The Chimera of Old Hindi Songs

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to our local club for an evening of old Hindi songs. It was a one-man show, the singer belting out old medleys and ghazals and also managing the keyboard and arrangements. People had a really good time as happens in all such programs that transport them to an era when they were kids or young adults and bring to mind a bygone, perhaps simpler era, the sepia tinge blurring most nasty memories, while bringing into soft focus the good ones that lead to a general feeling of warmth and at times, goose pimples.

What an era that was! Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Mohd Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh and to a lesser extent Talat Mehmood, Manna Dey and Hemant Kumar! Thirty years of Hindi film music dominated by five-eight singers. Matched by an equally small number of amazingly talented composers and lyricists, who too you can count on the fingers of your hands.

They gave us many phenomenal songs. But it is also a fact that we didn’t have much of a choice. The songs we remember, the songs that make us feel comfortable and nice, are the best among the ones created.

I have a hard time convincing people that while there is no question of the vast treasure of terrific music we have from the past, the vibrancy, the variety and the complexity (and simplicity) of today’s music is better. Because of the increasing choice of composers, lyricists and singers and the ability to find the correct voice for the right song, we have equally or perhaps even better songs than in the past…songs that a generation from now, we will be (at least I will be) happy to listen to during live performances.

Just take the last couple of years and the sheer variety. “Raabta” in all its versions from Agent Vinod. Or Kailash Kher’s unplugged version of “Tu Jaane Na” from “Ajab Prem Ki…”. Or “Khuda Jaane” by KK and Shilpa Rao or “Nadaan Parindey” by Mohit Chauhan, or Shalmali Kholgade belting out “Pareshaan” from “Ishaqzaade” or Deane Sequeira helping Mohit Chauhan with “Bezubaan” from “ABCD”…and the list goes on.

I asked around. Anand Desai, an extremely knowledgeable music aficionado gave me some explanations…and we both agreed that while the music of the past was simpler and more “real” than today’s computer generated and engineered sounds, if the same variety and choice that we now have, had existed in the past, the music would likely have been much much richer. In those “dark ages”, there was little innovation, limited variety and a virtual lid on new talent. Preeti Sagar sang one great song…imagine how many more terrific numbers she could have sung, if she had just been given the chance.

There is a limit to the number of great songs and compositions an individual or group can create in one’s lifetime. Some lyricists and composers have just one great song in them, some ten, some 100. But there is a finite number. And the larger the base to choose from, the better has to be the quality!

Another friend Ramnath believes that a lot of this change is due to one person…A R Rahman and his experimentation with “uncut” voices that finally ended the monopoly of the few. In the end though, I believe that the quality of music in this decade is better than any other similar decade in the past 120 years, our golden, mellow memories not withstanding.

And, we have the next few decades to find out!

15 Comments

  • jamna varadhachary wrote:

    Yes while we had only a handful due to “monopoly”.
    I will be killed, but an iconic singer needs to stop singing as her voice simply screeches in the upper registers. But it is a case of emperor’s new clothes.
    It now wide open and many good singers.Good for every one. But I still like old songs, because I am old as well.

  • You may be right but I am so fond and devotee of old songs that I have never tried to listen to any of the new songs referred by you. Now I feel I should listen to new songs referred by you.

  • Suchitra wrote:

    I agree that AR is largely responsible.Also,Gulshan kumar in a cruder way made other singers sings the socalled cover versions.Then we have more no of movies so more no of songs so we can have variety.and tho i love old songs,i dnt like to listen to old singers to sing for young actors/actresses.the young voices are welcome ,rather suit the young faces.

  • udayan.g.govkar wrote:

    After reading this article,i wish to share with you dear readers, that i have found Pandoras Box in the form You tube hindi movie songs.I grew up listening to the songs from my neighbours radio,& those golden songs of the bygone era i could source with a click,when my techie friend showed me.I was looking for the song Fir aane lage hai yaad muze pyar kaAllam,sung by Rafi saab music composed by Iqbal Querishi,& I visisted this uptenth time.Thanx Bhavin

  • Hindi playback singing had its golden period upto the mid 80s. nowadays playback singing has almost died as a profession. You can hardly recognise the singers from their voices Mohit chauhan, KK, Shaan are good but many are pathetic. The melody is gone

  • I feel one shouldn’t compare eras. Today’s is technology-enhanced, so even mediocre voices can be made good. The 50’s and 60’s relied on woodwinds and manual dexterity, leaving no room for error.
    I give precedence to song writers,lyricists and composers over singers. Barring a few exceptions, most of compositions of just a decade ago are forgettable and that memory lapse continues…

  • Old songs are priceless. Today’s music is also good…but something is missing. I am of a generation when Rafi, Asha and Kishore were past their prime and still given a choice I will love to hear their songs over and over again. Can’t say the same for today’s songs.

  • V.Subramanian wrote:

    The comparison is odious, much like the one between The great Don Bradman and Sachin.
    The circumstances were completely different. Sound with furious speed cannot pass off for “vibrancy”.Melody and melancholy are conspicuously absent in the present day Ramtamaazz.Can we relax with a cup of tea or a single malt. as the case might be,listening to “Fevicol” or Fire Brigade
    mangwade songs? What about the individual artistic brilliance? lyrical wordplay?
    I do agree with many others that A.R. Rehaman starting with his score of “Roja” is an exception.It is impossible for “Club Singer” or even a motely group to sing “live” some of these present day numbers. You need a dozen background players on instruments and key boards and half a dozen singers especially for the “chorus” part present in almost all songs. This is not reason enough to label the current crop of songs as “Complex”. The complexity of classical pieces in the songs of Golden era cannot be ignored.The conclusion,even for an individual opinion, about the quality of music can at the best be described as “Hasty” considering tha fact that most of the numbers belted out in 90’s and early 2000’s have already been forgotton. Music in the current decade has become fast and furious.Punjabi has replaced Urdu. “Item Numbers” have replaced “Caberet songs”.In song picturisation, the valleys of Kashmir, Banks of Beas in Manali and the slopes of Munnar, have been replaced by Streets of London and Newyork. Classical Gazals, quawallis, Mujra and Folk forms have vanished with the Piano. While one welcomes the new changes,subjective judgements, could at best serve the purpose of triggering a debate.To characterise the “Golden era” as Dark age and Chimera seems a brazen attempt to display a discering musical mind with an urge to be differnt, while risking the chances of being dubbed as “profoundly ignorant” in music.

  • While the new songs may be good, what is the shelf life in the minds of the listener? I relish the Kishore Kumar songs, Pancham compositions far more than the present ones though I admit that I keep abreast with the newer ones through radio. Still nothing to beat the Pancham+KK combination.

  • There was a monopoly probably in the singing department but the music composers like SD and RDBurman are irreplacable.No composer today can create that magic.Apart from AR Rehman,Ram Sampath has shown a lot of promise with music of TALAASH.It has that classical haunting melody which is rare in today’s music composition.

  • Rohit Gosalia wrote:

    While playing Antakshari – even generations born in 1980s 1990s or some from 2000s – will recall Kishore / Asha /Rafi songs easily – which shows Melodies are ageless. Present scene – how so ever popular will not come on one’s tip of the tongue naturally. Broadly we can say those were melodious days – present is more of technical era – who knows future could be something we are even unable to imagine!!

  • Jayesh desai wrote:

    The comparison is good for kicking up debate,but each has its own place and its own admirer. This much has to be said about old songs-the range and depth of emotions and words we find in old songs are incomparable. The myriad situation that they cover, the lyrics, the melody was unbelievable. My 18 months old granddaughter listens to Khoya khoya chand khula aasman since she was 8 month old,( she also listens go go govinda)!But where old songs score is in they are hummable, most can sing it. I had a long stay in hospital and i survived largely by singing this songs (the trick was taught by another patient). Often it was cathartic to vent out frustration or for hopes( woh subah kabhi to aayegi). Since then I consider old hindi film music as most underappreciated. I think very few newer hindi songs can do that. There are very good songs this days too ( burfi, rockstar to name few)but considering the number of film released their numbers are too small. And as has been pointed out above many can not be sung, even with karaoke.

  • Old songs are not only good and have great shelf life, they also share life’s philosophy in most subtle ways- in meaningful words. Interestingly, in family Antakshari, younger generations after few new songs will also go back to -Ramaiyaa vasta vayya and Damdam digadiga etc.

  • well said dude ! impresssed

  • […] come on! We need to get away from this time warp, the chimera of old Hindi songs that has so many of us touch­ing 50 so trapped that we are unable to appre­ci­ate the amaz­ing […]

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