Today, April 18th, is World Heritage Day. A day to thank God, our ancestors, civilisation—for the richness that surrounds us. Whether it’s in the form of a unique ecosystem, or a beautiful old building. Or a language, a cuisine, a medicinal system. It’s all heritage, and it’s all precious. All remarkably, frighteningly fragile.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has, as one of its wings, the World Heritage Centre. This is responsible for selecting (based on very strict criteria), preserving and promoting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites: natural and cultural heritage believed to be of ‘outstanding value to humanity’. India has a total of 28 World Heritage Sites, with a further 32 nominated and therefore on the ‘Tentative List’.
So: to celebrate. Ten songs, from Hindi films of the 50s and 60s (the only exception being Johny Mera Naam, 1970), which are picturised, either in part or totally, against a backdrop of a UNESCO World Heritage Site—or at least a tentative one. These are all from films I’ve seen. Enjoy!
1. Taj Mahal
Ek Shahenshah ne banwaake haseen Taj Mahal (Leader, 1964): India’s best-known World Heritage Site, and definitely the most visible touristy symbol of India, the Taj Mahal is India for the millions who visit it every year.
And anyway, where would the Hindi film industry be without the Taj? That, and the love story of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan and his Empress Mumtaz Mahal—mostly over-romanticised—does seem to hold a fascination for film-makers.
Ek Shahenshah ne banwaake haseen Taj Mahal is perhaps the best example of a song literally praising the Taj Mahal and all that it has come to stand for: eternal love. I wish they’d dwelt a little more on the details of the carving and the inlay work, but never mind.
2. Qutb Minar
Dil ka bhanwar kare pukaar (Tere Ghar ke Saamne, 1962): I’m taking a bit of a liberty with this song, because it does not really show the actual monument, but a set. The scenes preceding the song do show the picnic from which our two lovebirds have escaped, though; and that includes shots of the Qutb Minar.
Since the interior of the Qutb Minar itself isn’t very conducive (space-wise and light-wise), to shooting, a set was used. I’d guess it’s fairly authentic—the walls don’t look cardboard, and the arch in which they sit looks just about right, as does the spiral staircase. I wouldn’t know, since visitors have not been allowed inside the Qutb Minar for many, many years.
The Qutb Minar (begun in 1199 AD) is, along with its surrounding complex, one of Delhi’s three World Heritage Sites. It’s certainly my favourite.
Mere Sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu (Aradhana, 1969): The Darjeeling Hill Railway (DHR) is actually part of one single listing in India’s list of World Heritage Sites: the Mountain Railways of India. The DHR is the oldest of these Indian Mountain Railways, the system being operational since 1881. The train travels from new Jalpaiguri up to Darjeeling.
I’ve not been on the train myself, but my sister has—for part of the way. She assures me that while it’s an interesting, steeped-in-heritage ride (with lovely scenic views), the journey itself is so slow that it soon begins to pall. The slow speed of the train is because it has to chug up from an elevation of 113 mt above sea level (New Jalpaiguri) to 2200 mt ASL at Darjeeling, and that too (on the tourist train stretches, and the Kurseong-Darjeeling stretch) by steam engine.
That snail’s pace, thankfully, makes the DHR a popular setting for some great train songs: the title song from Jhumroo, Main chali main chali (Professor)—and this one. A classic serenade shot all the way on the DHR, the ‘singer’ in a jeep on the road along the train track, while the object of his affections sits aboard the train.
Mujhe apna yaar bana lo (Boyfriend, 1961): Also a part of Mountain Railways of India listing, the Kalka-Shimla dates back to the late 19th century. In 1891, with the opening of train travel between Delhi and Kalka, it became possible for trains to go all the way to the foothills—so why not beyond? Just 96.54 km ahead of Kalka lies Shimla, a popular summer retreat as well as the summer capital of the British after 1911 (when the capital shifted from Calcutta to Delhi). So the Kalka-Shimla Railway came into existence.
Here we have Shammi Kapoor literally on the Kalka-Shimla Railway. The second half of the song is shot on nondescript snowy ground, but for the first couple of minutes, he spends his time climbing aboard the train, up on to its roof, where he proceeds to dance about as the train wends its way uphill. Scenic, somewhat hair-raising (all that running about on the roof of the train), yet fun. And you get to see a World Heritage property in action.
Aaiye padhaariye (Geet Gaaya Pattharo Ne, 1964): Maharashtra’s ancient rock-cut cave temples and monasteries of Elllora were designated a World Heritage Site in 1983 (which is why, in Aaiye padhaariye, the actors are allowed to dance and leap about just where they please—the temples may have been protected but not yet to the extent demanded by a World Heritage status). The caves include Buddhist, Jain and Hindu (mostly Shaivite) temples, and date back to between 600 AD to 1000 AD.
Aaiye padhaariye is one of the few songs that actually focuses on the site rather than anything else. Jeetendra plays an ad hoc tourist guide who mucks up a tour—as he enters Cave 16, ‘Kailasanath’, he has to look around for a label to identify a statue (which turns out to be Ganga). Later, he’s able to correctly (and tunefully!) tell the group about Shiva and Parvati’s wedding and show them the iconic sculpture of Ravana hoisting Mt Kailash, with Shiva and Parvati atop. But then he fumbles again, and a group member (Rajshree) decides enough is enough—and takes over the conducting of the tour.
A good virtual tour of at least part of Ellora’s best-known Hindu temple. Kailasanath, by the way, is carved entirely out of a single rock. Wow.
Tumne kisi ki jaan ko jaate hue dekha hai (Rajkumar, 1964): The rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram (Mammallapuram) in Tamilnadu were among the first Indian monuments to be accorded World Heritage Site status, in 1984. The temples include friezes (one of the most famous being what is known as ‘The Penance of Arjun’), rathas (chariot-shaped temples) and viharas, or sanctuaries. The group of structures was built between the 7th and 8th centuries by the Pallava kings. I visited years ago, but remember being awed by the carving on display—it’s fantastic.
So is this song. Mohammad Rafi at his best. Sadhana, looking gorgeous (despite that very fussy costume). And Shammi Kapoor (despite that horrid velvet shirt).
Only the first part of the song is set against the temples of Mahabalipuram—the rest takes place partly with them swinging Tarzan-like from some vines in a forest, and from there in a patently fake garden. But the first two and a half minutes provide a good glimpse of Mahabalipuram’s monuments, in particular the Pancha Rathas section.
Hum hain raahi pyaar ke (Nau Do Gyarah, 1957): The Mughal Emperor Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri as his new capital in the late 16th century, but it was inhabited only for about a decade—due to chronic water shortages. With its unbelievably intricate carvings (Birbal’s Palace and the Palace of the Turkish Sultana are among the most mind-blowing examples of Indian stonework), Fatehpur Sikri deserves every single bit of its standing as a World Heritage Site.
On to the song, now. Yes, calling Hum hain raahi pyaar ke a ‘Fatehpur Sikri song’ is stretching things a bit, but it’s a great song, and a man driving from Delhi to Bombay – how could he not go out of his way and through Akbar’s old capital? A fitting tribute to Fatehpur Sikri, even though all you do see of it in the song is Dev Anand’s lorry driving past the impressive Buland Darwaza.
8. Chittaur Fort (On the tentative list)
Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai (Guide, 1965): My husband and I visited Chittaurgarh (Chittaur Fort) last year, and our guide told us that the fort—India’s largest, with a circumference of 13 km—is a World Heritage Site. It turns out it isn’t, not yet. I should’ve guessed our guide was a bit of a fibber. He’d already told us that he’d been Dev Anand’s and Waheeda Rehman’s tour guide when they were filming Guide here—and he’d mentioned he’d been a guide here since 1972. Some discrepancy, there?
Anyway, Chittaurgarh is a fascinating fort, teeming with legends of everybody from Maharana Pratap to Rani Padmini, Panna Dhai and Meerabai (where would Hindi cinema be without Chittaur?!) The biggest attractions are the massive ramparts—in places 1,500 years old— along with the Meera Temple, the Kumbha Palace, Padmini’s lake palace (Jal Mahal) and the victory tower known as Vijay Stambh.
Vijay Stambh is where the Chittaurgarh tour of Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai first starts, at about 1:45 in the video—you see Waheeda Rehman dancing against its backdrop. She also goes on to dance near Meera Bai’s Palace and Panna Dhai’s Palace; then on the ramparts, and at Jal Mahal. (If you haven’t been to Chittaurgarh, read paragraph 12 of my account of it to understand the significance of the mirror and the lake palace shown in the song. It’s an interesting anecdote).
9. Excavated Remains at Nalanda (On the tentative list)
O mere raja, khafa na hona (Johny Mera Naam, 1970): Dev Anand certainly seems to have figured in a lot of songs that were picturised against a historic monument. Here’s another, filmed among the excavated remains of the ancient university of Nalanda in present-day Bihar. Nalanda, established between the 5th and 6th century AD, was a major centre of Buddhist learning till the late 12th century, when Bakhtiyar Khalji and his troops destroyed it. According to legend, the library of Nalanda was so huge that it smouldered for six months after being torched by Khalji’s soldiers.
The excavations of Nalanda cover about 14 hectares and include temples (both Buddhist as well as a Hindu temple), dormitories for students and teachers, meditation halls, etc. You can see a good bit of the university in this song—including a beautifully carved building (a temple?) at just over a minute into the song. All of it is really pretty impressive.
Nalanda isn’t yet confirmed as a World Heritage Site; maybe the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (or whichever committee approves nominations) should be shown O mere raja. A virtual tour—and a glamorous lady (and oddly conspicuous cops) to round it off.
10. Lodhi Gardens, Delhi (On the tentative list)
Aapko pyaar chhupaane ki buri aadat hai (Neela Akash, 1965): Lastly, a component of a site that’s on the tentative list. The city of Delhi has been nominated for a World Heritage City status, and there’s hope that if the nomination is cleared, India’s capital—which has about 2,000 listed historical monuments—will be the better for it. We can hope for better restoration and protection of historical monuments, improved facilities for visitors, and more.
So, here’s a song picturised on one of my favourite areas in Delhi: the Lodhi Gardens, which combine historical monuments with lovely gardens (some rare trees to be seen here; also a good cross-section of Delhi’s bird life). The Lodhi Gardens are dotted with beautiful old tombs—mostly from the 15th and early 16th century—plus a picturesque Akbar-period bridge and a late Mughal mosque, among other monuments.
About half of the song (the beginning and the end) is shot between the tombs known as the Bada Gumbad and the Sheesh Gumbad. In between, Dharmendra and Mala Sinha traipse about the park amongst the flowers and shrubbery, but towards the end, they come back to the Sheesh Gumbad.
Here’s to our heritage (no matter where we are in the world). Let’s keep it intact and cherish it—and no matter what Hindi cinema might indicate, scratching reminders of your love onto an old, old wall is not at all romantic.
(Coincidentally, three days from now—on April 21, 2012—Indian cinema begins its 100th year of existence. The screening of the first all-Indian production, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, was on April 13, 1913. Over the next one year, there’ll be celebrations—and, more importantly, a National Heritage Mission to digitise and restore as many prints as are possible of Indian films. Read more, here).