At one end of the spectrum are the coy allusions – how that glance pierced the heart, how the fragrant air stirred previously un-felt longings, and how the bee landed on the flower. Think Lag Ja Gale (Woh Kaun Thi), or Na Jaane Kya Hua (Dard).

At the other end is the ‘permissible’ sexuality of ‘item songs’. But what about the women in more real and complex life situations? The lonely wife who wants to hold on to her man. The one with new found self-assurance. The woman who celebrates her own body.

Ang Laga De from Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela has a promising start. Written by Siddharth-Garima and scored by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the song, however, dissolves into the meh trope of jogan-jog. And simply because it rhymes with it rog.

Lyricists, surely we can do better. Things improve in the subsequent stanzas: “Tere seene ki lau mere andar bhi hai” is an effective message that says “My desire is no less than yours.”

Ang Laga De, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013).

Lyricist Gulzar says it better in Jiya Jale from Dil Se, scored by AR Rahman. In this song of anticipation, a bride-to-be visualises her wedding night. The imagery is traditional – henna, flowers on the bridal bed – but perhaps few poets have imagined with so much grace what happens to those elements during the act of lovemaking as Gulzar.

Jiya Jale, Dil Se (1998).

Further back in time, in Anamika, Majrooh Sultanpuri and RD Burman, helped by Lata Mangeshkar, attempt to infuse some chemistry into the unlikely pairing of Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri. The lyrics are plaintive but Burman keeps the instrumentation sparse and the melody light and playful.

Baahon Mein Chalo Aao, Anamika (1973).

Burman père, however, was there first. Raat Akeli Hai from Jewel Thief, also by Sultanpuri, is higher up on the come-hither scale. SD Burman goes for short phrases broken up by accordion keys, rising to a crescendo. Asha Bhosle lends her best cabaret voice to this number.

Raat Akeli Hai, Jewel Thief (1967).

Things get hotter as we move on to Razia Sultan. Written by Kaifi Azmi and scored by Khayyam, Jalta Hai Badan stands out even among courtesan-themed songs, with its straight-up declaration of desire and how it might be quelled.

This is a song that must be heard and not seen – the choreography aims to match a gesture to each line of the song, and there is much writhing and cavorting on the floor by co-dancers.

Asha Bhosle snagged most of the ‘item’ songs in that era, including the in-your-face Piya Tu Ab To Aaja (Caravan), but some of the most sensuous songs conveying passion and longing went to Geeta Dutt.

In Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, she sings for a lonely wife trying to hold on to her disinterested husband. The song, written by Shakeel Badayuni and scored by Hemant Kumar, becomes more explicit as it progresses – there is dishevelled hair, fragrant flowers and intoxication. There’s also the wife’s desire to become the dust under her husband’s feet, which is not sexy at all. The things we do for love.

Best to focus on Dutt’s languid voice and the wilfulness of “Main aaj tum ko na jaane doongi.”

Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Courtesy Guru Dutt Films.

Dutt also lent her voice to the equally fervent Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Lago Lo in Pyaasa. The song is rendered as a kirtan in the Bengali style. As with many devotional songs in the bhakti tradition, the lyrics are suffused with longing for union with a beloved deity. At its highest point, the poets and saints tell us, love becomes a spiritual connection.

Whether human or transcendental, this song expresses desire, a burning intensity, as few others do.

Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Lago Lo, Pyaasa (1957).

One of the most elegant songs on passion and desire also belongs to Dutt. Written by Gulzar and scored by Kanu Roy, Meri Jaan Mujhe Jaan Na Kaho from Anubhav has imagery that includes rain, the moment before a kiss and “that moment when breath mingles with breath”.

The next one from Madhumati is a bit of an outlier in this playlist since we have Manna Dey and a male chorus making brief appearances. But it is an exuberant song about female desire, with the woman centrestage, fully owning her body as well as the metaphorical scorpion that has her squirming. Composer Salil Chowdhury sets up a tribal melody, sung by Lata Mangeshkar, and a rhythm that rises to a frenzy towards the end.

Daiya Re Daiya, Madhumati (1958).

Where there is rain, there is desire, our poets and songwriters have consistently said. They have given us some happy, perky songs such as Ab Ke Sajan Saawan Mein (Chupke Chupke) and O Sajna Barkha Bahar Aayi (Parakh). A more intimate, self-assured reflection is in this number from the film Abhinetri.

O Ghata Saanwari, Abhinetri (1970).

Thumris are redolent with the themes of female desire and sexuality. Chhodo Mori Baiyan from Zubeida, written by Javed Akhtar and scored by AR Rahman, has the familiar imagery of a woman, presumably a gopi, waylaid, and possibly seduced by Krishna. Her bangle is broken, her garments are loosened, and now “I am done for; how will I go home in this state?”

Chhodo Mori Baiyan, Zubeidaa (2001).

The creators of these songs have invariably been men. And as talented and sensitive as they might have been, it would be interesting to speculate whether women would have written or composed those songs differently. The female gaze is now evident when it comes to the images on screen – see for example the opening shot of Ang Laga De. But where are the accompanying songs that, for example, celebrate the male body and also speak for men’s feelings, not just the women’s?

With more women entering the songwriting and composing pool, perhaps we can hope to hear, and not just see, more about what women want. Anvita Dutt and Zeb Bangash, we’re looking at you.

Jigi Jigi, Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016).

Also Kausar Munir, whose lyrics in Doobey from Gehraiyaan attempt to spell out a woman’s perspective of how a relationship is going, aided by OAFF-Savera’s rollercoaster melody. Can we now sing of the tautness of those shoulders and the roughness of that unshaven cheek? Or how it all began with the running of fingers through his hair. And how and where that ended. Surely, there’s a song there somewhere.

Doobey, Gehraiyaan (2022).

Aldo read:

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