My husband and I are avid travelers. Give us a few days’ holiday and some funds, and we’re eager to race off somewhere. This past year, however, has been unbelievably hectic, what with one thing or another, and after an entire 365 days of not travelling anywhere, we were ready to crack. So we eventually took a holiday—to The Glasshouse on the Ganges, an idyllic little place we’ve visited before, just slightly above Rishikesh. Sitting there one evening, with my feet lapped by the cool waves of the Ganga, I was humming Ganga behti ho kyon (yes, I’m not making this up; I actually was doing that!) when it struck me: there are several songs in Hindi cinema about the Ganga. And that’s where the idea for this post originated.
The Ganga flows for a distance of 2,525 km, all the way from the Himalayas (it begins, officially, at the point—in Devprayag—where its two major tributaries, the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, join). Most devout Hindus consider Gomukh, at the foot of the Gangotri Glacier, where the Bhagirathi arises, as the birthplace of the Ganga. The fifth most polluted river in the world, this one is one of Earth’s major rivers (it even appears in classical Western art—the imposing ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’ sculpture at Rome’s Piazza Navona includes the Ganges). Millions of people live alongside it, millions come from far and wide for a dip in the Ganga.
And Hindi cinema has embraced it wholeheartedly, all the way from the dozens of filmi children lost at the Kumbh, to Ganga ki Saugandh, Ganga Tera Paani Amrit, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, etc. Plus, the songs. Here are ten songs from pre-70s (mostly, with one minor exception from 1971) Hindi films which mention the Ganga. In different contexts, to different extents. All from films that I’ve seen.
1. Ganga aaye kahaan se Ganga jaaye kahaan re (Kabuliwala, 1961): If I had to pick a favourite Ganga song from cinema, this would be it: a hauntingly gentle one that begins by praising the beauty of the Ganga at sunset, its waves rippling in the play of light and shadow—and then, meanders on to a philosophy: that there are millions in this world, of different languages and different faces. But, as the Ganga embraces all, so must we. A surprising (perhaps, in today’s times) philosophy from an obviously Hindu sadhu, but it helps comfort the poor Pathan, so very far from home. The lyrics of this song are lovely, and I appreciate the fact that the music (by the inimitable Salil Choudhary) is very minimal, letting Hemant’s gorgeous voice shine through. Plus, the picturization is lovely: it focuses very much on the Ganga. A Ganga, too, that is quiet and serene, free of the usual hustle and bustle.
2. Tu Ganga ki mauj main Jamuna ka dhaara (Baiju Bawra, 1952): When one talks of the Ganga, can the Yamuna be far behind? The two rivers are celebrated together in everything from traditional Indian stone carving to Hindi proverbs—because their sangam or confluence at Prayag (Allahabad) is considered so very sacred. No wonder then that Hindi songs do mention (in more instances than one) the Ganga and the Yamuna in the same breath, naming their union as the greatest love of all. An easy enough metaphor to transfer to romantic love. As in this song from Baiju Bawra, where Bharat Bhushan (as the legendary singer) sings to his very embarrassed sweetheart (Meena Kumari) of their inevitable union, like the meeting of the waves of the two rivers.
3. Hum us desh ke vaasi hain (Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, 1960): While there’s not a sign of a river—the Ganga, the Yamuna, or any other—in the picturization of Hum us desh ke vaasi hain, this song is a good example of another aspect of the Ganga: as a defining feature of India. (Rather like the fact that the Fountain of the Four Rivers uses the Ganges to represent Asia). In this patriotic (if somewhat over-patriotic and unrealistic) song about all that is wonderful of India, the country itself is represented by that one image: the country where the Ganga flows. That may be true only of a part of India, but still.
4. Mere mann ki Ganga aur tere mann ki Jamuna (Sangam, 1964): While we’re on Raj Kapoor, another song from one of his films in which the lyrics feature the Ganga. I must admit this song isn’t a favourite of mine (which is why, if you notice, I haven’t named this post ‘Ten of my favourite Ganga songs’): I don’t care for the music (especially the whine of the bag pipe), and Raj Kapoor is frightfully irritating as the stalkerish wannabe lover who can’t see or accept the fact that this woman he’s pestering is in love with someone else, not him.
Still, the lyrics do carry on with that same tradition, already seen in Tu Ganga ki mauj main Jamuna ka dhara: that true lovers, like the Ganga and Jamuna, will come together. Considering the name of the film, and the final scene—plus, to some extent, the theme throughout—those are fitting words.
And yes, the river is there all right, in the picturization, a small dam and all.
5. Ganga meri maa ka naam (Tumse Achcha Kaun Hai, 1969): Though Shammi Kapoor’s films could generally be depended upon to have super songs, this particular song isn’t that great: the music is lacklustre, with no melody to speak of. The lyrics, however, are in many ways similar to Hum us desh ke vaasi hain, because here too, the Ganga is used as a defining feature of India: our patriotic Indian says that the Ganga is his mother, the Himalaya his father: and that is why he is an Indian. The first couple of verses have some beautifully poetic descriptions of nature, and the locales in which the song is picturized—apple orchards, golden fields, saffron fields, a river rushing by against a backdrop of snowy peaks—are stunning.
6. Machalti hui hawa mein chham-chham (Ganga ki Lehren, 1964): From a film which was actually named after the Ganga (and in which the river played an important part), a song from Chitragupta, a music director who is sadly underrated. Machalti hui hawa mein chham-chham is very much a song about the river: about its rippling waters, its waves, its coolness and charm, the natural beauty of the Ganga and its environs, the way the river’s waves endure. And the river dominates the picturization: there it is, with a town spread on its banks, with bridges and bunds, with Kishore Kumar and his cronies in a boat, and with Kumkum and her sahelis on rafts. Kumkum takes centrestage, though, by actually rolling about in the water (how uncomfortable that must have been!)
7. O Ganga maiyya paar lagaa de (Chandan ka Palna, 1967): Like Ganga ki Lehren, another film that starred Dharmendra—but, unlike Ganga ki Lehren, a very avoidable film. (To be honest, every time I’ve thought of compiling a post of films ‘you must not watch’, Chandan ka Palna always tops the list). The one somewhat saving grace of Chandan ka Palna was that it had fairly good music—and this song, while not a favourite of mine (bhajans rarely are), isn’t bad. And yes, it finally brings us to the first song in this list which addresses the Ganga as the deity she is regarded as by so many millions. A cry of despair, begging the Ganga to come to the rescue of the helpless (and a good pun: “paar lagaa de”, literally, “take me across the river”, but also meaning “save me”).
8. Maa hi Ganga maa hi Jamuna (Majhli Didi, 1967): Another song from a 1967 Meena Kumari-Dharmendra starrer, but from a film that couldn’t be more different from Chandan ka Palna. Majhli Didi was a beautifully sensitive, poignant and lovely little film about the love that develops between an orphaned boy and the chhoti bahu of the household where his step-sister is the badi bahu. In one scene, the little boy repeats, at the request of his new didi, a song he heard at a jatra the night his mother died. A song dedicated to motherhood, to the mother who is Ganga and Yamuna and all the pilgrimages in one: worthy of all one’s love and adulation. An interesting example of just how high in esteem the Ganga is held, in that the lyrics hold this river as the benchmark for subjects worthy of reverence.
9. Ganga maiyya mein jab tak ke paani rahe (Suhaag Raat, 1968): Suhaag Raat was one of those painful, regressive films full of self-sacrifice and weepiness and high melodrama. It didn’t even have a memorable score to redeem it. But it did have the Ganga: much of the film was set in a nameless town supposedly beside the Ganga, and the river was named in this song. A karva chauth song, Ganga maiyya mein jab tak ke paani rahe is the Sati Savitri patnivrata female’s hope that her husband will live as long as the Ganga flows. I’m not sure if I’d like to live that long, but yes, I can understand the poetic sentiment of the song. The picturisation has some nice shots of little diyas nestled in leaf-boats floating down the river—and other shots of the Ganga, too.
10. Ganga tera paani amrit (Ganga Tera Paani Amrit, 1971): And, to end the list (though there’s another song, an extra, coming up), one of the first songs that popped into my head when I first began thinking of Ganga songs. Ganga Tera Paani Amrit was made in 1971, but in several ways it was more reminiscent of a late 1960s film than of the 1970s: it featured people like Rehman, Pran, and Nirupa Roy; the fashions were somewhat more cusp-of-the-decades than outright flamboyant 70s (no flared bell bottoms and loud prints). The core theme of the film—the importance of family ties, the emphasis on village life and farming—was more 50s and 60s than 70s. And the score, by Ravi (composing to lyrics set by frequent collaborator Sahir) had more than a touch of the 60s. This song, which plays as the credits roll and is repeated later in the film, highlights another aspect of the Ganga. Its water is described as amrit—nectar—not because it is merely a sacred river, but because its water irrigate many thousands of hectares of land, bringing—literally—life to northern India.
And, to end, a bonus song, even though it’s not from a film: Bhupen Hazarika’s hauntingly beautiful Ganga boichho kaino. A song without which—in my opinion—no post about Ganga songs could ever be complete. Originally written by Hazarika as an Assamese song (Bistirno parore) about the Brahmputra, and with its music inspired by the famous Ol’ Man River (by Hazarika’s friend Paul), this song was later translated into Bengali, and by Gulzar into Hindi—as Vistaar hai aapaar. Hazarika has sung all three, as have various other artists since.
All three versions—Assamese, Bengali and Hindi—sung in Dr Hazarika’s mesmerizing baritone—are wonderful, but I have a special liking for the Bengali version. Ganga boichho keno manages to convey, even to someone who doesn’t understand the language, some of that restrained power, the vastness, the generosity and might of one of the world’s greatest rivers.
Which songs would you add to this list?