Those of you who’ve been frequenting this blog for a year or more probably came across this earlier post, on my uncle David Vernon Liddle. Vernie Tau (tau is the Hindi word for a father’s older brother) was my father’s elder brother. He was born on October 12, 1929, and passed away when I was barely 9 years old. I do not remember much of Vernie Tau except for the fact that he was a witty, fun-loving man with (as a cousin of mine puts it) “a terrific sense of humour”. And he was a guitarist who played in some of Hindi cinema’s greatest hits from the early 50s.
A tribute, therefore, to Vernie Tau, on his birth anniversary.
Ever since I was a teenager, I knew of two songs that were my favourites, and in which Vernie Tau had played the guitar. One, of course, was the hauntingly lovely Aayega aanewaala, from Mahal (1949), the song which catapulted Lata Mangeshkar to fame—and in which Vernie Tau’s guitar can be heard quite clearly, even during the aalaap.
My other favourite was Tum na jaane kis jahaan mein kho gaye, from Sazaa (1951): a song of heartbreak and despair, another of Lata’s greatest songs—and Vernie Tau’s.
Then there was the (in)famous incident of Vande mataram (Anandmath, 1952), where Vernie Tau was one of the guitarists in a large orchestra. Just before the recording was to take place, it was realised that the number of singers shown onscreen far exceeded the actual number of singers in the choir—so the musicians were told to sing too, since it wasn’t a very complex piece of singing, and all that was needed was voices to swell the chorus. Vernie Tau and his friends (who were pretty disgruntled because Filmistan had been making them shuttle everyday between Bombay and Goregain for rehearsals) sang “One day Bombay, one day Goregaon” instead of “Vande mataram vande mataram”.
But that, many readers will already know about. Here are some things about Vernie Tau—the man and the musician—that I’ve discovered over the past few months, and thought should be a part of a tribute to him.
A couple of months back, I happened to be chatting with my father, and he began mentioning some more Vernie Tau songs—some that I’d forgotten about, some I’d never heard, and some which are very well-known, but which I hadn’t known were part of my uncle’s repertoire.
Some of the lesser-known but good ones were from films that Vernie Tau worked in with his best buddies from when he first arrived in Bombay. As my father put it in an e-mail:
“…after passing his matriculation (probably 1946 or 47) he was not keen to join college. Dada [my paternal grandfather] was furious and gave him a thrashing with a mosquito-net pole. We three, the lower half of the progeny, were frequent beneficiaries of Dada’s generosity with the wrong end of such implements as poles (kamchis) belts and hold-all straps. He had his own interpretation of the adage “Spare the rod and spoil the child” & probably thought it read “Spare the child and you spoil the rod!!!” As Indian independence approached Verni tau was in Lahore. As the riots broke out he managed to flee to India but in the process lost his chappals. During the next few days he was in a refugee camp, registered as David Kumar, perhaps to avoid further tarnishing the family name, and was made to serve food to the inmates…
The trip to Bombay followed where he recorded for Aag and came in touch with Jimmy, S Mohinder (who distinguished himself later by composing “Guzra hua zamana aata nahin dobara” in Shirin Farhad) and a myriad assortment of personalities including I S Johar, Majnu (Harold) and a very young Kishore Kumar who was trying for a break in films despite strong discouragement from Ashok Kumar…”
Harold (who, as Papa indicates, took on the screen name of Majnu) was great friends with IS Johar, and the two of them teamed up in films like Roop K Shorey’s Ek Thi Ladki. Roop Shorey also produced other enjoyable comedies during the late 40s and early 50s, including the delightful Dholak (1951). Vernie Tau played the guitar in one of my favourite songs from Dholak, Mausam aaya hai rangeen, baji hai kahin sureeli been.
Two years later, in the 1953 film Ek Do Teen (also made by Roop Shorey, and starring Meena Shorey and Motilal), the music team came together. Papa, who watched the film recently, said he could identify his brother’s playing: “Verni Tau’s guitar is noticeable in the background in several places. Incidentally even in this movie he has played “Aayega aanewala,” which was his favourite.”
(The little anecdote about Aayega aanewaala appearing in Ek Do Teen is that in this film, Majnu’s character’s getting married, and at the wedding, someone requests the band to play Aayega aanewaala—and the rendition actually has Vernie Tau reprising his playing of the song that he’d originally played five years earlier for Mahal).
Vernie Tau and his ‘launde-lapaade’ (as Papa refers to them; it means ‘lads’, in a somewhat unruly way) had also come together in another film just the previous year: Shrimatiji (1952), starring Shyama, Nasir Hussain, and (of course) I S Johar and Majnu. Another Mahal connection cropped up here as well: one of the three music directors for Shrimatiji was Basant Prakash, younger brother of Khemchand Prakash, the music director of Mahal.
S. Mohinder, who composed the background music for Shrimatiji, used Verni Tau’s skill on the Hawaiian guitar in several places.
Papa had this to say about Jimmy, the third of the three composers of Shrimatiji:
Jimmy’s compositions are catchy and one of them, “Barkha ki raaton mein dil…” has guitar pieces by Tau. In one song “Hey babu oh babuji main na karun teri naukri” Jimmy has yodelled. Tau had told us that it was Jimmy (the music director of this film) who had taught Kishore Kumar to yodel (and certainly not the foreign yodeller named Jimmy as claimed by some, later when Kishore attained fame).
In the late 40s and early 50s too, Vernie Tau’s guitar was to be heard in some other landmark songs:
Uthaaye jaa unke sitam aur jiye jaa, from Andaaz (1949), composed by Naushad (who told Lata Mangeshkar that she should sing the song in the style of her ‘Pakistani sister’—i.e, Noorjehan).
Seene mein sulagte hain armaan, from Taraana (1951), composed by Anil Biswas, who was a close personal friend of Vernie Tau’s.
Vernie Tau, incidentally, did two stints in Bombay. The first began in the late 40s (when he also played in films like Aag and Barsaat), until the mid-50s, when he decided to shift to Delhi because his fiancée’s father had passed away, and she and her mother were all alone in Delhi. In October 1957, they got married, and subsequently, Vernie Tau decided to move with his bride and her mother, back to Bombay.
The second stint in Bombay lasted from 1959 to 1964, and when Vernie Tau decided once and for all to return to North India, Anil Biswas took a decision to retire as well and move to Delhi. Both pals came back to Delhi in the mid-60s.
During the time he spent in Delhi—both in the 50s, and from the 60s onward, Vernie Tau never let go of his music. Along with a group of other talented musicians, he formed a band that performed at concerts and functions.
Little bit of trivia: Vernie Tau was the first guitarist to appear on the Indian national television channel, Doordarshan: he played at the inaugural function of the channel, sometime in the early 1970s (?)
Vernie Tau—known almost universally as ‘Kumar Sahib’—and his band had some interesting adventures. Two of my cousins mentioned that he once told them about his band being hijacked along a highway and ‘kidnapped’ to play at the wedding of a daaku’s daughter.
Another uncle, my Johnny Tau, clarified this: no, they weren’t exactly kidnapped. It so happened that the band had been hired by someone in Gwalior to play at a wedding. When they arrived—having come all the way from Delhi, of course—they discovered that the host was a dacoit (or at least a near relative of one). Vernie Tau & Co. were pretty scared and nearly turned back, but were reassured that they would be safe, and were even rewarded pretty handsomely at the end of the celebrations.
But Vernie Tau wasn’t only a musician. One of my cousins, my Shalini didi (elder sister of Vijai bhaiya, who, famously, was the one who gave me a completely haywire idea of what The Sound of Music was all about), recently shared some sweet and heart-warming recollections of our uncle. After she finished school and was getting ready to join college, Shalini didi spent some time living with Vernie Tau and his family in Delhi’s Defence Colony.
“Amazingly charming,” is how Shalini didi describes Vernie Tau. Didi shared a close bond with Vernie Tau, partly because he was the one who chose her name when she was born. Her parents—Vernie Tau’s sister and her husband—had wanted to name their baby daughter Brinda, after a then-current journalist whose writing they admired a lot. “Very old-fashioned name,” said Vernie Tau dismissively, and after the new parents came up with a long list of alternative names, he was the one who picked ‘Shalini’ as a suitably modern name.
(Interestingly, it was Shalini didi’s father—Vernie Tau’s brother-in-law—who bought Vernie Tau his first guitar. Way back in the 40s, Vernie Tau couldn’t afford to buy a guitar, but used to love music so much that he would play on hollowed-out dry gourds. He finally asked my uncle for a loan to buy a guitar, and my uncle refused—he said he’d gift Vernie Tau the guitar. So the money was given, and the guitar was purchased from Calcutta).
Years later, Vernie Tau was the one who, having discovered that the teenaged Shalini had never been to a discotheque in her life, took her, along with her mother, to a disco in Delhi. “I had something innocuous,” Shalini didi remembers. “Coke, I think. But it was so much fun.” Vernie Tau was so much fun.
And so generous and loving too, though not in the overly emotional way that Hindi cinema tries to make us believe is real life. One day, while in the neighbourhood park where he used to go for his walk, Vernie Tau happened to meet a poor and very dejected stranger. The man used to work as a servant in one of the posh houses in Defence Colony, but was turned out of the house when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He had nowhere to go, so Vernie Tau brought the man home, paid for his treatment, and looked after him until he was well enough to find another job.
And there were Vernie Tau’s pigeons. Back then, kabootarbaazi (pigeon-keeping and pigeon-flying) was a big thing, and Vernie Tau had built up his own massive dove cote on the terrace of his home. He used to spend hours looking after his pigeons, massaging them with almond oil, feeding them almonds and cashew nuts, tending to wounded or ill birds, and (of course) training the pigeons. An annual All India Championship of Pigeon-Flying used to be held, and Vernie Tau, at least one year, won the trophy—a huge one, about 2’ tall.
But. This blog is all about cinema, and I did want to share one major discovery I made recently, re: Vernie Tau.
In my post last year, I’d mentioned that Madhubala’s father, Ataullah Khan, had commissioned Vernie Tau to compose the music for a film that Ataullah Khan was producing, Pathan. After the legal drama following Madhubala’s withdrawal from the cast of Naya Daur, Ataullah Khan had (seemingly) shelved Pathan.
When I wrote that post, I hadn’t known that Pathan had actually been made—with Premnath opposite Madhubala—and had been released in 1962. That fact emerged in the course of the comments following the post. I’ve been looking for the film, but haven’t been able to find it. However, a couple of months back, I did find some of the songs of Pathan, uploaded on Youtube.
Here’s one of them, the lovely Aa jaa ke bulaate hain, sung by Talat Mahmood. The credits, as you’ll notice, include ‘Verni’. From the same film, the music of Chaand mera baadlon mein kho gaya includes Vernie Tau’s guitar.
And, to end: one of my absolute favourite of the songs in which Vernie Tau played the guitar. Yes, Pakeezah was released only in 1972, but it had been in the making for many years—and some of the songs (composed by Ghulam Mohammad) were recorded in the early 60s. Mausam hai aashiqaana was one of them, and Vernie Tau played in it.