing numbers, the truth is that it’s impossible to mention each and every great song, considering the volume of magnificent work released during the past 80s years. There’s always the case of the author’s perspective, and the fact that some outstandingly-written songs may not just fit into the flow of the book or theme of the chapter.
What Romancing The Song offers, in essence, is a truly in-depth analysis of how songs and their lyrics have changed over the years, and a remarkable study of the contributions of some of the greatest lyricists, many of whom haven’t received the plaudits they have always deserved. Clearly, this is one of the most comprehensive and captivating books on Hindi film music. It is not only a collector’s treasure, but something that can be repeatedly used for reference and knowledge enhancement. And yes, it should also act as an ‘ear’-opener to those listeners who haven’t given the lyricist his due recognition.