Instruments, Instrumentalists, Introductions and Interludes – Part 1 : Instruments

The other day I was watching a YouTube video of a performance of some old Hindi film songs by a couple of up and coming singers (youngsters who had done well on Indian Idol, I assume). They sang well, hit all the right notes, and the accompanying music also sounded okay, but I felt something was missing. Later, when the camera panned across the stage or studio, I noticed that there were just two accompanying musicians – one on a Keyboard Synthesizer and the other on an Electronic Drum pad.

Just two musicians and their computerized gadgets replacing a whole orchestra!  To my ears it somehow lacked the raw, full and rich sounds of an accompanying 30+ piece orchestra that would have been the norm in the years past. My understanding is that these days most studio recordings of Hindi film songs use synthesizers for accompaniment, instead of real instruments and live musicians.  I may be biased, but I feel that the synthesized sound lacks the warmth and soul of the music created a by an orchestra playing real instruments.      

In the early years of Hindi film music, the voice dominated the song. There were a few accompanying instruments – perhaps harmonium, tabla, flute and violin, but they played along with the voice, with the tabla or dhol providing the rhythm and the other instruments following the singers lead note for note. If you listen to recordings from the 1930’s, you will hear the majestic voices of K L Saigal,  K C Dey or Pankaj Mullick singing with minimal accompaniment and very little in terms of instrumental introductions or interludes.

Towards the end of the 1930’s and through the 1940’s , the structure of the Hindi Film song became more defined, with a beginning instrumental introduction leading up to the vocals and simple interludes between the stanzas. In the 1930’s pioneering music composers like R C Boral, Pankaj Mullick, and Timir Baran started introducing more elaborate orchestrations in their songs and also employed different instruments based on the needs of the song.  But since most of the songs of those times were based on Indian classical or folk music idioms, the instruments were also mostly “Indian”.

In the category of Indian instruments, I would place the harmonium, sitar, sarod, tabla, mridangam, ghatam, pakhwaj, dholak, daf, shehnai, sarangi, santoor, bulbul tarang (or the Indian banjo), flute, mandolin and the violin.  I know the last two – mandolin and violin are not strictly Indian, but they had been adopted and Indianised for over a century and used as accompaniments in classical and folk music.

In the 1940’s, a newer breed of composers emerged, who started incorporating western musical idioms and instruments into their orchestration of Hindi Film songs.  Leading the charge here were Anil Biswas, Khemchand Prakash, Naushad and C Ramachandra,  who introduced elaborate orchestrations which included many Indian and western instruments. The genius of these composers was the manner in which they seamlessly melded the Indian and western sounds and instruments to create a composite film music sound that has been a staple ever since.  The voice and the instruments (Indian and western) became equal partners in the song. 

The “western” instruments that became part of the Hindi Film songs over the decades have been the piano, organ, accordion, guitar, cello, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, clarinet, oboe, recorder, clarinet, vibraphone, the drum set and different kinds of drums, including the bongo, conga, tumba and tympani. Bagpipes were used in few instances (in the film Sangam), but did not become an integral part of Hindi Film music, as was the aboriginal Didgeridoo, which was used by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in Dil Chahta Hai.

The non-acoustic instruments such as the electric guitar and the electronic organ were also adopted and popularized by Shankar-Jaikishan and R D Burman.  One of the earliest electronic instruments to be used and popularized (as early as the 1950’s) in Hindi films was the clavioline – Kalyanji (of the Kalyanji-Anandji duo) coaxed and extracted the sound of the snake charmer’s “been” from that instrument for the movie Nagin.

After the pioneering work of the early composers in creating the Hindi film sound, their successors in the golden era of the 1950’s and 1960’s – Naushad, C Ramachandra, S D Burman,  Shankar-Jaikishan, O P Nayyar, Salil Choudhury, Madan Mohan, Roshan and others added new dimensions to the background music score as well as the songs by using the instruments individually or in combination to create an atmosphere or a mood for a scene or a song. 

Take the dramatic piano introduction to create the tension in “Dost Dost Na Raha”, the lightness of step and heart conveyed by the sitar in the introduction of “Phaili Hui Hain Sapnon Ki Bahen”, the plaintive tones of the Sarangi that projects a heavy heart in “Poocho Na Kaise maine Rain Bitaayee”,  the confident and carefree notes of the guitar to start “Pukarta Chal Hun Main” – these are just a few examples of the manner in which the instruments complement and enhance the words and the voice to convey the mood.  Even in terms of background score, a few bars on the santoor goes with the image of a daybreak, the slow notes on the sarangi and violin tend to signify emotional upheaval, and the fast paced strumming of a sitar signifies new bloom or love. 

We can see that our composers have been creative and open-minded and have been able to adopt and adapt Indian and western instruments and sounds to create melodious music and timeless songs.  They have displayed originality, inspiration and imagination in orchestration to convey the entire range of moods and emotions required for a song or situation, leaving us a rich and unique legacy.

In the next blog in this series, I will talk about the musicians in the orchestra, the unsung heroes who played us those wonderful melodies on their instruments, but were never credited in the albums.

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