The film songs of Pakistan and India — which first emerged more than 90 years ago with the historical fantasy film Alam Ara in 1931 — and particularly those produced in the four decades from the 1940s to the 1970s, represent a remarkable genre of sound and image.

The average duration of each song was/is only about three to four minutes. Yet their range portrays facets of romance, filial bonds, harmony, conflict and bliss as well as tragedy, geographic beauty, historic legends and myths, humour, dance forms, lifestyles, religious devotion, humanism, patriotism and passion. From pristine love to exhortative calls, from solitary sorrow to festive fun, their scope embraced all.

Covering virtually every aspect of human relationships and social structures, these film songs were created by women and men who possessed immense talent, sensitivity, imagination and professional skills. They excelled as lyricists, composers, singers, instrumentalists and recordists. Their dazzling work was brought to the cinema screen by the innovative inputs of screenplay writers, producers, directors, cinematographers, choreographers, production crews and members of choirs and dance ensembles.

This was collective creativity of excellence, made all the more phenomenal by its enduring magic. That output has become a treasury of melodies which now, decades later, captivates and seduces the listener the same way the songs did when first heard many years earlier.

Compendium, catalogue, personal narrative and panoramic survey, a new book is a feast of facts about film music from Pakistan and India

One additional facet of the magic was that the willing suspension of disbelief — which is the precondition for the enjoyment of cinema — also extended seamlessly to faces on-screen lip-synching perfectly with pre-recorded voices actually rendering the songs. Though audiences knew well the separate identities of the seen actor and the unseen singer, it made no difference whatsoever to the entertaining experience.

Transcending religion, ethnicity, origins, caste, class and colour, this collaborative process — on-screen and off-screen — took place between persons of extremely contrasting identity-markers. Such cooperation produced hundreds of compositions that have become abiding testimonials to what brings human beings together in a universe of shared space, time, emotion and perception. Despite the sharp political divides between the two neighbouring nation-states and numerous armed conflicts, these songs enthral Muslims and Hindus alike, and be they Pakistanis or Indians.

Though compilations of film music and its originators have been previously published in Pakistan and India, Sultan Arshad Khan’s new book, 101 Melody Makers of India and Pakistan and Their Representative Work, is in a class by itself. This is a masterwork that is a banquet-table book –– because it serves us far more than coffee ever can.

A compendium and a catalogue, a reference source and an encyclopaedia, a personal narrative and a panoramic survey –– with names, dates, faces, posters and memorabilia such as letters addressed to the author by some of the geniuses listed therein — the book is a feast of facts about film music from Pakistan and India.

Reflecting the author’s steadfast dedication to the subject and his hard work sustained for 21 years, the range and depth of the content becomes a salute to the extraordinary individuals who gifted us this invaluable splendour of sounds.

The author’s profound respect for his sources of inspiration and his thoughtful acknowledgement of support and guidance received from others are well-reflected in the thanks that he records at the very outset to his aunt and his wife, to the great composers that he came to know in person during his posting as the manager of Pakistan International Airlines in Bombay [Mumbai] in 1987-1996, and to individuals such as the eminent musicologist S.M. Shahid in Pakistan and Sardar Harminder Singh Hamraaz in India. The inimitable Zia Mohyeddin provides an insightful ‘Foreword’, while distinguished Bollywood personality Gulzar has written a brief but admiring ‘Introduction’.

As an expression of the author’s far-ranging, inclusive vision, the concluding pages feature Pakistani and Indian composers and singers from the 21st century, the latter both classical and popular. Also noted in the last three pages are those gifted instrumentalists who make a crucial contribution to orchestration, but remain virtually unknown and unseen. These last three pages present their identities, photographs and names of their respective musical instruments, to add to our knowledge and appreciation.

In the first part of the book, 40 composers are listed, commencing with pioneers Phirozshaw Mistry and Ustad Jhanday Khan. Thereafter, each individual composer’s filmography gives the first words of a song, the name of the film, year of production, name/s of the singer/s and lyricists and is preceded by notes on each composer. There are also helpful, random texts, such as ‘Guide to Pronunciation of Roman English Words’. The subsequent parts introduce contemporary names.

One hopes that Muhammad Ahmad Shah, the enterprising president of the Arts Council of Pakistan in Karachi, follows up his kind offer to facilitate the translation of this volume into Urdu in order to reach a far larger readership.

Giving practical form to his genuine commitment to music and to foster new talent, the author became the founder of the enthusiasts’ group known as Amateurs’ Melodies in April 1999. For more than two decades, he and his family and a few friends have organised regular gatherings of music-lovers to listen to new renditions of old classics by young, promising artists, as well as replays of the originals.

Periodically, since the advent of Covid-19, the author hosts online tributes to some of the personalities extolled in this book, meetings that draw his friends and enthusiasts from Pakistan, India, the Middle East, Europe and North America in reflection of the wide respect that he enjoys.

So comprehensive is the information provided in this book that this reviewer is likely to reduce the number of phone calls he would make in the past to Arshad to benefit from his incredible knowledge and memory about the fine details of ever-haunting melodies.

This tome aptly symbolises a maxim such as “a book should be judged by its weight.” In this case, its trove of research justifies the poundage. And also its price — which would constitute a fortune for some who freely and frequently hum the songs listed in the book. Perhaps the publisher should offer — as suggested at the well-attended launch a few weeks ago — an instalment plan for staggered payments by purchasers.

If the author had not graciously gifted this reviewer a complimentary copy, one would have gladly diverted the sum from other, less-valued items to acquiring this treasure, which is well worth every rupee. One can validly say, ‘I bought it for a song.’

The reviewer is an addict of selected film songs of the 1940s-70s. His writings can be accessed at www.javedjabbar.net

101 Melody Makers of India and Pakistan and Their Representative Work
By Sultan Arshad Khan
Atlantis, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696013198
656pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 23rd, 2022

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