It all begins with our recent exposure to the stirring musical ambience revived by Chaitanya Tamhane’s THE DISCIPLE. It is a cinematic work that has percolated to the cultural consciousness in its painstaking examination of artistic pursuit, making that timeless issue echo throughout the world. But above narrow definitions of any given category, it has liberated viewers to capture the essence of classical Indian music canon.
For this afficianado, of all things culturally and artistically profuse, the film was a point of reference to remind viewers and readers of the treasure trove of Indian filmmaking that has dabbled with classical music and dance to exemplary degrees. However, there’s a clear pattern marking most of them. They are different from the mainstream, often relegated to being arthouse classics or left-field works boasting of commercially successful performers. It is a welcome parallel to the state of classical arts in general; it is hence not just a case of making the issue one of selective taste or classes alone.
Fact remains that classical music remains to be a huge part of our cultural understanding of the ancient gifts which we have miraculously preserved to this day and age. Indian cinema, a more dynamic and versatile entity than we give it credit for, has beautifully enabled that cultural revival through the decades.
Here, in the first installment of a two part essay, are some notable examples consisting of lesser known gems and some recognisable names. Remember how, during the great era of the 1990s, SHUBHA MUDGAL harnessed her classical gifts to usher in the age of fusion with eternal pop hit AB KE SAWAN or SHANKAR MAHADEVAN made his epic song BREATHLESS a showcase for years of training and an extraordinary vocal range? This essay series too mines out champions of the craft from the last three and a half decades especially. I’m lucky to say I’ve watched them all and I am richer with the experience.
We tend to overlook the fact that by being avid listeners of a DAMA DAM MAST KALANDAR or KESARIYA BALAM, we pay heed to their Sufi and Rajasthani antecedents, placing their regional roots within the collective whole. The folk element is a free-flowing stream coming down from the classical epoch and beyond. A programme like COKE STUDIO recognises that and brings it closer to current listeners.
Of course, before THE DISCIPLE, the popular Amazon Prime limited series BANDISH BANDITS (2020) brought the legacy of the Bandish form to light, designing a story of a fusion duo in terms of its lead protagonists. But it also very engagingly dealt with the guru-shishya parampara, rigours of the classical form entailing an almost mythic quest for perfection and financial instability down the ages. It was juxtaposed with waning patronage on the part of elite sections of society and the need to revivify the format of classical music for short attention spans without compromising on its unique standing in the cultural sphere. The question of choosing art over commerce and vice versa too was handled quite well.
But for me, personally, the most striking aspect of this effort was in discerning the eternal motif of sexism where Sheeba Chaddha’s character showed the pain of stifling her exemplary talents for the sake of her egotistical, legendary father-in-law’s singular reputation( Nasseeruddin Shah); her return to her spiritual sphere to train her son and reclaim her turf as a classical singer turned guru was the most interesting aspect. Also the mundane plasticity of pop music was jarringly made real against the purity of a dying but begrudgingly exigent form for the new generation. The show itself exists to mark a return to the classical mould of arts and have its presence felt in a commercially saturated ecosystem.
Or take, for example, Revathy’s character of a South Indian mother navigating cultural fissures with her daughter’s decision to marry a North Indian in 2 STATES (2014)
Her cultural attuning is captured beautifully as she’s a student of classical music herself, learning intricacies of vocals from her guru even in middle age. This was always her vocation but as a homemaker, she never chose to pursue it to the best of her capabilities. It was her choice to do so and it reflects a harsh reality of our world where so many women take their training in the classical arts for granted after marriage. Never choosing it as a career owing to its demands clashing with the surmounting pressures of domesticity. In 2 STATES, atleast she gets to use her vocal gifts by beginning with a traditional song in Tamil, her mother tongue, and then switching to popular Hindi ditties while performing publicly in years at a corporate function. This melding of the old and the new is a reflection of the times we occupy as also of the bittersweet realities of artistic inclinations and creative compromises for better visibility, elevated to an almost parodic degree by dime a dozen reality shows. So her performative milieu at the corporate function is important to note because that is the ethos ruling the way we consume culture and also in the way festivals exclusively dedicated to classical singing and dance get sponsored. Like erstwhile royalty and artistic savants of yore.
That is the juxtaposition also explored in THE DISCIPLE where Sharad, the protagonist (Aditya Modak), watches an Indian Idol like show, with all its trappings of drama and the usual gimmicks, while simultaneously striving for a higher level of art as a staunchly dedicated classical vocalist. He watches as a girl from Bengal trained in classical music is made to adapt another image altogether and takes to singing Hindi film songs that justify neither her forte nor her talents. That is the unfortunate middle path that practicing musicians have to take, straying from the ways of Hindustani traditions to survive in the big, bad world.
Since in this part I talk about modern examples where classical music is employed in modes of storytelling, it is imperative to have pioneering animation filmmaker GITANJALI RAO, the mind behind two of our era’s still unsung marvels PRINTED RAINBOW and BOMBAY ROSE.
REWA NAINON MEIN RAHE, the song from BOMBAY ROSE, beautifully captures the classical cadences of the vocals but also relays her affinity for employing that purity of emotional value springing from the past as the protagonist escapes into her world of dreams where she is a princess in an earlier epoch. The look, feel resemble that of a Mughal era painting. That same penchant for classical music formed the most intriguing part of the elderly lady’s escape to her fantasy land in PRINTED RAINBOW as she beheld a vocal recital in a royal court attended predominantly by ladies. So the zanana (feminine) here is a source of strength, beauty and sublime artistic endeavours. Classical music is the unifier in both instances even though the scope of both tales is urban, set within the metropolis of Bombay.
Mira Nair’s A SUITABLE BOY too had Tabu play a classical singer of repute in post independence Lucknow (standing for the story’s location Bhrampur) but her antecedents as a courtesan hark back to this whole genre of Awadh set tales like UMRAO JAAN( both 1981, 2006), PAKEEZAH and JAANISAAR. Most gloriously in DEVDAS(2002)
The pursuit of great poetry and its accomplishments in twin departments of singing and dancing have a tinge of society’s hypocrisies as they let these influential women hold court at every social gathering and elevate their status as paragons of etiquette; but relegate them to amoral corners of societal definition. In the case of JAANISAAR (2015), colonial decrees are shown to muddy the reputation of these artists as flesh trade workers after the 1857 revolt, a contested image as nebulous as the geishas of Japan. Song and dance, as a collective, still invites the same ironies of decadence and detachment coexisting; the classical arts hence are rendered with a resultant dose of irony manufactured by human hands. Melancholy and transcendental notions of love settle within that gambit of uncontested artistic merit, in the enlightening unifier above notions of history. Yet the form gets affixed with the enigma of the ‘tawaif’ in these instances.
Only Satyajit Ray was able to bring the regional ‘ras’/ aestheticism of Awadh in Shatranj Ke Khiladi(1977) without other social considerations other than that of refinement. This was courtesy its king Wajid Ali Shah’s patronage and above all love for Kathak, vocals and ras-leela, all classical pursuits. Amjad Khan brought him alive on screen.
In fact, a recent film like the Shabana Azmi produced MEE RAQSAM makes a positive case for the classical dance form of Bharatnatyam as being above narrow religious lines, advocating for a Muslim girl’s free choice to practice it. So classical dance is expressed as a symbol of social and artistic integrity in the face of rejection, a revolutionary act in itself in a culture where the politics of nationalism always targets art.
Elsewhere, Shabana Azmi as the ambitious wannabe singer in LOINS OF PUNJAB PRESENTS(2007) trains in classical singing in a film that melds comedy and music to great effect. This also ties with her stellar turns as singers on SAAZ and especially as a Carnatic vocalist opening up her heart to the possibilities of fusion in MORNING RAGA( both of which I will write about in the next essay)
SUR- THE MELODY OF LIFE(2002), a memorable tale for all mentors and proteges, boasts of a classic soundtrack. But none of it can beat the sublime power of KABHI SHAAM DHALE, sung by the classically trained MAHALAXMI IYER, with music director M.M. KREEM employing that vocal finesse within a more popular idiom, to craft a melody unlike few.
THE NAMESAKE, ASTITVA are two other films featuring Tabu as trained classical singers, dealing with cultural adjustments across two continents in the former while leaving her vocation behind in the face of patriarchal familial mores in the latter, given that her relationship with her teacher opens up the past, inflicting wounds on her present and future. But in her training sessions with him, she found something resembling love and freedom from mundane domestic chores and an absent husband. Of course, one can never forget the image of her singing a classical composition on the balcony of her Calcutta home in the climax of THE NAMESAKE. Her flowing hair becoming one with the wind and as free as the notes of the composition. A portrait of a woman negotiating her cultural identity with her vocation. Her music is her saviour, tethering her to her roots in India. This is classical music as the very rejuvenating foundation of a life in multiple timezones, finding a core.
So it’s only fitting that I close this essay by mentioning the exultant spirit of 1988’s MILE SUR MERA TUMHARA, composed and sung in the classical mould by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar. It remains the pinnacle of diverse musicianship and national integrity put together till date.
Other notable examples of cinematic music employing classically trained singers to elevate playback vocals in popular form, conflating the best of both worlds, are as follows:
Vidya Balan playing the sitar in Ishqiya(2010), offsetting her complex moral compass with her ear for a melody. Or Madhuri Dixit dealing with the same moral compass in its sequel DEDH ISHQIYA with a flair for her footwork. Both these films feature music by the pair of Vishal and Rekha Bharadwaj who have the alchemy to bring the classical to modern shores seamlessly.
This talent and penchant for that dual interplay was evident in Omkara’s O SAATHI RE, LAAKAD.
Or the classically trained Kavita Seth bringing magical aura to IKTARA for a new generation, for the Mumbai set urban saga WAKE UP SID(2009); ARZIYAAN from BOBBY JASOOS being a melodic beauty in the traditional mould or DUA from SHANGHAI setting a benchmark with its classical tone.
Who can also forget Bhaskor’s cycle ride through Calcutta streets in PIKU (2015) and beholding a child practicing music on a harmonium, a reality in scores of homes in the city, owing to a disposition towards classical training in the arts from a young age.
Or the fusion of Shreya Ghoshal’s flawless singing and Vidya Balan’s dancing prowess in AAMI JE TOMAAR from BHOOL BHULAIYA, making both classical forms full of grandeur while being accessible to viewers.
Thinking about this bounty of musical gifts, I cannot leave out one singer in particular. Sadhana Sargam has lent her beautiful vocals for PIYA HO, NAINA NEER BAHAYE from WATER evoking the classical as well as Bhakti epoch of devotional piety while on CHUPKE SE from SAATHIYA, she poured out her classical training to wondrous, restrained effect, crafting an unforgettable playback for A.R. Rahman’s original tune.
So as illustrated in this first of a two parter, the seeds of classical music and dance have sprouted and always provided impetus to popular culture. So take stock of these and enjoy a great weekend ahead.