Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Word power missing from today's songs

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 22, 2012)


Lata Mangeshkar (does she need an introduction?) reportedly remarked recently that contemporary music was no music at all. This is not the first time that the legendary singer has slammed the abysmal levels that music in Hindi films has plunged to. Nobody in the film industry has the stature to challenge her statement. Even if some people summon the courage to do so, they would be on a weak ground. Because, the quality of Hindi film songs has indeed gone down over the years. There is no point in trying to refute that by citing the instance of a few good songs here and there, because these songs are mere exceptions. We live in an era of Bhaag DK Bose bhaag and Sheela ki jawani and more.
What makes for a good or a great song? It’s primarily a combination of music, lyrics and voice. When the three seek to excel one another, we have a good song. And, when they submit to one another’s excellence, a great song is born. In either case, excellence is the key. We still have among us truly good singers like Sonu Nigam, Shaan, Alka Yagnik, Richa Sharma and Sunidhi Chauhan. It would be unfair to compare them to all-time greats like Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, who have become benchmarks and will forever remain unassailable. All the same, these new singers are at least not a blot on the proud legacy that they have inherited. The problem is with the other two elements: Music composition and lyrics.
By and large, both have abandoned the pursuit of quality and are content with creating work which is not just forgettable but also aesthetically offensive. The appetite for excellence that the music and the lyrics of the fifties and the sixties — and to some extent even the seventies — demonstrated has been replaced by a self-consuming desire among today’s song writers and music composers to explore the crassest levels. No purpose will be served in mentioning the names of the perpetrators of what is being passed off as music, beyond giving them the attention that they ill deserve.
Between the lyricist and the music composer, the writer holds the key to a good song. If a song has good music but weak lyrics, it will shine like a meteor and fade away quickly enough. On the contrary, if the music is average but the lyrics of a song are of high quality, that song still has a future. In fact, we have had songs where the orchestration was muted or deliberately underplayed to give full play to the lyrics, and these songs went on to become all-time greats. A good instance is lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri’s song, Tumse kahoon ek baat paron se halki halki from the film Dastak. Another example is the song written by noted poet Kaifi Azmi, Main yeh soch kar uske dar se utha tha from the film, Haqeeqat.
The three decades of the 50s, 60s and the 70s produced arguably the best songs that Indian films have had to date. Those were the years of giant poets and lyricists like Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nissar Akhtar, Shailendra, Rajinder Krishan, Hasrat Jaipuri, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Neeraj and Shakeel Badayuni. Try counting the number of quality lyricists of today and you will run out of them after the mention of Gulzar and Javed Akhtar. There is simply no one. And remember, neither Gulzar nor Javed Akhtar belongs to today’s generation.
Far from being poets, today’s song writers are not even true lyricists. They have such a pathetic repertoire of words that they are simply unable to express effectively what they wish to through their songs. But it’s not just the very limited vocabulary which is a problem. It’s the lyricists’ apparent insincerity in and shallowness of expression that has prevented them from writing meaningful songs. There was a time when every word in the song mattered and was carefully crafted by the song writer. However, lyrics in contemporary songs have become mere fillers, because their writers are feather-weights.
When Majrooh wrote, Hum hain matay-e-koocha-o-bazaar ki tarha, uthti hai har nigah khariddar ki tarha for Dastak, there was much consternation that the song would sink because nobody would understand the lyrics! But Majrooh stood his ground, and for all its lyrical complexity the song has gone down as a classic. Besides, it became a rage among listeners who excitedly worked to decipher the meaning.
A similar domination of the poet-lyricist is evident in Ye mahlon, ye takhton, ye tazon ki duniya/ ye insaan ke dushman samajon ki duniya/ yeh daulat ke bhuke rawazon ki duniya/ ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai from Pysasa. Many film aficionados believe this to be the best song written by Sahir Ludhianvi. Whatever the opinion may be, it remains a fact that only a genius could have penned those words. To expect something even distantly similar from the current generation of lyricists is to grossly overestimate the calibre of our so-called song writers.
But songs do not have to be always as obviously profound to be good or even great. Shailendra had mastered the art of blending poetry with lyrics so deftly that his profundity almost went unnoticed. For example, what compels the listener into complete submission when he hears Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar/ chithiya ho to har koi baanche, bhaag na baanche koi/ karamwa bairi ho gaye hamaar, is the simplicity of the words. Yet these words are also deeply philosophical. And, as philosophical yet simple is another song of the lyricist, Sab kuch seekha hamne, na seekhi hoshiyari/ sach hai duniyawalon ke hum hain anari.
A similarly nuanced play of words is seen in lyricist Rajinder Krishan’s song, Aaj socha to aansoo bhar aaye/ muddate ho gayeen muskurayee from the film, Hanste Zakhm or Sahir’s Main pal do pal kar shayir hoon, pal do pal meri kahani hain/ pal do pal meri hasti hai, pal do pal meri jawaani hai from the film, Kabhi Kabhi.
Lyricists of today, who believe they are churning out ‘intense and romantic’ numbers in keeping with modern trends, must look to the works of Shakeel Badayuni — in fact they need not far beyond his just one film — Mughal-e-Azam — to learn what ‘intense and romantic’ poetry means.
Like in the case of Shailendra, simplicity of expression combined with the depth of understanding has become the hallmark of Gulzar, who is among the greatest living lyricists — many would say he is the greatest. He first broke fresh ground with his song from Bimal Roy’s 1963 film Bandini, when he wrote, Mera gora ang lai le/ mohe shaam rang dai de/ chhup jaaongi raat hi main/ mohe pi ka sang dai de. He must have been in his mid-twenties then. Gulzar continues to straddle the film world to this day, and his lyrics have evolved magnificently over the decades, becoming even more meaningful and deep.
The success of his song, Dil to bachcha hai ji/ thoda kachcha hai ji, from Ishqiya, released recently, demonstrates that good songs can be written and appreciated and accepted by the audience in modern times too. Those writers who justify their mediocre and worse work on the claim that the audiences ‘like’ shallow stuff are merely seeking to justify their incompetence. As the 80s set in and Hindi film lovers began to be tormented by insane lyrics and mindless music compositions, the development was justified with the same argument that the audiences wanted something ‘new’. Perhaps so, but the listeners had definitely not asked for nonsense. Had they been happy with what Bollywood was dishing out, ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh would not have rose to prominence during that very decade with his largely non-film ghazal albums.
If song writers cannot deliver quality, they have themselves to blame for it. They must stop pointing fingers at the listeners, whom they torture.

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