SoY heralds 2014 as the Year of Anil Biswas with guest article by Shikha Biswas Vohra
(Anil Biswas is described as the ‘Bhishm Pitamah’ of Hindi film music, though he used to describe RC Boral as the Father, and himself, somewhat jocularly, as the Uncle (Chacha) of film music. Yet, did he get his due, and does the country remember his legacy adequately? In one of the most hyped programmes on our cinema’s centenary last year, ‘Bollywood@100’, presented by Karan Johar on the venerable History channel, in the episode on the best music directors, Anil Biswas’s name was missing in the list of about two dozen composers! This was blasphemy, and I decided that I would recompense for it adequately on Songs of Yore in his Centenary Year, 2014 (b. 7 July 1914, d. 31 May 2003). Fortuitously, around that time Mrs Shikha Biswas Vohra came across SoY for the first time, and posted a very generous comment on one of my articles. I was familiar with her name having seen her in a TV programme. She very kindly agreed to write the Inaugural Article in the series – we cannot have a better placed person than his daughter, who has seen him as father, as a maestro, and has also seen the industry as an insider, to do the honour. I am delighted to wish the readers a Very Happy Centenary Year of Anil Biswas with this lyrical tribute by Shikhaji to the great man. – AK)
ANIL BISWAS….The Maestro
Many years ago, when Indian cinema was in a nascent stage, there came into its stream a clutch of fine dedicated men. They came to shape its history and define its metaphors. These men were dreamers and seekers, who had run the gamut of struggle, the looking at hunger in the face, the sleeping on pavements. They sought to contribute their knowledge and skills to shape this new exciting medium to an established art form. Each contributed a style distinctive and individualistic. They gave freely of their time, inspiration and talent without expectation of rewards and returns. They worked with honesty, principles and earnestness, a reflection of their time.
There were directors and actors, songwriters and composers; musical geniuses who were either meticulously trained or divinely inspired. They gave to their work a sincerity that would be universal and that would survive the test of time. They dedicated to us timeless tunes that provide almost a spiritual pleasure even half a century later.
One of them was a young lad in his early twenties. His name was Anil Krishna Biswas. He came a far distance; all the way from a hamlet in Barisal in erstwhile East Bengal, treading the path of his fate through Calcutta and finally reaching his destination at Bombay. He was one of the dreamers and seekers; those destined to be part of a pioneering group that would shape an exciting new medium and leave the entertaining legacy of Indian cinema for future generations. He had undergone the conventional struggle, the sleeping on pavements and post office verandahs, and experienced a period of building himself stronger doing menial jobs, the odd singing at gatherings, even washing dishes at a tea-shop. His self-respect was too strong to accept handouts just because the goddess Saraswati had blessed him with a powerful voice. Perhaps the influence of his mother had something to do with it. Besides teaching him the facets of music, she had infused in him an admirable strength of character and principle. He was ever true to that tuition.
In 1935, just a few months after reaching the city, Anil Biswas signed his first independent film-DHARAM KI DEVI.
Mythologicals at that time were what sent the cash registers ringing, being a common denominator for all moviegoers. In fact the first song which won him recognition was a bhajan Tere poojan ko bhagwan, bana man mandir aalishan.
Tere poojan ko bhagwan, bana man mandir aalishan by Ratan Devi from Bharat Ki Beti (1935)
From Calcutta he had brought along a clutch of Anglo-Indian musicians well-versed in Western instruments. Anil Biswas re-styled the system of operatic music with harmonium-tabla then prevalent, and introduced an entire orchestra of 12 pieces never before used in Indian Films. By doing this, he constructed the framework of the popular Hindi film song as we know it today.
On the sets of National Studios’ MANMOHAN where he met his wife, the lissome beauty Ashalata, he also encountered the stocky Mehboob Khan. Together they began to write part of the glorious history of nascent Indian cinema. There were landmark movies like Roti, Watan, Jagirdar, Aurat, in which Anil Biswas self-sung Kaahe karta der baraati, picturised on himself, became a hit. But what was more successful was the deep friendship between the two talented stalwarts. It was in Roti that Anilda introduced Akhtaribai Faizabadi, known later in her concert avatar as Begum Akhtar. He is known to have actually visited kothas in search of the deep, resonant voices which were in vogue at that time.
Kahe karta der baraati by Anil Biswas from Aurat (1940), lyrics Dr Safdar ‘Aah’
Rahne laga hai dil mein andhera tere bagair by Akhtari Bai (Begum Akhtar) from Roti (1942), lyrics Bahzad Lakhanvi
Wo hans rahe hai aah kiye ja raha hun main by Akhtari Bai from Roti, lyrics Arzoo Lakhanvi
In 1942, he signed the prestigious contract with Bombay Talkies, for whose film BASANT, he had composed the very popular Tumko mubarak ho oonche mahal ye, humko hai pyaari hamari galiyan, but the credits went to his brother-in-law Pannalal Ghosh, because of his contractual obligations with National Studios. Perhaps at the acme of his popularity is the film KISMET, all of whose songs became a national rage, especially the inspirational Door hato ai duniyawalon, and the lullaby Dheere dheere aa re. The film ran in one theatre alone for more than three years, a record beaten only thirty years later by Sholay.
Tumko mubarak ho oonche mahal ye humko hai pyari hamari galiyan by Parul Ghosh from Basant (1942), lyrics PL Santoshi
Door hato ae duniewalo Hindustan hamara hai by Amirbai Karnataki from Kismat (1943), lyrics Pradeep
Dheere dheere aa re badal by Amirbai Karnataki (solo)/ Ashok Kumar and Amirbai Karnataki (duet) from Kismat
Anilda then took another initiative. In the reign of the studio mughals, in the days of salaried artists, he was the first to go freelance.
There were more landmarks yet to come. In 1945, Mukesh’s rendering of Dil jalta hai to jalne de exemplified the pathos of all dejected lovers, associating the singer with tragedy. Only a composer like Anilda could give him such a song to bring out his best. Followed the introduction of Talat Mehmood in 1950, the ghost voice of Dilip Kumar in AARZOO, and after Ai dil mujhe aisi jagah le chal jahan koi na ho, every music director wanted Talat to sing for him and every hero wanted the echo of Talat’s velvet tones. Talat owes his identity to Anilda, who persuaded him to retain his immaculate tremolo where other composers discouraged it. Till today, his tremolo remains inimitable whereas other singers have bred a hundred clones. Along with the early maestros Sajjad Hussain and Ghulam Haider, Anilda had no mean influence in shaping the career of Lata Mangeshkar, whom he taught the technique of microphone singing, voice modulation and breathing techniques. In the 50s, when those maestros had left for Pakistan, he gave Lata those unforgettable numbers in Aaram, Doraha, Anokha Pyaar, Aarzoo and Tarana.
Dil jalta hai to jalne de by Mukesh from Pahli Nazar (1945), lyrics Dr Safdar ‘Aah’
Ai dil mujhe aisi jagah le chal jahan koi na ho by Talat Mahmood from Arzoo (1950), lyrics Majrooh Sultanpuri
Ek dil ka lagana baki tha by Lata Mangeshkar from Anokha Pyar (1948), lyrics Zia Sarhadi
With all these achievements to his credit, it is ironic that Anil Biswas is today mostly remembered for Hum honge kaamyaab ek din, a song he never even composed. Not many people know that he composed the first ‘waltz’ in Hindi cinema in the film ALIBABA, made the first patriotic song and Raagmala, had the first song with a whistle or conversation, experimented with chorus, harmony and counter-melody or introduced singers like Zohrabai Ambalewali and Sudha Malhotra. But the few who understand music consider him to be the ultimate composer, in that not a single note of his compositions can be changed for improvement. Legendary composers like Naushad, Roshan, C.Ramchandra and O.P.Nayyar regard him as a ‘guru, the ‘Bhisham Pitamah’ of Indian film music. Whatever they did, whether it was folk, classical, western or lyrical, Anil Biswas had done before them. Shades of him can be noticed in the work of most composers who came immediately afterwards. Even young singer of today aver that you cannot call yourself a singer till you have mastered Anil Biswas.
Hum aur tum aur ye khushi by Surendra and Waheedan from Alibaba (1940), lyrics Dr ‘Aah’ Sitapuri
But the little big man never boasted of his achievements. This dynamic package of talent professed that he did nothing great, ‘just his job.’ He was never recognized for his achievements by any award. Leave alone the Dadasaheb Phalke, which he well deserved, he was never even awarded a humble Padma Shri that men of lesser musical merit than him have claimed. Perhaps this was because of his quintessential humility. He never sought self-publicity and always maintained a low profile. He died quietly, and unsung, having lived simply on ‘the love of people.’
So though he turned his back on an industry where some hero began to dictate to him how he should compose, an industry which never forgave him for spurning it and so banished him into oblivion, though he echoed his own song Ai dil mujhe aisi jagah le chal jehan koi na ho, the next line mera nishan koi na ho will not be applicable to him. For true music lovers who understand his worth will never forget him. Even today all over the world there are people who hold his compositions close to their heart, who recognize the simplicity and the meticulousness that can be glimpsed in his soulful compositions. Just surf the Net and you will know.
ANIL BISWAS….My Father
When I think of my father, it is always with the sweet lyrics of childhood. The past mingles into the present, as memories deposit themselves on the shores of time like seashells.
The house we live in is a spacious mansion in the prestigious Hindu Colony. A wide balcony holds it in an embrace, and this becomes the common space for all of us to hang out in and play our childhood games. Baba, mostly working at home, makes time to play with us and this is also where he gives us the Sunday vigorous anointing of mustard oil. For Baba has carried with him all intrinsic smells of his own childhood in faraway Barisal, and there is a peculiar ethnic aroma around him that is pre-eminently Bengali. It is an aroma I smell even at the entrance of my uncle Sunil’s house.
In spite of being in a glamour profession, his favourite dress remains the lungi and vest. This dress is also comfortable for cooking, Baba’s other passion besides music, food, and what the Bengalis call adda-baazi, and the mounds of his shoulders ripple as he stirs a pumpkin and prawn delicacy on the stove. Generally I sit on the kitchen floor with him, making with a toy rolling pin miniscule rotis he makes it a point to eat daily even if he has come home late after a party.
My earliest memory of my father is sitting in his lap whilst rehearsing Talat Chacha. Trapped within the cage of his solid arms (Baba used to indulge in pahelwan-baazi, with his brother-in-law, Pannalal Ghosh), I screw up my eyes with restlessness. But in the air is a placid feeling of tranquility that even a child can feel. Perhaps it is because of the harmony that exists between composer and singer; a tacit, blissful love. Baba is just Baba, a father who does not reprimand me for scribbling with chalk on the front of his cupboard door, and I am not aware that I am participating in a moment of history. In fact, we children innocently refer to his rehearsal room as “The Golden Room” because of its yellow curtains. I think now, that indeed from that golden room came forth golden melodies, timeless and wondrous.
When we espy the pair of Kolhapuri chappals in the entrance lobby, we know that Lata-tai is here. She will spend the day practicing songs that he has taught her, whilst he cooks fish for her and she will press his legs in guru-seva in the afternoon. In return for his tuition, Lata has refused to accept money for the songs she has sung in LAADLI, and Mother has recompensed her with a pair of diamond solitaires. Perhaps this has sparked off her romance with the stone.
The first time I realize my father is a ‘somebody’ is when the family goes to Broadway Cinema to see the film RAAHI. When I see his name on a hoarding I jump in delightful surprise and have to be shushed by my elder brother Pradeep, because people stop and stare at us. From that day onwards there is always a special aura around his figure.
Baba is not a dictatorial father. His authority is intensely between the lines, and does not erupt in passionate outbursts or righteous remonstrance. He has always emphasized that ‘you cannot teach your children anything; you can only set them a good example.’ His will has never been imposed on the children; we have the freedom of our own options. But he is very family-minded. The love that all three senior Biswas siblings share, including the great singer Parul Ghosh, is private and subtle, not given to unnecessary demonstration.
Baba loves parties and having people around him all the time. He is always roaming around in his brand new Desoto with his friend Mehboob Khan, discovering uncharted places to eat. He told me once that at a celebratory party he had on his return from the States as part of the film delegation, he had had the guests wash their hands in champagne. There is a spirited effervescence in him as he dances the rhumba, a verve to enjoy life to the full, to savour every moment and not waste it. He teaches us cute English songs. Musically, with many successes and the discovery of bright new talent, he is on a creative high.
Sadly, Baba leaves home in 1954. Though he moves into a chik-covered cottage in Juhu away from the Hindu Colony house, the bond between the father and the children remains. Each Sunday we are despatched duly to Juhu to spend the day, when father and the children splash in the waves tirelessly at the beach, and come home to a gentle chiding for muddying the patio. These are the times we thoroughly enjoy.
The harmonium no longer resounds in the twilight, with us kids hanging like bats on the doors, watching through the hinges and listening to the mellifluous tones of his voice fall around the room in a shower. Now a closeness grows with his friends Roshan and Prem Dhawan and together they form one harmonious trio that shares music and talk and meets practically everyday.
What we look forward to most is the annual celebration of Saraswati Pooja that the music fraternity of the industry performs like a ritual at his place. It is not uncommon to see Geeta Dutt grind sandal paste and Sudha Malhotra cut fruit for the prasad, for the industry is like one big family. Manna Dey teaches us kids naughty songs in English! At this function Mannada always sings Naach re mayura which, as I recall, is his first private song for Aakashwani. This function also includes chorus singers and musicians alike; Sapan, Jagmohan, Manohari-da, Rajendra and Neena Mehta. I have seen Baba give as much respect to the lowest-rung musician as to his lead singer, which is why they accept his anger without protest. For though Baba is patient, he is also a perfectionist, and does not mind persevering till he gets the right note. On more than one occasion, he has completely scrapped recordings and re-recorded songs because the end-result was not according to his expectation. He approaches his compositions not only with creativity, but also with intelligence. Considering the situation and time, he will choose the appropriate raag, or a melange of them as in Intezaar aur abhi. Then he will weigh the metre of the verse, affix the suitable rhythm, and make full use of the lyrics by phonetic emphasis. I have hardly seen this characteristic in any other composer, enhancing the meaning of the word by musical notation. In later days he teaches me the importance of musical punctuation, whereby pausing at a wrong place can change the meaning of the lyric completely.
Baba’s vocabulary and writing abilities are admirable. He sets about improving my language by playing Scrabble, and indulging in word-games that are fascinating
Time moves on. I marry and go away, far from his territory into a space as different from the film industry as one can imagine. He moves on too, away from the film industry as well, away from the realm where he has reigned for many years as a luminary. He enters a world as different, a world of political arenas and high society where many game are played. But though he flows in their stream, it is always on the banks.
The years of separation whirl by.
When our worlds become one again, I am shocked to find him seasoned with age, fragile with disillusion and quietude. He says he is like ‘a poor man’s flickering lamp in a storm’. I understand why they say child is father of the man, because though he has always called me Ma, I now start calling him ‘my bacchha’. Especially when he weeps, child-like, at a Sai bhajan on the Aastha channel. His belief in Sai Baba has never wavered despite the vicissitudes of life. We plan a grand retrospective of his songs for 7th July, when he will step into his milestone 90th year. He recollects long-forgotten songs and sings Allah bhi hai mallah bhi hai with indescribable sweetness. Even now his eyes sparkle when he sings a snatch of the song. I tell him that there are thousands of mentions of him on the Internet, and he is surprised that people still remember him, because, he says, he has done nothing great, just his job. This is his quintessential humility that never makes him speak of his compositions as super-hits. The perfume of his essence will always bloom in his soulful compositions that half a century later continue to fill our senses with so much beauty.
Baba, you have taught me so much without rhetoric and didacticism. The only lectures I got were on Rabindranath Tagore and the values of life. You have taught me honesty and realism, to look at life without pretence and to accept the ebbs and tides, to move on without looking back with regret. The same way that you moved on when trends changed in the industry from the pure and the principled and some paanwallah distributor or some hero with a puff dictated to you how you should do your job. You turned your back upon the world that did not appreciate you and went on to more meaningful things and made me aware of the pointlessness of looking back at footprints on the sand.
After promising me on the 29th that we would meet on 31st May (2003) and record traditional folk songs from Barisal that you wished to pass on to people, you turned on your side and went into eternal sleep. Just like that.
Rooth ke tum jo chal diye, ab main dua ko kya karun
Jisne hamen juda kiya, aise khuda ko kya karoon.