How many songs can you remember from the last 21 years? How many songs can you forget from the 21 years previous to Rafi's death? Hamburger versus biryani: if you don't know the difference, you'll never get it.
A child born in the year that Kishore Kumar died would be 21 years in the first week of August, out of college and already well into the most movie-and-music intense phase of his life. And if he had been born on 31 July 1980, the day Mohammad Rafi died, he would most likely be sharing baby duties with his wife. Would either be aware of the age of melody that they had missed?
Temperamentally, Rafi and Kishore were as far apart as men can be, and I am not talking geography, although one came from Lahore and the other from Khandwa. Kishore Kumar came to Bombay to sing, but could not get work because he had not been trained in classical music. His elder brother, Ashok Kumar, already a hit star, advised him to make a bit of money by acting. It would be safe to say that every film Kishore made was an autobiography. He was as mad off-screen as he was zany on-screen. He couldn't keep his limbs still, and his first songs were commissioned as part of patter-and-song comedy. He was the first, and only Hindi film singer with the ability to yodel, but of course yodelling was considered outrageously hilarious in the mores of those times. But the extraordinary timber of his voice seeped silkily through the false-front of ina-mina-dika nonsense-verse. It was only a matter of time before Dev Anand picked him up, and although Teen Deviyan, in which Dev woos three highly forgettable ladies, was a flop, its music was a singular success with the Kishore croon in full flow. [Raj Kapoor owned Mukesh, Dilip Kumar had first rights over Rafi; Dev floated.] Even when he sang in B-grade films like Mr X in Bombay Kishore could lift the music above the movie. When he made Door Gagan Ki Chaon Mein, whose music was a superhit, Kishore proved that his range could match that of Rafi. His one song in Guide was incomparable.
Rafi was the gentlest, most respectable person you could meet in Bombay, an artiste of the highest quality without a trace of the airs and arrogance that trail stars. He was grounded in classical music; he could not have sung the superb bhajan, Hari Om otherwise. The repertoire was unmatched, from O duniya ke rakhwale to Apni to har aah ik toofan hai to Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai to Chu lene do naazuk hoton ko kuch aur nahin hain jaam hain yeh to Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe to a thousand I could name and still feel that I had not done justice to Rafi.
Kishore Kumar made his first film, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, for the oddest of reasons in an industry driven by greed and commerce. He hoped that it would flop and he would lose all his money. His logic went thus. He had reached the top income tax bracket and hated the thought of handing out money coldly to a Delhi bureaucrat. He decided that he might as well have fun wasting it on a movie. Unfortunately, the film — starring all three Kumar brothers, Ashok, Kishore and Anup — became a breathtaking superhit. Kishore Kumar was so upset that he gave all the rights of the film to his secretary.
The story has to be true. No one could have made it up, except possibly Kishore Kumar — but why make up something you can do? As it turned out, Kishore Kumar fell in love with the leading lady of his film, the glorious Madhubala, and married her, which turned out to be an expensive proposition as well. Poor rich chap.
Kishore would have been 79 today if he had been alive, about the average age for a top politician, and far better value for Indians. Rafi died of that typical Lahori-Punjabi weakness, good, rich food. Melody ebbed with them, leaving space for the emergence of the age of sound.
I do not mean to disparage contemporary music; some of it is quite attractive, and even good for health, sometimes inducing the only form of exercise I get. And who can ignore the fact that India's growth rate was three per cent in the age of melody and is nine per cent in the age of sound? Dare sniff at that, if you can. It is simply that the two worlds are not only in different time zones, but set against cultural horizons that would not recognise each other. The pecking order of the senses has changed along with sensibilities. The ear has surrendered to the foot. You cannot really sing along with most modern Hindi film songs, but you can dance. The shift began with the arrival of the discotheque as a quasi-sexual sub-culture. It has been raised into a highly lucrative stratosphere by television. The passé singing contest, Antakshari, is dowdy and very Doordarshanish compared to the sexy dance contests on television that are now a staple of small town and middle India. Nautch, a professional art, was once the privilege of the racier section of the elite. Sexy gyrations, meant for display before millions, are now the fantasy of possessive sari-clad middle class mothers for their middle class daughters.
Melody needed poetry; sound needs phonetics. Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri, Neeraj: it is good that you died natural deaths. These days you would have starved to death before Mumbai cinema commissioned your poetry.
The greats of the Old World add up to an untidy acronym, LAGAMMMMK. I know it sounds like the name of a movie as redone by a numerologist, a la Singh is Kinng. Less glamorously, it stands for [ladies first] Lata Mangeshkar, Geeta Dutt, Asha Bhonsle, four Ms — Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Manna Dey, Hemant Mukherjee, ending with Kishore Kumar. Mukesh and Hemant sang within a much narrower focus than the others on the list, but they were yet superior from the current stars, exceptions apart, who tend to repeat the same song with marginal variations in beat and accompaniment. The difference is between type and stereotype. One has to admit, though, that stereotypes end up with a much larger bank balance.
Perhaps the most authentic indicator is the average life of a hit song. Popular music of the Sixties and Seventies still packs the shelves of shops, and even the Fifties get a healthy look-in. Current hits are like floodtides. They swamp the market and then disappear. They are suddenly everywhere, and suddenly nowhere. How many songs can you remember from the last 21 years? How many songs can you forget from the 21 years previous to Rafi's death? Hamburger versus biryani: if you don't know the difference, you'll never get it.
Is nostalgia the last temptation of the bore? It isn't as if the thought hasn't crossed my mind while I was writing this column. And yet, and yet. Permit me the luxury of pity — pity for those who were born two and three decades ago and have not discovered Rafi and Kishore. They have one advantage though: they still have time.