The ‘Not-Naachnewaali’ Gaanewaali: Ten Songs

I have been watching Hindi cinema for most of my life. And for most of my life, too, I have been happily swallowing all the many outlandish tropes and elements that are part of this realm. Not the least the many obscurities and questions that surround songs: how do people think up a tune and words at the drop of a hat, with no rehearsals whatsoever? How do two people who are not even within earshot of each other, manage to sing—perfectly—a duet? Where does the music come from? And how do people who are dancing about energetically manage to sing at the same time?

The naachne-gaanewaali so derided by the ‘shareef’ of Hindi cinema is, in essence, an unlikely character. The Vyjyanthimala of Sadhana, who dances with so much energy, or even the Meena Kumari of Pakeezah, her dance often more sedate, but a dance nevertheless… or the many, many other onscreen naachne-gaanewaalis, from Minoo Mumtaz in Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi to Kumkum in Dekh idhar o jaadugar: they must be having Olympic athlete-standard fitness levels to be able to dance so vigorously and sing so well at the same time.

But there is the occasional naachne-gaanewaali who doesn’t dance. She only sits, or, at the most, stands up a bit and languidly moves about. No proper dancing. Not, I think, because she realizes that it’s well-nigh impossible to do both at the same time or that she’s conserving her energy, but perhaps because that’s the filmmaker’s way of showing that she is relatively pure. This invariably happens in cases where the heroine is the naachnewaali, sitting in a kotha or other similar house of ill-repute and forced to use her beautiful voice to earn her living. Only her voice, mind you. No more.

So here they are, ten songs that are picturized on a woman who is sitting in a kotha or similar setting, singing to entertain or amuse or titillate or whatever one or more men. Another woman may or may not be dancing, but the singer sits through most of the song: if there’s any standing up, it’s relatively low-energy: there is no energetic dancing.

As always, these songs are all from pre-1970s films that I’ve seen (except for one, and that’s on the cusp, especially as it feels more like a late 1960s film), and are in no particular order.

1. Na hanso humpe zamaane ke hain thukraaye hue (Gateway of India, 1957): This was the song that triggered this post. Madhubala is a runaway heiress in this film, a young woman who is being pursued for her wealth by her own uncle. In the course of one night, on the run from her uncle’s henchmen, she finds herself in all sorts of situations. In one, she ends up being bullied into entering a ‘dancing school’ where she’s dressed up by the local madam and made to sing for a client. Our otherwise feisty heroine manages to put up a convincing show as the pathetic and poignant victim of fate as she sings a lovely song about her downfall.

2. Yoon hasraton ke daag (Adalat, 1958): A far cry from Madhubala’s deceptive gaanewaali is Nargis’s one, in Adalat. This is a woman who has had a very hard time indeed: her life has been wrecked by a lecherous and nasty enemy who has assaulted and kidnapped her while her husband has been away. Discarded by her suspicious in-laws, who are convinced she’s a slut, she ends up in a brothel run by her old enemy. She sings. Does not dance, because that would be admitting to sluttishness (only loose women dance). But oh, the songs she sings. Tragic, full of self-pity, but also so very beautiful: about how life has dealt her a bad hand, one blow after another—and the only one she can turn to for solace and comfort is herself.

3. Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein (Mamta, 1966): While the score of Mamta is known mostly for Rahein na rahein hum, this film had some other exquisite songs—including this one, in which a popular courtesan is summoned to a client’s home to entertain his guests. The client doesn’t sit there in the mehfil, but she knows very well who he is: the lover whom she had been separated from many years ago, and who believes her to have jilted him for a life of filth, unaware that she has been ill-treated by all around. Her song becomes a bitterly anguished and angry cry of pain, railing against the man who should have been her support and friend, but who has ended up being just like all the others: unfeeling, cruel, judgemental.

4. Bekasi hadd se jab guzar jaaye (Kalpana, 1960): As in Mamta, in Kalpana too, Ashok Kumar acted the part of a man in love with a tawaif. In Mamta, his character accepts that his love is not to be; he is resigned to the fact that his love is now platonic, no more. In Kalpana, aware that his sweetheart can be rescued (she is in this profession because of her mother—also a former tawaif—and some enemies), he is less understanding, more furious. Here he comes to attend a performance, and she, pained and hurt, obliges. Padmini did sing and dance in several other songs of Kalpana (including a mujra), but here, beyond some graceful movements of the hands and arms, there’s no real dancing. She devotes herself to her singing.

5. Aa dil se dil milaale (Navrang, 1959): A somewhat unusual (and beguilingly so, I think) setting for a song: a courtesan’s home, yes, and a courtesan singing—but not for an audience, or at least not that she realizes. This woman (does anyone know who the actress is? Vandana Karmakar or Asha Nadkarni are among the guesses people seem to have hazarded) is alone at her kotha, doing riyaaz, singing a sensual song, with the only other people present being the musicians who accompany her. She begins the song standing, moves about a little bit, stretching her arms gracefully, and then doesn’t just sit down; she lies down, looking up and singing all the while, oblivious to the fact that a client has been ushered in in the meantime and is watching her, listening to her song. Although I know lots of people who don’t like this song, I am very fond of it—it has a sort of sensual beauty to its picturization, the music is lovely, and Asha Bhonsle’s rendition, while very different from her usual voice, suits the speaking voice of the actress perfectly.

6. Intezaar aur abhi (Chaar Dil Chaar Raahein, 1959): In the same year as Navrang came this film which brought together, for the first and last time, Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor in the same film. Chaar Dil Chaar Raahein was a multi-starrer, with three sets of couples: Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari; Shammi Kapoor and Kumkum; and Ajit and Nimmi. Nimmi played the courtesan here, and appears in this achingly beautiful song of waiting. A lonely woman waiting for true love to come her way, yes; but also a woman waiting for dawn to come—or for the patron who has bought her services for the night to fall asleep. Because Anwar Hussain’s imperious nobleman doesn’t want the courtesan’s body; he merely wants her to sing him, a chronic insomniac, to sleep. Until he falls asleep, she cannot stop singing. So she sings, on and on, waiting for him to sleep. Nimmi does dance a little bit in the beginning of the song, but it’s very languid movements, that do not really count (at least for me) as proper dancing.

7. Raina beeti jaaye (Amar Prem, 1972): Like all the other originally-good, forced-into-the-profession naachnewaalis of the previous songs (I’m not including the woman from Navrang), Sharmila Tagore’s character in Amar Prem is a good woman who, disowned and discarded by her bigamous husband, ends up in the red light area of Calcutta. There, she draws the attention of a man who will come to value her as not just a lover, but more. This is the scene where the two lead characters of this film first meet: Pushpa (Sharmila) is singing for a small audience when Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna), tipsy as usual, hears her and enchanted, comes upstairs—and insists on hearing her song. A beautiful song, too, of waiting.

8. Ae ri jaane na doongi (Chitralekha, 1964): Meena Kumari’s most popular role as a naachne-gaanewaali was probably her role in Pakeezah (where, interestingly, all the mujra songs are actually mujras (dances)—Inhi logon ne, Thare rahiyo, Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge, and Chalte-chalte yoon hi koi). However, several years before Pakeezah was released, Meena Kumari had also acted in another important role as a courtesan (I’m not counting Benazir, which was relatively low-key compared to both these films): as the eponymous Chitralekha, a courtesan of ancient India. Here, the courtesan entertains an important client who isn’t merely a client any more, but a lover—and a powerful, influential one too. But powerful as he is, he is powerless in front of Chitralekha, who calmly seduces him and tells him so. She will not let him go.

It’s interesting to note that while this might be a fairly intimate song, the fact that this is a courtesan singing allows that intimacy to be public. Even as she sings, four dancers dance; musicians (all women, unlike the males of the other songs) play music, and servants come and go, bearing refreshments, missives, etc.

9. Badi mushkil se hum samjhe (Zindagi ya Toofaan, 1958): From what I’ve been able to gather, Zindagi ya Toofaan was not released in India (though it was released in Pakistan). A pity, because it had some lovely songs, of which only a couple appear to have survived in the collective memory of the more ardent fans of old Hindi film music (and I mean the really ardent fans: these are not well-known songs). One song which I especially love is this one, an interesting crossover between a mujra and a qawwali. Two tawaifs, played by Nutan and Minoo Mumtaz, perform for their clientele, and though their song (sung playback by Asha Bhonsle and Shamshad Begum) is sung by both women, the only one who dances is Minoo Mumtaz. Nutan sits all through the dance, only moving her hands a little now and then. I love the music (by Nashad): a classic qawwali.

10. Churaake dil ban rahe hain (Chhote Nawab, 1961): To end, a song that exemplifies the point I made at the beginning of this post: that the ‘purity’ of a ‘good woman’ is defined by whether or not she gets up and dances. If it’s only her voice that is on show, her purity is not compromised. Here, though the setting is a kotha, and there are other ‘guests’, plus a kothewaali baai as well as two dancers (Bela Bose is one; I can’t identify the other), Ameeta, as the ‘shareef ghar ki beti’, is only acting a part. Aided by her friend and confidant (Johnny Walker) she’s masquerading as a tawaif in order to bring home to her erring fiancé the error of his ways. A beautiful song, and Ameeta doesn’t move a muscle. She just sits there, ghoonghat held firmly in place.

Which other songs would you add to this list?

30 thoughts on “The ‘Not-Naachnewaali’ Gaanewaali: Ten Songs

  1. Great list! A few songs that I heard for the first time – “na hanso humpe” is quite lovely. The first song that came to my mind was also “rehte the kabhi jinke dil mein”. Others I could think, though outside your timeline –
    “Jind le gaya”

    And “Justajoo jiski thi” from Umrao Jaan

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  2. Nice collection and a neat write-up as usual Madhuji.. I enjoyed it
    I was tempted to mention ” Main baharon ki natkhat rani from Boot Polish but realized that it is not the typicla Kotha as we cine-shaukeens know it.. And so am resisting the temptation..
    Now a slight detour from this post. I saw Ashok Kumar’s Achhut Kanya a couple of weeks ago and wanted to read how you have found it in your review.. However I could not find it in your list of movies reviewed..
    Any particular reason or is it waitlisted ?

    Rajendra Joshi

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is no particular reason for not having reviewed Achhut Kanya so far. I remember having watched the film (or part of it? I don’t recall) many years ago on Doordarshan; I should watch it again and review it. Thank you for reminding me.

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  3. Madhu, this an interesting theme (and a very good list, too, of course). But I think that one could find many examples where someone who is seated throughout a scene and/or isn’t moving around “vigorously” is still involved in a dance and therefore dancing. I think that the seated performance is also a tradition in kathak (in a part where the emphasis is on abhinaya) and you’ll find a long list of videos on YouTube if you search the term “sitting choreography.” So the seated position alone doesn’t mean that it isn’t a dance, and the line between dance and “not-dance” can also get pretty blurry.

    From your list, I guess the line is very blurry in “Intezar Aur Abhi.” To you, this does not count as “proper dancing,” but to me, this does count as a dance – and a nice one, too.

    Anyway, I looked around for examples of sitting choreography or songs which consist of sitting plus less “vigorous” movements on the feet, and I did find quite a few – which also depict a courtesan or at least involve someone paying tribute to that tradition – but most of the ones I found are relatively contemporary and it would take a lot of time for me to find or dig up many from pre-1970 films (though I know that they exist). For now, from the Golden Age, I could think of and find this one scene, with Padmini in Mr. Sampat. I think in the film, this dance is blended in with a bunch of others before and after, but it is separated nicely in the following video. For about half the scene – close to 50 seconds – Padmini is seated, but I would say that this is dance. Then in the second half, she moves around but not all that vigorously. (OK, maybe it gets a little animated at the very end, but really only for a few seconds. :) ) I would say that the whole scene altogether is a beautiful dance.

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    • Yes, I agree that the line is especially blurry in Intezaar aur abhi. I dithered over that for a while, and then finally decided that I would exercise my personal preference for that song! I do think that what constitutes a dance (or not) is subjective – and this is from somebody who makes no claim whatsoever to be any sort of authority on dance. ;-) I simply wanted to list songs I thought didn’t really count (in my lexicon) as dances, per se. But I can see, and accept, that others may disagree.

      Ooh, Kaaga sab tan khaaiyo is nice! I must watch Mr Sampat one of these days. I’d been meaning to read the book and then watch the film; I need to do that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Intriguing theme, Madhu, though I agree with Richard that the seated performance is as much ‘dance’ if not a very rigorous one. That said, I really like this song from Kala Pani – Jab naam-e-muhobat le ke kisi where Nalini Jaywant is merely sitting to sing of her heartbreak.

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    • Yes, Ja naam-e-mohabbat is a lovely song! I had forgotten all about it until a couple of weeks after I finished compiling this post – and then I came across it when I was researching a completely different post. :-)

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  5. A fairly representative list of songs in this category. My own personal favourite is the song from Amar Prem – with almost perfect lip-synchronisation-matching even the breathing of the Playback. Sharmila was easily the best in this art, followed by Nargis & Meena Kumari.
    Of course part of the credit must go to the Director. In those days BR Chopra, Mehbbob ,and Kardar insisted on even synchronising hoof-taps of horses with the music !!!(Example “Maang ke saath tumhara” from the gentle trot to the gallop as the song ends)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Papa! And yes, Maangke saath tumhaara is a very fine example of excellent picturization that really melds the song to its onscreen representation. I am going to be reviewing Naya Daur soon to commemorate Dilip Kumar’s birth centenary, next month. Am looking forward to rewatching the film.

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  6. Madhuji, this subcategory of Mujras is unique. In fact, in Adalat, the heroine Nargis categorically states that she has only sold her voice. All her mujras are performed sitting and singing. This category of mujras, would thus have slow music with meaningful lyrics. I would want to add Justjoo Jiski Thi from Umrao Jaan(1981)

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    • Thank you so much for adding Justju jiski thhi to this list, Anitaji. It is one song I always feel is underrated – Umrao Jaan‘s other songs tend to be remembered more, and this one is a real gem, my favourite from the film.

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  7. Dear Madhu,

    An intriguing theme as Anu put it….
    And one can only marvel at the choice of this theme, and the research behind your selections of songs!

    Having referred to “research”, I’m not sure that I would have come up with songs on this “sub-category ” of Mujras. (besides, not having the time to actually get down to research …right now)

    So here it is, one song that occurred to me, “off the cuff” as it were…….

    “Hum Hain Mata-E-Koocha-O-Bazar Ki Tarah” | Lata Mangeshkar | Dastak 1970 Songs | Rehana Sultan

    A lot of memories associated with the film “Dastak”.
    We knew both the director, Rajinder Singh Bedi, and the editor of the film, (Hrishikesh Mukherjee).
    Both went on to win National Awards, as did actor Rehana Sultan (a contemporary of KK’s at the Film Institute, Pune).

    For now, do hope you think my “off the cuff” choice is OK.

    best wishes, always,

    Praba

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Novel theme with a lovely collection of songs :)

    Another song that should fit the bill is Kar Gaya Re Mujhpe Jadu from the film Basant Bahar. It’s a Lata-Asha duet: Lata sings for Nimmi who sits and sings, while Asha sings for Kumkum who dances

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  9. That’s an excellent compilation of beautiful songs on quite an unusual theme. Many songs have been listened to by me and I will listen to the remaining ones as early as possible. Hearty thanks and compliments. I will tax my mind to figure out whether I can make any addition to this list. Once you had planned to write a post on songs related to tears (aansoo). Have you done it?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Oof, this was a difficult theme! I had to quite rack my head, enumerating films with tawaaifs in them and thinking through their songs, before I was able to come up with one that had not previously been mentioned. The best I can do is “Hamin Karen Koi Surat” from “Ek Nazar”:

    (She does admittedly gesture a little.) Jaya’s will to dance has at this particular moment been repressed by her emotional troubles. Earlier in the film she has a more typical mujra, “Pehli Sau Baar.”

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    • I had thought I didn’t know this song, but I did recognize it once I started watching it – though I don’t recall having seen this earlier, just had heard it. Somehow Jaya Bhaduri as a tawaif doesn’t quite fit, though given what a good actress she is, I’m certain she must have done it well. Have you seen the film?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Let me reply to your question. I have watched it multiple times. It’s an entertaining and well made movie (Ek Nazar – 1972). All the songs are good and the storyline is also good though turns out to be a familiar one in the end. Both Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri have done well along with Nadira, Tarun Bose, Manmohan Krushna, Dulari, Sudhir and Raza Murad (it’s his debut movie). You won’t regret after watching it.

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  11. You’ve picked a very unusual and interesting theme, Madhu – the seated/reluctant tawaif. You have some wonderful songs – rehte the kabhi, intezaar aur abhi, bekasi had se – in your list and I didn’t think I could add anything till I remembered this song from the 1958 film, Mehndi.

    The tawaif played by Jayshree stays seated as she excoriates the men in her mehfil in response to a mocking and insulting poem sung by Ajit just minutes before.

    Yeh afsana nahi aye sunewalon – Mehndi/Ravi/Lata Mangeshkar/S.H. Bihari

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  12. I don’t know how I missed this post. I surely didn’t get the notification on my blog.
    What an excellent theme.
    Incidentally I just finished working on a similar kind of theme. Though not exactly the same, it would sound similar. But of course, none of the songs would overlap.
    I’ll publish it next month.

    Can’t think of a song to add to the post presently.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Madhu,
    It is a nice sub-category of mujra singing. Our society has had conflicted view about tawaifs. One extreme was, they were filth of the society, they had to be banished to the outskirts of the city, out of sight. There was also a liberal view to reform and rehabilitate them. The other end was that they were repositories of our dance, music and culture. Classical literature called them गणिका or नगरवधू . During Zamindari era they were considered as Finishing Schools for young aristocrats to learn some ‘tehzeeb’. It is well-known that many tawaifs earned fame as great singers of classical/light classical music, and well-known musicians went to them to learn music. They were looked upon with respect in music conferences. Whether they also indulged in selling pleasure was immaterial.

    Some had one lover patron, some of whom were ready to marry them or ready to acknowledge their relationship without matrimony. It was difficult for Bollywood to capture all the nuances. One simplified trope was the dancer was a prostitute; sitting singer was virtuous. The virtuous one used to pine in sadness for the hero who baulked at accepting her openly.

    This song breaks the stereotype. Chandramukhi has given up everything, but when a completely alcoholic Devdas lands up at her place, she dances perplexed how to bring him to senses.

    Dr Soma Ghosh of Banaras gharana has started a campaign to revive mujra style of singing. She appears on the stage in gaudy dress, make up and bedecked with heavy jewellery. It is a pleasure to watch her perform and sing ‘Hamari atariya pe aa ja re sanwariya’.

    Western countries were much less conflicted. Amsterdam has mainstreamed them. Lonely Planed recommends the Red Light Area as a must see place for tourists. It is a common sight to see families with grown up daughters strolling down the street.

    New York Times Square post-depression was a seedy area with live shows, XXX video/films, bars with bouncers and muggers. It was scary to enter that area. The City didn’t have to remove them. Economic boom led to renovation of Broadway District; Theatres and Opera Houses started opening, the City encouraged high-end hotels, skyscrapers, offices of big corporates. The filth has disappeared and the Square sees millions of visitors year round.

    Sex workers are there everywhere; in many prominent cities there is open soliciting on sidewalks.

    AK

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for that very detailed and interesting comment, AK. To add to that: the courtesans were also important conduits for secret messages and as hubs of conspiracy during the uprising of 1857. A lot of the plotting to overthrow the British happened as clandestine meetings in their kothas.

      Also, an aside: the famous Begum Samru was originally a dancing girl, who was noticed by the adventurer Walter Reinhardt, who bought her (and perhaps married her? Not sure about the legalities of the relationship…). Begum Samru would go on to become a very important figure in Delhi’s politics and society.

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