I made my first song list pretty soon after I started blogging. And once my blog began drawing some readers, I also began getting requests for themes for song lists. One theme (along with lullabies) that several people have requested over the years but which I’ve not yet been able to compile—till now, that is—has been that of the devotional song. The bhajan.
Mostly, I steered away from handling this theme because the most common and most popular bhajans just didn’t float my boat: I invariably found them too screechy and shrill. But as time has passed and I’ve been exposed to more devotional songs from the films of the 50s and 60s (in particular), I’ve realized that there are many bhajans that I do like. So, finally, a post. A list of ten devotional songs that I especially like. As always, these are from pre-1970s Hindi films that I’ve watched.
Note that my definition of a devotional song is one which is very specifically about a devotee addressing a deity or a higher power in a spirit of devotion. This is why I have left out all those many songs which use the Radha-and-Krishna theme where the devotion is tempered by romantic love (I know many would also regard that as devotion, too, but I wanted to make things a little more challenging for myself). Also, I include in this all forms of divinity, not necessarily Hindu, not necessarily in the form of idols. Plus, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the spirit of the song should be that of devotion: a song that is addressed to a deity but consists of spewing anger, for example, does not count (which is why an otherwise powerful song like Toofaan aur Diya’s Meri aan bhagwaan is not on this list).
Here goes, then. These songs are in no particular order.
1. Na main dhan chaahoon (Kaala Bazaar, 1960): I did say that this list is in no special order, but this one has to be at the top, because this is my very favourite bhajan. SD Burman’s music is lovely, Geeta Dutt (singing for Leela Chitnis) and Sudha Malhotra (singing for Nanda) sing this beautifully. And the lyrics—by Shailendra—are so powerful. Na main dhan chaahoon is not just a song of praise for a deity, but equally a song of morality. A song that urges mankind to remember that they entered the world with nothing and will leave it with nothing. A song that begs the deity to help the frail human ward off the temptations that surround one on each side, beckoning enticingly. A song urging one to higher thinking and simple living. A song that never fails to move me.
2. Tu pyaar ka saagar hai (Seema, 1955): In a somewhat similar tone to Na main dhan chaahoon is this lovely bhajan, sung by Manna Dey, from Seema. There is the same tone of a lost, wandering, helpless devotee, who thirsts for the way, the light—and the deity who is the only hope. The confusion and the bewildered state of the human can be soothed away and shown direction only by the ‘ocean of love’. I like the way the benevolence of the deity is highlighted in Tu pyaar ka saagar hai: this is not some terrifying god, distant from his/her devotees, but a kind, gentle, loving god.
3. Allah tero naam Ishwar tero naam (Hum Dono, 1961): Nanda again, and singing a song that isn’t just devotional, but is also one of Hindi cinema’s best-loved anti-war songs. Allah tero naam is also important in that it is one of the few songs that tries to bring two deities together: by putting Allah and Ishwar on the same pedestal, it attempts to forge communal harmony, emphasizing the fact that war destroys all, irrespective of community. Sahir’s lyrics are thought-provoking and beautiful, Jaidev’s music is excellent (far better than for the other bhajan from Hum Dono, Prabhu tero naam jo dhyaaye), and Lata’s voice brims with emotion.
(Interestingly, two songs from other films always remind me of Allah tero naam. Khuda-e-bartar teri zameen par zang ki khaatir, from Taj Mahal, and Ishwar Allah tere jahaan mein from 1947: Earth, are very similar to this song in tone, both appealing to a higher power to bring mankind to its senses and put an end to this mindless violence of war and riots. With Khuda-e-bartar, which was also written by Sahir, I have a feeling the lyricist was simply reiterating the same sentiment in somewhat different words).
4. Devtaa tum ho mera sahaara (Daaera, 1953): Daaera, a very unusual film, especially for its time, didn’t have many songs—but the standout song is this one, a bhajan that is sung every now and then in the little temple that abuts the haveli where Meena Kumari’s character finds shelter along with her old and ailing husband. This is an interesting devotional song in that the words can equally be addressed to a deity to whom one turns for succour and support, and to a lover to whom one turns for the same reasons. To the woman tottering under the weight of illness and an unwanted marriage, or to the young man deeply in love with a woman married to another—or to the devotee, floundering under the weight of crushing burdens—there is only the one support.
5. Parvardigaar-e-aalam tera hi hai sahaara (Hatim Tai, 1956): In a cinema that is dominated by Hindu devotional songs (or, at least, songs which are not expressly addressed to a deity of a faith other than Hinduism): a song addressed to Allah (this type of song is technically known as a naat). Hatim Tai is a fantasy film, full of fairies and other magical beings, the story based on that of the legendary Hatim Tai, famed for his generosity. Here, Hatim Tai (P Jairaj) sings a song of praise for the Almighty. The one who helps and saves us all, the one who is our sole support (interesting, here, to see the parallel with Devtaa tum ho mera sahaara). He goes on to list the many miracles the Almighty has wrought: Yunus was pulled out from the stomach of the fish, Ilyas was showered with mercy, Yusuf was released from prison. A way for Musa was made through the river (sic), and Isa was saved from the Cross.
An interesting run-down of miracles from Islam (and the Old Testament), and more than that, good music and a great rendition by Rafi.
6. Mann tadpat hari darshan ko aaj (Baiju Baawra, 1951): This bhajan is perhaps the first one I ever recognized as being a ‘good bhajan’ (before that, most of the filmi bhajans I’d come across were dreadful ones like Jai Santoshi maata). Mann tadpat hari darshan ko aaj has superb music, the lyrics—begging for a glimpse of the deity, a little morsel of mercy and benevolence—are excellent, and Mohammad Rafi… well, you can see why (or hear why) he was said to have ‘the voice of God’. What a controlled, beautiful rendition. From the slow, gentle (but utterly intense) start, to later in the song, when he’s joined by a chorus and his voice rises into a crescendo—and then sinks again, into a low, slow hymn: he is unforgettable all the way.
And, of course, I have to draw attention to something a lot of people often mention when talking of Mann tadpat hari darshan ko aaj: that the three main people involved in the creation of this classic bhajan—lyricist (Shakeel Badayuni), music director (Naushad) and singer (Mohammad Rafi)—were all Muslims.
7. Ae maalik tere bande hum (Do Aankhen Baarah Haath, 1957): Another classic song of devotion. Like Tu pyaar ka saagar hai and Na main dhan chaahoon, this one too does not beg the deity for wealth or miracles: instead, it asks for grace. For the strength to resist temptation, the support to stand up against tyranny (not by seeking vengeance, but by returning hate with love—the theme of this film). The longer (male) version of Ae maalik tere bande hum, ‘sung’ by V Shantaram and chorus, has a rawer feel to it but Lata’s has, I think, more feeling.
8. Tumhi ho maata pita tumhi ho (Main Chup Rahoongi, 1962): What is God? A friend. A parent, a never-failing companion. The one who is always there. The boat, the boatman. The one who helps you across, the one who shows you the way.
I have had friends and acquaintances tell me they don’t believe in God (which is fine with me: to each their own), but to me, the comfort offered by faith is what buoys me up through the worst of times. That is what draws me to this song: it reflects my belief in a divinity which is always there, and from whom one can draw hope and courage in times of distress. I don’t agree with the stress on the devotee being nothing more than the dust at the deity’s feet, but overall, I like this song.
9. Ae mere maalik mere parvardigaar (Sohni Mahiwal, 1958): For many years (most of my life, I’d say), I thought all Hindi film bhajans were centred on the Hindu faith. There were a few exceptions, like the non-denominational ones like Ae maalik tere bande hum or Tu pyaar ka saagar hai, but songs where a specific deity, not a Hindu one, was addressed, seemed to be few and far between. I have, in recent years, come across some Muslim socials and devotionals (Purdah and Al-Hilal among them) in which I’ve come across naats. This one is among the finest. Sohni, dazed and miserable because Mahiwal is seemingly dead, is married off to another, and regains her senses just as her unwanted groom is coming to consummate the marriage. She turns to her only support, and begs the Almighty to come to her rescue. A beautiful song, made even more impactful by the fact that Lata’s voice comprises most of the song: there is minimal instrumentation here.
10. Gagan jhanjhana raha (Nastik, 1954): And, to end, a devotional song from a film which was—even as its title (‘nastik’ means ‘atheist’) suggests—all about the loss of faith.Though, given that India’s masses have always been very fervently inclined towards the classic ‘opiate of the masses’, the message here was that the atheist too turns believer, because religion and religious belief is crucial to life. It is what anchors you, it is what keeps you going. It pulls you back from the brink and comes to the rescue when all is lost.
This philosophy is underlined, again and again, in Gagan jhanjhana raha. Nalini Jaywant’s character, caught in a storm while in a boat, sends up a plea for help. To Brahma, to Vishnu, to Siva and all the other gods. This is an unusual song, in that it’s not sung in the comfort of a temple, but right in the face of impending doom. And unusual too because a celestial being (not human, I think, but possibly a vision, for which Hemant sings playback?) also joins in to provide comfort and encouragement.
Which are your favourite devotional songs? Please add to the list!