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Rani performs to Izhar bhi mushkil hai in Anjuman
Rani performs to Izhar bhi mushkil hai in Anjuman

Is there any genre of film music which is only vocalised by women for an almost exclusive male audience? The answer is simple: Yes, we are referring to the mujra. It originated in the courts of the rajas and nawabs, where courtesans sang and danced to the pleasure of the ruler and his close circle. The performer was well-versed with the two sisterly arts, singing and dancing (Kathak, in particular). Coquetry was the trademark of a courtesan, but she was not necessarily part of the flesh trade of prostitutes — though she may have granted such favours to her employer.

The mujra has almost invariably been an Urdu poem. The poetry generally has no depth and no philosophy to convey because the audience is by and large not steeped in Urdu literature, which is why Dagh Dehalvi has been a much greater favourite of courtesans than Mir Taqi Mir or Mirza Ghalib. This genre of vocal music has been popular in films.

There have been very few exceptions. For instance, Lata Mangeshkar’s beautifully rendered ‘Mohe panghat pe nandlal chherr gayo re’ picturised on the Venus of the Indian screen, Madhubala, is in Poorbi. Penned by the noted Urdu poet Shakeel Badayuni, the number was set in Raga Gara by none other than the composer with the Midas touch, Naushad, for the classic K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960). In it Anarkali (Madhubala) completely enchants Prince Saleem (Dilip Kumar). There is one more deviation from the traditional mujra in this film rendition — the audience does not completely comprise males. Empress Jodha Bai (Durga Khote) is seen sitting next to the Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj).

One can’t think of any other genre of music in our films which has as perfect a balance of melody and rhythm as the mujra

While on exceptions, one should recall that Sabiha in Shikwah (1963) and Nargis in Adalat (1958) do not dance; they are sitting on the carpeted floors and their faces are shrouded in despair. Shikwah’s song ‘Aaj mehfil sajane ko ai’ has been composed by Hasan Latif Lilak and rendered by Noor Jehan. The two mellifluous mujras from Adalat have been composed by the master of melody Madan Mohan. Written by Rajendra Krishn, the memorable ghazals are ‘Unko ye shikayat hai ke hum kuchh nahin kehte’ and ‘Yun hasraton ke daagh muhabbat mein dho liye’.

Of course, in the context of mujras one cannot help but recall Mirza Hadi Ruswa (1857-1931), who created the prototypical character of the courtesan, Umrao Jaan, in what is often termed Urdu’s first novel. She is also into writing poetry. Ada is her takhallus [pseudonym] and in the original she hails from a ‘decent’ family but was kidnapped and forced into the profession. Quite a few films in Pakistan and India have had a central character based on Ruswa’s novel, though not all of them had been made under the same title.

Madhuri Dixit as the nautch girl in Devdas was truly enchanting
Madhuri Dixit as the nautch girl in Devdas was truly enchanting

The classic Pakeezah (1972), featuring Meena Kumari in the title role, is a pertinent example. She dances to three lovely mujras — ‘Chalte chalte yunhi koi mil gaya tha’, ‘Thare rahiyo o banke yaar’ and ‘Inhi logon ne le liya dupatta mera’. Dancing was not her forte but thanks to choreographer Lachu Maharaj and her own untiring efforts she put up fine performances. This was her swan song; she died soon after the release of the movie. Composer Ghulam Mohammad was even unluckier. He passed away while the movie was still under production. Thereafter Naushad composed the background music and some brief numbers.

Back to Ruswa, the movie Umrao Jaan (1981) produced and directed by Muzaffar Ali in India, starring Rekha, featured some exciting mujras. Khayyam, a purist, composed the music while the lyrics were written by Sheharyar, who seldom wrote for movies. ‘Dil cheez hai kiya aap meri jaan leejye’, ‘Justaju jiski thi’ and ‘In ankhon ki masti mein’, all recorded in the honey-soaked voice of Lata, have retained their appeal, as much as Rekha’s performance.

Umrao Jaan was remade in 2006 with Aishwarya Rai playing the title role with aplomb. Alka Yagnik sang for her. The mujras were penned by Javed Akhtar and set to tune by Anu Malik. Two of the numbers, ‘Salaam karne ki arzoo mein’ and ‘Mein jo mil sakoon tum se’, in particular, were worth listening to as much as Aishwarya’s dances were worth watching.

On the Pakistan side, in 1972 Umrao Jaan Ada, featuring Rani in the leading role, was produced in Lahore. It was directed by Hasan Tariq and had at least two mujras worth remembering — ‘Jo bacha tha woh lutaney ke liye aye hain’ recorded in the voice of Noor Jehan and ‘Kaate na katay ratiyaan’, sung by a youthful Runa Laila.

Umrao Jaan by Muzaffar Ali featuring Rekha in some exciting mujras
Umrao Jaan by Muzaffar Ali featuring Rekha in some exciting mujras

Just as we remember Mirza Hadi Ruswa, there is one Bengali fiction writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) we cannot afford to ignore. One of his novels Devdas was filmed on both sides of the Wagah border multiple times. While the Pakistani version (1965), starring the wooden-faced Habib was an utter flop, at least two adaptations in India deserve to be discussed. But before that, in the mid-1930s, the first version starring Saigal was released. Even though Saigal’s songs became popular, one can’t recall any mujra from the movie.

Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), starring Dilip Kumar, who shared stellar honours with Suchitra Sen and Vyjaynthimala, had a superb musical score by S.D. Burman and no less brilliant lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi. The movie, like the performance of the leading man, was subdued and realistic. Talat Mehmood lent his voice to Dilip, while Lata enthralled the audience with her renditions of such soulful mujras as ‘Aagey teri marzi’, ‘O jaanewale ruk ja koi dum’ and ‘Jise too qubool kar le’ coupled with lovely dances by Vyjaynthi contributed to make this black-and-white flick truly a classic.

Sanjay Leela Bansali’s colourful version made in 2002 suffered in comparison. Shah Rukh Khan, who played the title role was subdued, but not as intense as Dilip Kumar, who is said to have created a benchmark and defined the character of Devdas. Madhuri Dixit as the nautch girl was enchanting. She danced to her heart’s content in mujras such as ‘Maar dala’ and ‘Kaahe chherr mohe’ sung soulfully by Kavita Krishnamurthi in a lilting score by Ismail Darbar.

Pakeezah was Meena Kumari’s swan song as she died soon after the release of the movie
Pakeezah was Meena Kumari’s swan song as she died soon after the release of the movie

As if that were not enough, another colourful version of Devdas featuring a couple of memorable mujras was made in 2006. One of which is ‘Tumhari mehfil mein agaye hain’ sung by Alka Yagnik.

In the 1950s to mid-seventies, almost one in five movies had a mujra or two. One may like to recall ‘Meri toot gayi angrai’ recorded in the voice of Iqbal Bano (music by Safdar Hussain, penned by Qateel Shafai), ‘Barray bey-murrawwat hain ye husn walay’ (composed by Deebo Bhattacharya, written by Masroor Anwar) and quite a few from Anjuman (1970), recorded in the voices of Noor Jehan and Runa Laila by Nisar Bazmi. Some of these were ‘Izhar bhi mushkil hai’, ‘Aap dil ki anjuman mein husn ban kar aa gaye’ and ‘Dil dharrkay main tumse yeh kaisay kahoon’ — though interestingly none of these were filmed against the backdrop of the traditional kotha. The younger singer rendered two catchy mujras — ‘Jao tumhein pehchan liya’ and ‘Dunya ki sharafat dekh kar’ for Sharafat (1974) — shortly before migrating to Bangladesh. They were written by Kaleem Usmani and set to music by Robin Ghosh, whose wife Shabnam played the dancing girl.

In Bollywood, since the number of productions was much higher, the number of mujras was larger too. One may recall the memorable Amitabh-Rekha ‘Salaam-e-Ishq’ from Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), for example, which actually had Kishore Kumar making the mujra into a duet. But frankly speaking, of late, with the exception of the mujras mentioned above, there have not been many that would merit a special mention. Of the two that this writer would like to refer to the first one is ‘Julmi re julmi’ from Rajjo (2013). The tune composed by Uttam Singh and the song rendered by a lesser-known singer Bela make the number quite catchy, but a scantily-dressed Kangana Ranaut and her team of dancers in figure hugging clothes made the song somewhat vulgar.

Deepika Padukone performed a delectable dance in Baji Rao Mastani
Deepika Padukone performed a delectable dance in Baji Rao Mastani

If you have to recommend one mujra recorded and filmed in recent times then it has to be ‘Nazar jo teri laagi main diwani hogayi’ from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Baji Rao Mastani (2015). The set is opulent but it doesn’t distract you from enjoying Shreya Ghoshal’s splendid vocal rendition nor from the delectable dance performed by Deepika Padukone and her team, who look gorgeous. The photography and choreography are also simply superb. The song written by Siddharth Garima has been set to music by Bhansali himself.

Two musical instruments without which mujras are inconceivable are, no prizes for guessing, ghungroo (ankle bells) and the tabla. Keeping them company is either a harmonium or a sarangi. One can’t think of any other genre of music in our films which has such a perfect balance of melody and rhythm.

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 26th, 2018