The people of the Subcontinent have always been interested in listening to light music, geet, ghazal, qawwali, folk songs and Sufi music. Prior to the advent of ‘talkie’ films, going to watch live theatre was a popular means of entertainment and such venues usually took on performers who could not only act, but also sing.

The first subcontinental talkie film was Alam Ara; it premiered in March 1931 and had seven songs in Urdu. Both the film and its music were hugely successful and set a trend for the next seven decades, of featuring at least seven or eight songs in every film. Nowhere else in the world was this practice in vogue.

Another film, Shirin Farhad, released in May 1931, had 18 songs. A year later, the entirely musical film Indrasabha was released, featuring an astonishing 69 songs. Consequently, a number of individuals possessing unique voice qualities and singing abilities thrived in both the Indian and Pakistani film industries.

Music lovers, and especially musicologists, have always been interested in discovering more about the backgrounds and histories of these singers and their contributions to film — Dr Amjad Parvez, author of Melody Singers 2, is one such enthusiast. An engineer as well as a musicologist, Parvez has written several books; among them are Melody Makers, about the music directors of the subcontinent, and Melody Makers 1, which comprised research on 27 singers.

In Melody Singers 1, the author had written mostly about the contributions of such top-ranking subcontinental singers as Madam Noor Jehan, Lata Mangeshkar, Mehdi Hasan, Muhammad Rafi and Talat Mahmood. In this second volume, he talks about another 35 singers, most of whom sang playback for films. As the golden era of film songs is already over, one may just have nostalgic memories about the unforgettable melodies.

But before discussing the book, it is necessary to narrate some facts about the author, as he is a most knowledgeable and capable person to write on this subject. Parvez had a passion for singing from childhood. Besides singing on radio, he, along with cricketer Mushtaq Hashmi, started appearing regularly in the live transmissions of Pakistan Television (PTV), Lahore, in the late 1960s. They hosted the programme Sangat in 1972-73, in which many upcoming singers such as Naheed Akhtar and Nayyara Noor were invited to take part.

A sequel book by a music aficionado provides insight into the life and work of 35 more film playback singers from the Subcontinent

Parvez did not only sing. He also dabbled in acting, appearing as the hero in dramatisations based on the romantic folk tales of Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punnu and Sohni Manhiwal, telecast by PTV. He has remained associated with both radio and television for more than 50 years and this association has enabled him to develop a personal acquaintance and rapport with many of the Pakistani singers covered in his book. These personal impressions form the major base of his chapters, supplemented with information taken from online repositories.

In 2000, Parvez was awarded the President of Pakistan’s Pride of Performance for his work on music. Also, being an eminent engineer by profession, he was honoured with the Dr A.Q. Khan Lifetime Achievement Award by the Institute of Engineers, Pakistan, in 2010.

In Melody Singers 2, the author shares illuminating research and knowledge about the lives and careers of 35 singers, all of whom gained immense popularity in the second half of the 20th century. It is interesting to learn from his chapter on Attaullah Khan Essakhelvi — a folksinger who has been enormously popular for more than four decades — that Essakhelvi is the most frequently played singer in trucks, buses and at tea stalls and that “[a]part from Gen Ayub Khan and Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah’s photographs [sic], Attaullah’s portraits were seen at the back of the trucks in [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] and Punjab if that can be taken as one indicator of his popularity.”

The contributions of Hemant Kumar (1920-89) as music composer and singer to Indian cinema are enormous. Voices such as his bring back lots of memories to those senior citizens who are music lovers. Hailing from Bengal, he was one of the foremost exponents of ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ (songs written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore) and a most sought-after male singer. He also composed the music for the 1954 hit film Nagin; the song ‘Man Dole, Mera Tan Dole’ [My Heart and Body are Dancing] sung by Lata Mangeshkar, was a stupendous success. The tune of the been played during interludes in the song is still played by snake charmers today to woo customers.

Saleem Raza (1932-83) was a formidable playback singer of Pakistan’s film industry and the dominating male voice from 1955 to 1965. Raza’s silky vocals were perfectly suited to romantic and sad songs, but he could render happier tunes equally well. Three of his hit songs include ‘Jaan-i-Baharan, Rashk-i-Chaman’ [Beloved of Springs, Envy of Gardens] from the 1962 film Azra, ‘Yaaro Mujhe Muaf Rakho’ [Friends, Leave Me Out of It] from 1957’s Saat Lakh, and ‘Kaheen Do Dil Jo Mil Jaatay’ [If Two Hearts Had Met Somewhere] from 1960’s Saheli, which he sang as a duet with Naseem Begum.

Mukesh (1923-76) had such magic in his voice that most of his film songs would become instant superhits. Music maestro Salil Choudhary praised Mukesh with the comments “Each word from his lips was a pearl. No one could sing the way Mukesh did with the right diction, inflexion and intonation. His vocal timbre was out of this world.”

Pakistani singer Mala Begum (1939-90) could not read, but she was intelligent enough to remember the songs by heart once they were read to her. She has a number of hits to her credit, which include: ‘Dil Daita Hai Ro Ro Duhai [The Heart Cries Out] from the 1963 film Ishq Par Zor Nahin, ‘Maine Tau Preet Nibahi’ [I Remained Sincere in Love] from 1964’s Khamosh Raho, and ‘Akailay Na Jaana’ [Don’t Leave Me Alone] from the 1966 blockbuster Armaan.

An interesting fact which surfaces in the book is that people had the impression that singers Nayyara Noor (Pakistan), and Mubarak Begum and Ghulam Mustafa (G.M.) Durrani (India) sang only a few songs for films. The actual number is far more substantial. In addition to the superhit ‘Rootthay Ho Tum’ [Displeased You Are] and ‘Mujhe Dil Se Na Bhulana’ [Don’t Let Your Heart Forget Me] from the 1977 film Aina and ‘Tera Saaya Jahan Bhi Ho Sajna’ [My Love, Wherever Your Shadow Goes] from 1973’s film Gharana, Noor, who had a haunting, tuneful and sweet voice, sang 62 film songs.

Mubarak Begum (1936-2016) meanwhile rendered a total of 178 songs for Hindi films. Her biggest hits include ‘Kabhi Tanhaiyon Main Yoon’ [Sometimes in Loneliness] (from 1961’s Hamari Yaad Aaeygi), ‘Bey Murravat, Bewafa’ [Uncaring, Unfaithful] (1966’s Sushila) and a duet with Rafi ‘Mujh Ko Apne Gale Laga Lo’ [Embrace Me] (from 1963’s Humrahi).

G.M. Durrani (1919- 2014), sang around 200 songs for Hindi films in the ’40s and ’50s. The tonal quality of his voice was on the heavier side and his songs left a good impact overall. Surprisingly, people know him just on the basis of ‘Bogi, Bogi, Bogi’ and ‘Gaye Chala Ja’ [Keep Singing], both of which he sang with Shamshad Begum for the film Hum Log (1951).

Music critics no longer talk about the voice quality of modern-day playback singers, but the fact remains that no one can succeed as a singer without having some, if not all, the qualities of singers from the golden era. Their demand has otherwise been reduced enormously as present-day films usually contain just two or three dance numbers.

While there is no dearth of writers on all aspects of film in India, I give credit to Dr Amjad Parvez for authoring Melody Singers 2, wherein the efforts made by Pakistan’s — and some of India’s — talented music composers, lyricists and singers have been fully recognised and placed on record for the future generations of music lovers.

The reviewer is an industrial relations professional and teaches at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Melody Singers 2
By Dr Amjad Parvez
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693532494
280pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 31st, 2021

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