After I’d done my piano song posts, I began to think of other musical instruments that appear in the picturisation of songs. Songs where it’s not an orchestra (Ted Lyons and His Cubs, anyone? Or The Monkees?), but a hero or heroine, not a professional musician, being the one ‘playing’ an instrument? Guitars, I thought, would be a good place to start. A ‘guitar songs’ post. I tried by listing, off the cuff, all the songs I could remember as having a guitar-playing actor or actress. Then I went and checked on Youtube—and discovered that several of the songs I’d remembered as featuring a guitar actually featured a different string instrument: a mandolin, for example (in Tum bin jaaoon kahaan), or some even more unusual and exotic instruments.
So this post changed. It’s now a post on ten of my favourite songs, from pre-70s Hindi films that I’ve seen, which feature a string instrument. And, to make it a bit less of a walk in the park for myself, no two songs feature the same instrument. Here goes. In no particular order:
1. Classical Guitar. Tadbeer se bidgi hui taqdeer bana le (Baazi, 1951): A guitar is one of the most recognizable—even to total music ignoramuses like me—string instruments there is. There are, Wikipedia tells me (and my chest swells with pride to be able to say I knew this!) several types of guitars. Mostly with six strings, the nylon-stringed ‘classical guitar’ having the sound projected acoustically while the steel-stringed ‘electric guitar’ does so electrically.
There aren’t, as I thought at first, those many songs in Hindi cinema featuring guitars—especially not in the 50s and 60s (the 70s, with Rishi Kapoor and Taariq in Karz, Hum Kisise Kam Nahin, Yaadon ki Baaraat or Khel Khel Mein, etc, had its fair share of guitars to be seen). Guitars, if Hindi cinema was to be believed, were not instruments one learned to play if one was ‘respectable’: they were purely for social entertainment, and of the kind the well-bred would sniff at. A guitarist was to be found in a nightclub, not a drawing room.
And, of course, no well-brought-up young lady played the guitar. So Geeta Bali, playing the vamp in Baazi, strums her guitar and sings a wonderful ghazal about taking one’s fate into one’s own hands. She may not be really playing the guitar, but she’s not making an outright hash of it the way Dev Anand did in Yeh raat yeh chaandni phir kahaan—or, even worse, Biswajit in Laakhon hain yahaan dilwaale.
Edited to add: Blog reader Sadanand Warrier informs me that the guitar in Tadbeer se bigdi hui is actually an acoustic guitar.
2. Sitar. Madhuban mein Radhika naache re (Kohinoor, 1960): Believed to have been derived from the veena and modified during the Mughal period, the sitar is one of those quintessentially Indian string instruments that you see so much even onscreen. Unlike the Westernised ‘not good’ player of the guitar, the sitar player invariably fell into two brackets: the male was usually a classical singer (think Meri Soorat Teri Aankhein, or Baiju Bawra), and the female was invariably an upper class lady (Meena Kumari in Dil Ek Mandir or Jamuna in Humraahi). The point being that the sitar—and its knowledge—classed you as being refined, well-brought-up (if you were female) or serious about your music (if you were male).
With so many lovely songs to choose from—the sublime Poochho na kaise maine rain bitaayi; Hum tere pyaar mein saara aalam; Mann re tu hi bata kya gaaoon—I chose this one. Not because it’s unusual in that the sitar player is, instead of being a full-time musician, a prince—but because the actor, Dilip Kumar, actually took the trouble to learn how to play those notes on the sitar. That’s dedication, and it shows. Plus, as those who follow this blog regularly probably know by now, this song is one of my all-time favourites, irrespective of anything else. How could I leave it out?
3. Veena. Meri veena tum bin roye (Dekh Kabira Roya, 1957): Where the sitar is, can the veena be far behind? Well, perhaps. ‘Veena’ is a generic term for a wide range of stringed instruments, ranging all the way from the Saraswati veena (named for the goddess of learning, who is traditionally depicted with this veena in her hand) to the Mohan veena, an odd-looking combination of a Hawaiian guitar and the typical gourd attachment to add resonance.
In Dekh Kabira Roya, Ameeta plays a girl (aptly named Geeta) who is devoted to her music. So devoted, in fact, that she’s made up her mind to marry only a man who shares her love for the art. So, when she realises she’s in love with a painter rather than a singer, what more appropriate way for her to express her sorrow than by singing of the desolation of her veena? Her veena looks like a Saraswati veena, though I’m not certain—could someone confirm this?
I admit I am taking a bit of a liberty with this song, since Ameeta isn’t actually shown playing the veena, but the very fact that the veena is the focus of the song excuses that, I think.
Ektara Gopichand. Aan milo aan milo Shyaam saanware (Devdas, 1955): The most basic of stringed instruments, the ektara (literally, ‘one-string’) is just that: an instrument with one string, held in one hand and with the string plucked with the index finger. A very closely related instrument, but with the string penetrating the centre and ending in a gourd, coconut or hollowed-out wooden resonator, is the gopichand or gopiyantra. Both the ektara and the gopichand were used by wandering minstrels, such as the Bauls, because of their portability.
[Many thanks to Anu, who pointed out this error, since I’d thought the instrument in Aan milo aan milo Shyaam saanwre was an ektara].
And where Baul music is, there will be songs inspired by it, as well as by other folk and/or devotional music. The ektara, therefore, is a familiar instrument onscreen, all the way from Govind bolo Hari Gopal bolo to a song about the ektara—Ektara bole (from Yaadgaar). This one, though, a wonderful bhajan (featuring, not an ektara, but a gopichand) sung by Manna Dey and Geeta Dutt, is my favourite: the music is very simple, and the song showcases the simplicity of the
ektara gopichand beautifully.
5. Balalaika. Naacho ghoom ghoom ghoom ke (Sarhad, 1960): Moving on from the very Indian instruments of the previous three songs, an instrument which isn’t often seen in Hindi songs (I have to admit this is the only example I can think of): the balalaika. The balalaika, a Russian string instrument with a distinctive triangular body and (typically) three strings, comes in a wide range of sizes, all the way from piccolo to contrabass.
While Western instruments like the guitar and piano are commonly seen in Hindi cinema, the balalaika is not—and this song, picturised on a group of tribal dancers, is hardly the setting I’d have expected to find it in. But composer (and singer, in this case) C Ramachandra was famous for his use of Western tunes, so I’m not really surprised (though, a thought: is there really a balalaika to be heard in the music?) Dev Anand makes a bit of a hash of ‘playing’ the instrument, but the song is a peppy, foot-tapping one.
6. Lyre. Yeh kaisi ajab daastaan ho gayi hai (Rustom Sohrab, 1963): And this—considering I’m so mad about history—is the one that gives me the greatest thrill, because it actually features what looks like a replica of the oldest surviving string instrument in the world, one of the lyres of Ur. Over 4,500 years old (and therefore probably still around in some form during the time the historical Rustom Sohrab is set), the lyre shown in the film, being played by Suraiya, is a large four-sided one similar to the Queen’s Lyre at the British Museum. It stands on the floor, a heavy (and ornate) wooden frame with vertical strings plucked by the fingers.
Yeh kaisi ajab daastaan ho gayi hai is a lovely song (composed by Sajjad Hussain), and rendered beautifully by Suraiya, but I have to admit that knowing someone did their research before the picturisation adds to my enjoyment of it. Interestingly, two other songs from Rustom Sohrab also show musicians using string instruments: a crescent-shaped harp-like one in Phir tumhaari yaad aayi ae sanam, and a flattish instrument, its strings played with curved sticks, in Ae dilruba ae dilruba.
7. Setar. Dil ka na karna aitbaar koi (Halaku, 1956). Still in the Middle East, but with a string instrument that is still in use, not an artefact in a museum. The setar (so named because it originally had three—‘seh’—strings, though a fourth one was added about 250 years ago), though its name sounds very like that of our sitar, is actually quite different: it’s a much smaller instrument, slim and long-necked, which is held rather like a guitar, and strummed.
In Dil ka na karna aitbaar koi, though Lata Mangeshkar (singing for Helen) gets to sing the bulk of the song, Rafi joins in every now and then with a line, which allows me to go with my rules of the game: the person playing the instrument should also be singing. I have no idea who this actor is, but the song is a lovely one with a definite Middle Eastern flavour to it. And the setar fits right in.
8. Banjo. Kitna haseen hai mausam (Azaad, 1955): Another fairly exotic musical instrument, for India: the banjo owes its origin to Africans in colonial America, and was the backbone of traditional African American music before its popularity spread to minstrel shows and more in the 19th century. The banjo is characterized by a circular cavity (over which is stretched a thin membrane—either of skin or plastic) which acts as a resonator.
Like the balalaika in Naacho ghoom-ghoom-ghoom ke, the banjo in Kitna haseen hai mausam is a musical instrument rather incongruous with the setting of the song. Azaad is a good old-fashioned ‘raja-rani’ film, set solidly in the not-too-distant but somewhat amorphous past in India—not quite the place or time one would expect to see a banjo. But Meena Kumari does ‘play’ it, and Dilip Kumar later carries it for her, in a song that’s a lovely little ‘along the way’ serenade to love and life.
9. Mandolin. Tera dil kahaan hai (Chandni Chowk, 1954): Now, moving on to another ‘foreign’ instrument: the mandolin. The mandolin originated in Italy, and is a typically hollow-bodied instrument made of wood, with either a round, a flat, or a carved top. For a string instrument that hails from lands far removed from India, the mandolin makes surprisingly frequent appearances in Hindi cinema. This is the instrument Waheeda Rehman plays in Kaheen pe nigaahein kaheen pe nishaana; Shashi Kapoor plays it in Tum bin jaaoon kahaan. It’s also the instrument Nalini Jaywant strums so frantically in Beimaan baalma.
And it appears in this ethereal song from Chandni Chowk. Smriti Biswas, playing an Egyptian dancer (and therefore exotic enough to be strumming a mandolin?), uses it to render a sensual, seductive song—in a tune which Roshan, the composer for Chandni Chowk, was to reuse more than a decade later in Rahein na rahein hum.
10. Ravanahatha. Saiyyaan jhoothon ka bada sartaaj niklaa (Do Aankhen Baarah Haath, 1957): And finally, after all those firang instruments, back to a very subcontinental one: the ravanahatha. The ravanahatha, also known by various other names (including the intriguing ‘ravana hastra veena’) draws its name from Ravana himself, who—according to legend—worshipped Shiva with music from this instrument. At any rate, the ravanahatha was once popular in Sri Lanka and Western India, especially in Rajasthan and Gujarat. (Incidentally, a writer named Patrick Jered has researched and authored a book—Finding the Demon’s Fiddle—on the elusive origins of the ravanahatha; the book’s due for release later this year).
As you can see in Saiyyaan jhoothon ka bada sartaaj niklaa, the ravanahatha is a folksy-looking instrument, very portable even though it consists of two parts: the string instrument itself, and the bow used to play it. While I do prefer Ae maalik tere bande hum when it comes to the songs of this film, I think Saiyyaan jhoothon ka bada sartaaj niklaa has a certain rustic charm to it. And the fact remains that the picturisation matches pretty well the music Vasant Desai actually used: a string instrument, drums, and Lata’s voice. That, in itself, is quite an accomplishment.
Which songs would you add to this list? (And, a special request: if you can add songs with string instruments that haven’t been covered in my list, I’d be especially grateful! I’m sure there are songs out there featuring rababs and saarangis and santoors and whatnot? Bring ‘em on!)