Film Music in India

A Report by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson

Bollywood Melodies (A History of the Hindi Film Song) by Ganesh Anantharaman, Foreword by Mahesh Bhatt, Paperback (Edition: 2008), Penguin Books ISBN 0143063405Film music in India is particularly characterized by the frequent use of song. Unlike the commercial use of songs in Western cinema, the Indian film song is deeply rooted in cultural tradition and mythology and, more times than not, is a reflection of the religious tones embodied in the Indian cinema and culture. An issue of the magazine Cinema Vision India (Oct 1980) covered in depth the use and tradition of the Indian film song. Inasmuch as most of these Indian films are inaccessible to most Western audiences, except in certain ethnic theatres or neighborhoods, there is much to be gleaned from their examination, and I have freely quoted at length from this issue in order to here provide an accurate introduction to film music in India.

As publisher Siddharth Kak wrote in Cinema Vision India, quoting his interviewees, “The Indian film song holds sway as a unique phenomenon, an inescapable part of our everyday lives… The one note, commonly struck [about] the Indian film song is that it’s trashy, vulgar and degrading… Perhaps it has elements of great art – however unintentional. Perhaps it is the new folk music of India, which is possibly why ‘Film music has become more important than the films themselves’… Is that because film music really ‘bridged the gulf between classical and folk?’… Is it because songs have acquired ‘Greater abandon, more tonal color, variety and polish?’… Or is film music so popular because ‘it is a legacy of India’s rich, 4,000 year-old musical tradition?’”

Songs have been important elements of films in India since the very earliest days of Indian cinema. INDRASHABHA, released in 1932 only a year after the advent of talking pictures, featured no less than 71 songs. It wasn’t long before a film like Wadias’ NAUJAVAN, released in 1937, was received in confusion and dismay due to its LACK of songs! Much of this prevalence of song-usage in Indian films is considered by many to be a natural continuation of the tradition popularized in regional theatrical folk dramas, which placed heavy emphasis upon the use of songs.

In an excellent article on ‘The Extraordinary Importance of the Indian Film Song’, author Ashok Ranade describes the mythological origins of Indian songs: “… it can be stated as an anthropological truth that in all cultures music is invariably employed to establish links with the supernatural – the element which enables mythology to have a firm base. The cinematic impulse in India was, therefore, congenitally bound with music. As primacy of vocal music in India is also an unquestionable rait, song-dominance becomes almost automatic.” Ranade adds that films aimed at an all-India audience (which were most all of them) were naturally embedded with the cultural trappings of the region in which they were filmed or released. “Music and mythology are known expressive agents with an in-built cultural appeal which is also extra-regional. Hence they become the chief components of Indian films. This is the background on which song-dominance of the early films is to be understood.”

The traditions inherent in most Indian films were drawn from the same cultural bases as much of their music: Hindustan in the North and the Carnatic traditions of the South. Indian films had their origins in Bombay and Calcutta in the North, and as a result the Hindustani musical traditions tended to dominate themes of cinema and music. As Ranade writes, “Indian film music fell back on the art music which was common to all Hindustan.”

Ranade has also noted that these songs occasionally suffered from the same commercial pitfalls that affected much Western film songs. Composers, particularly since the 1940’s, attempted to make each composition as musically attractive as possible so that audiences might remember it as A SONG, irrespective of its fundamental function as cinema music. “The advent of the mass media (e.g., stage-song discs from 1921, cheaper Japanese phonograph machines from 1928, broadcasting from 1931) considerably accelerated the process of severing the internal bindings of film music and enabled it to become a free agent in popular music,” wrote Ranade. “… Indian film music is [now] mass produced, quick to act, easily available, and almost the same everywhere! It is no doubt music of greater abandon, more tonal color, variety and polish — but it has also become transient, rootless and artificial.”

Satyajit Ray

Satyajit RaySatyajit RaySounds something like Hollywood or Europe, eh? But despite that ubiquitous prevalence towards commercialism, there remained a strong art-cinema in India and a large number of composers and musicians who have maintained a highly artistic approach to Indian film music. Among them is Satyajit Ray, one of India’s foremost film directors who, since the 1960’s, has also composed the music for all of his films. Ray grew up with a strong interest in music, particularly Western classical music, while at the same time gaining a familiarization with classical Indian music through his music-loving family. Interviewed by Dhritiman Chatterji for Cinema Vision India, Ray remarked that “I get involved with composing music only once a year. If I were a professional composer, perhaps I would have greater facility in it. The other thing is, music to me was completely self-taught. I would note down musical ideas for a film, in shorthand form. There was quite a trial involved in the scoring. Now, with experience, the whole process has become somewhat easier. But even so, I can’t put down a musical idea as quickly or as smoothly as a professional composer can.”

Ray used to infrequently request assistance from other Indian musicians. On his first film, PATHER PANCHALI (1955), his friend Ravi Shankar was called in to assist in writing and performing the music, though it turned out they worked closely together on the composition, along with flautist Aloke De (a regular collaborator with Ray).

Shankar also worked with Ray on APARAJITO (1956) and on APU SANSAR (The World of Apu, 1959). On the former film, Shankar composed a theme, derived from the raga Jog, which was used in two major death scenes, in one effectively combined with the natural sounds of pigeons taking flight, an especially memorable moment in the film. “I must say, looking back, that I wasn’t totally happy with the music in APARAJITO,” said Ray. “We were not even able to record music according to precise lengths. As a result, it was a tough job in the editing room combining loops with music and so on. And when you see the film with an audience, you realize that there are long periods of oppressive silence.”

Another film of Ray’s which made more effective use of sustained silence was JALSAGHAR (The Music Room, 1958), which was composed by Vilayat and was, like many Indian film scores, based on a traditional raga. [A raga refers to a piece of music which has as its basis the constant use of certain notes of a traditional Indian chant or raga. Each raga has its own fixed scale, and is used without modulation throughout the composition]. Unusually, Ray combined Vilayat’s raga music with Western classical music in a climactic scene near the end. “There is a feeling of terror, of uncertainty, something almost macabre – which Indian classical music alone was just not able to capture,” said Ray. “So I had to improvise in the editing room, and finally you have Vilayat and Sibelius playing together. And this combination gives you a sound texture that is more than just a music track.”

Since 1961’s TEEN KANYA (Two Daughters), his eighth film, Ray began to compose his own music for his films. “By the time I made APU SANSAR,” Ray said, “I had started getting musical ideas of my own. Of course, Ravi Shankar worked on APU SANSAR, but I did a lot of prompting… I was developing a resistance to certain instruments. You know, just like they used wailing violins in sentimental passages in Hollywood films, there was a tendency here to use the sarangi and the dilruba. I did not like this.”

Ray considers CHARULATA (The Lonely Wife, aka The Home And The World, 1964) to contain his best musical work. “Here everything was right, everything worked,” he said. In this film, Ray’s music was tightly linked to the film’s theme and context, establishing the special quality of loneliness felt by the film’s title character. Ray composed a theme for her which was both wistful and playful, merging Western influences with Indian music in two songs. “The possibilities of fusing Indian and Western music began to interest me from then,” said Ray. “I began to realize that, at some point, music is one. Rosalind Turek, who is the greatest Bach interpreter today, was telling me… that she played Bach with Alla Rakha accompanying on the tabla! And she said it worked beautifully!”

The Music Room 1958 – The film features an excellent footage of Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental music, as well as classical dance. The musical score is by Vilayat Khan.

With this approach, Ray increasingly used music influenced by Western modes in his contemporary films, yet without losing touch with Indian musical traditions. In his fantasy, GOUPI GYNE BAGHA BYNE (The Adventures of Goup and Bagha, 1969) , and its sequel HIRAK RAJAR DESHE (unk date), Ray made use of Indian classical music to achieve a humorous effect. “I wanted to use parody, I wanted to have fun… It seems funny because of the contrast, because classical music was being used in a funny situation. But the music evolved as an organic aspect of GOUPI GYNE. I was not trying to consciously prove that I was great at blending all kinds of music effortlessly.”

In a curious paradox to his interest and proficiency in providing music for his films, Satyajit Ray remains outspoken in his view that music should ultimately be unnecessary in films, and he scorns the broad use of romantic music in the Hollywood films of the 40’s. “My belief is that a film should be able to dispense with music,” Ray said in an interview by Bhaskar Chandavarkar, also included in CINEMA VISION INDIA, “but half the time we are using music because we are not confident that certain changes of mood will be understood by the audience. I would like to do without music if such a thing is possible – but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that. I have used very little music in my contemporary films and as much natural sound as possible.”

B.V. Karanth

B.V. KaranthB.V. KaranthAnother respected composer in India is B.V. Karanth, who scored many Indian films during the 1960’s and 70’s. Karanth began his career as a young boy working in musical theatre. He studied music in Varanasi under Pandit Onkar Nath Thakur, although he does not consider himself a stickler for classical music. He considers his experience in theatre to be the primary influence on his music, and feels that live theatre has a kind of potential which cannot be achieved through “other kinds of media which are limited to pre-recorded sounds heard through stationary speakers.””Karanth is currently the Director of India’s National School of Drama.

Like Italy’s Mario Nascimbene, Karanth’s penchant is the incorporation of natural sounds and instrumental effects in his musical scores and utilizing them in a musical way. In RISHYASHRINGA he used four tanpuras with loosened strings to evoke an arid, dry landscape with its threat of famine. In Mrinal Sen’s PARSHURAM (The Man With the Axe), Karanth wrote a score for masons’ and builders’ tools and implements. In EK DIN PRATI DIN he used cycle bells, door bells and police sirens in his music. The score for CHOMANADUDI (Choma’s Drum) was performed by a chorus of croaking frogs.

“When I take up a film, I do not confine myself to just the songs and the background music,” Karanth said in an interview by J.N. Kaushal. “I design the complete sound track.” Karanth’s view is that there should be a detailed sound scenario along with the screenplay, thereby blending sounds, music and dialogue for the greatest effect. The conscious placement of silences and pauses are also very much an important part of this sound design. “A pause of silence is more dramatic (and deafening) sometimes than the crash of cymbals or thunder,” said Karanth.

In his own CHOMANADUDI, Karanth used varieties of chirping sparrows as background sound for different characters. “The sound changed completely when the characters were outdoors and when they were inside,” he said. “We have unlimited source material for musical scores,” Karanth said. “We can draw upon folk music, traditional music which branches off into hindustani and carnatic styles, ritualistic, tribal, community and religious music. Then we come to Qawalis bhajans, Naat, Gazal, Tappa, Dadra, Natya Sangeet, folk theatre music and of course the music already recorded and available.”

In his scores, Karanth prefers to use instruments from the regions in which the films take place. Choma’s drum from CHOMANADUDI came from the real village in which the story is set. RISHYASHRINGA used a maddale, a drum from the Malnad area. Karanth rarely uses electronic instruments; although a notable exception was in ARIVU (The Awareness) in which he used piano accordion and some electronic music with an abrupt, broken-up rhythm to re-create the mental state of a retarded child.

Karanth also makes maximum use of natural sounds of the localities, as in his employment of Vedic chanting and other ritual sounds of the film’s region in GHATASHRADDHA, for which he won his second National Award for Best Film Music Director. In this same film he used the Chenda drum to represent the chatter of the gossiping woman. In HAMSA GEETHE he interwove the sounds of the wind and sea into his musical score, as well as a chorus of human voices. Karanth has been influenced in this regard by the film scores of Satyajit Ray and his own complement of music and sound effects.

Vanraj Bhatia

The film music of composer Vanraj Bhatia tends to follow a more traditional line. In KONDURA, a mythic fantasy, he employed religious chants and ragas. His theme song for this film was based on the raga Marwa, and reflects the confusion in the hero’s mind when he is presented with a gift from Kondura, the sage of the sea, a gift that may well be as much a curse. Bhatia weaves into the song the weird wailing of women, to characterize the siren-song of the sea. In NISHANT, Bhatia epitomizes the dark, somber mood of the film through low, mournful music. “To the composer it is the totality of the film that matters – its basic theme, its narrative style, its pace, he period and the place in which it is set,” said Bhatia in an interview by Ram Mohan.

Vanraj Bhatia, a member of the Faculty of Music at the University of Delhi, had studied music in London and Paris, though maintaining a conscious analytical assessment of Indian film music. “The mainstay of the Indian film is its music,” he wrote in an article for Seminar magazine in 1961. “The Indian film is the indigenous equivalent of the opera, or more truly, the musical and the pantomime.”

In addition to his film score compositions, Bhatia has also written more than 600 jingles for radio, TV and advertising films. He also scored award-winning documentaries such as FACE TO FACE, AMRITA SHER GIL and THE HOUSE THAT ANANDA BUILT.

One of Bhatia’s early scores was for Vinod Chopra’s first film, SAZAYE MAUT. Bhatia had written a complex score drawn around a three-note motive. “Here was a score that cried out for orchestration but the budget did not permit us even to record all the pieces I had written,” said Bhatia in Cinema Vision India. “However, the pieces that had been recorded were worked out with such precision in terms of pace and timing, that some of them could be used in their entirety over other sequences and seemed to fit perfectly.”

Bhatia has become highly outspoken in his views of the operatic quality of Indian films. In his interview with Mohan, he elaborated: “The most dramatic moments in our films are often those where all action stops and the song takes over, expressing every shade of emotional reverberation, and doing it far more effectively than the spoken word or the studied gesture.” The songs work extremely well, Bhatia feels, as musical condensations of dramatic action.

Oddly enough, though, most of Bhatia’s scoring assignments in recent years have been with the new breed of filmmakers who, Bhatia feels, have no feeling for film music, but treat it as a mere prop on the sound track. Bhatia has worked frequently with directed Shyam Benegal, a director as outspoken against the “ritual song” of Indian film music as Bhatia is outspoken for operatic film scoring. Not surprisingly, his music for Benegal’s films tends to be used sparingly and at a subdued volume. As Ram Mohan wrote in Cinema Vision India, Bhatia’s “musical score works so unobtrusively and blends with such consonance with the visuals, that all the meticulous labor Vanraj puts into these compositions very often go unnoticed by the audience.”

Bhumika 1977 – This was the first song composed and recorded by Vanraj Bhatia. However as a music director his first film was ‘Ankoor’.

Although Bhatia often veers toward traditional musical elements in his compositions, he frequently gives them a new flavors through instrumentation and orchestration. “I detest doing ‘straight’ music…” Bhatia told Ram Mohan. “… attempting to reproduce a musical form in an established pattern – the way it has always been done.” In Benegal’s BHUMIKA, for example, Bhatia’s music retains the vitality of the Marathi folk idiom, but adds strings and mandolin to the usual instruments. His deft orchestration also lent a notable style to the film’s two songs, composed in the style of those used in Indian films of the 40’s and 50’s. In JUNOON, another epic historical film, Bhatia’s score runs the gamut from a spirit Gawali raga to a gentle Elizabethan song and a Kajri, moving from very harmonic music to harshly atonal and 12-tone music for scenes of violence.

One of Bhatia’s most ambitious scores was for Kumar Shahan’s recent feature, TARANG. Shahan insisted that the music be a combination of two specific ragas (Maand and Jogiya, to which Bhatia later added Bhimpalas) in a slow beat of 12 matras, and be linked to unalterable lyrics already written by Raghuvir Sahay. Bhatia responded to these strict challenges by coming up with a long and complex song in two sections with identical melodic structure but varied orchestration.

The lyrics to the Indian film songs are rarely afterthoughts, as is often the case with American and European songs, hastily lyricized to cash in on a film’s instrumental theme. Going back to the integral operatic quality of Indian films and Indian film music, the words to the songs become inseparable from their music and, indeed, inseparable from their films. “The words of a song very often spontaneously suggest the tune and in most cases the first inspiration turns out to be the right one,” wrote Ram Mohan. “However, the accompanying music has to be written with extreme care and precision to match the poetic imagery suggested by the words.”

The melody of the song is often repeated over and over for each stanza. “This repetition of musical phrases, which is necessary in songs, is given a totally different dimension by the accompanying music,” said Bhatia. “The orchestral music is not conceived merely as accompaniment but as a homogeneous whole with the words. The complexities and imagery expressed in the words are mirrored and translated in the accompaniment so that it finally does not remain an accompaniment but becomes inseparable from the words.”

The compositions of Ray, Karanth and Bhatia, are only a few of many composers in this often overlooked country rich in artistic and musical heritage. The style of their films and their music makes for a unique contribution to the art of motion picture composition and performance.


As stated earlier, the basis of this article was the Oct 1980 issue of Cinema Vision India, a special issue devoted to an exhaustive examination on the Indian film song. This excellent magazine, written in English, covers Indian cinema in a highly literate, near-academic style, well illustrated in black and white.


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