Krishna is the favourite deity of Hindi films songs. Janmasthami, the annual celebration of his birth, is celebrated through raasleela, in which dramatic enactments from his life are performed, and the dahi handi sport, in which young men and women form a human pyramid to reach a pot of curd. Krishna is remembered the rest of the year through popular tributes, bhajans by the 16th-century mystic Meera, and thumris.
Thus, a wailing Mithun Chakraborty singing Krishna Dharti Pe Aaja Tu in Disco Dancer (1982) is not quite the act of devotion that we expect.
Chakraborty is dressed in shiny threads and prances around a cardboard replica of Krishna’s diadem and flute. The composition of Bappi Lahiri and the playback singing by Nandu Bhende is emblematic of the disco-loving 1980s. The song borrows its tune from a song that celebrates a messiah from another faith: Cliff Richards’s Jesus.
Fast-forward to the present, when characters named after Krishna’s lover assert their dance moves in Radha Likes To Party in Student of the Year (2012) and Radha Nachegi (Tevar, 2014). Krishna worship is clearly mirroring the current musical tastes.
The tributes to Krishna have gone through a series of transformations before reaching the dance floor. In Radha Krishna (1954), Lata Mangeshkar and Geeta Dutt sing Tum Bansi Ho Main Taan, written by Sahir Ludhianvi and composed by SD Burman. Although the song has been written like a bhajan, the composition is light and takes the route of the love ballad.
Manmohana Bade Jhoothe, sung by Mangeshkar for composers Shankar-Jaikishan in Seema (1955), deftly combines raag jaijaiwanti and shringar raas, giving the Krishna tribute one more style of interpretation in which the bhajan and the ballad fuse in a classical raag. The same year, Mangeshkar sang Radha Na Bole (Azad, 1955), composed by C Ramachandra. It combines the thumri form with raag bageshree.
The thumri is one of the most popular and recognised styles used in songs about Krishna. Examples include Madbhuban Mein Radhika Nache Re (Kohinoor, 1960), based on raga hameer, Mohe Panghat Pe Nandlal (Mughal-E-Azam, 1960), in raag gaara and filmed as a Janmasthami celebration, Kaun Gali Gayo Shyam (Pakeezah, 1972), and Kanha Main Tose Haari (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977), with an exquisite Kathak performance by Saswati Sen.
Apart from the classical tributes, songs announcing Krishna’s arrival have become a fixture of dahi handi events.
In the 1960s came the ubiquitous Janmasthami song Govinda Aala Re (Bluffmaster, 1963), sung by Mohammed Rafi and a jubilant chorus for music composers Kalyanji-Anandji. The song’s celebratory mood echoed through the following decades.
Mach Gaya Shor (Badla, 1974), Mach Gaya Shor (Khuddar, 1982), Aala Re Aala (Kala Bazaar, 1989), Chandi Ki Daal (Hello Brother, 1999), Har Taraf Hai Yeh Shor (Vaastav, 1999) and Go Govinda (OMG – Oh My God!, 2012), all bear the hallmark of the street song featuring large crowds, the breaking of the dahi handi, and synchronised dance steps. Go Govinda is one of the few occasions on which the dahi handi is smashed not by the hero but the heroine (played by Sonakshi Sinha).
Temple music has been an integral part of films, where the bhajan praising the Almighty has produced several tributaries within the devotional song genre that move from simple evocation to disco and trance.
The Krishna bhajan has its roots in the film song as early as 1935. In Dil Ki Pyaas, Kamla Jharia sings Nandlala Gopala, set to music by Nagar Das Nayak and written by Agha Hashr Kashmiri.
It is followed by Hey Natwar Giridhari, sung by Shanta Apte and composed by Ghulam Haider (Zameendar, 1942), and Kit Jaaye Basey Ho Murari (Asha, 1948), sung by Lata Mangeshkar for composer Khemchand Prakash. Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi acted in and sang Meera bhajans in the 1945 film Tamil film Meera. A Hindi version was released two years later.
Director and lyricist Gulzar did not meddle with the traditional poems of Meera in praise of Krishna in his 1976 biopic. Vani Jairam sang in Meera for composer Pandit Ravi Shankar. Mangeshkar had refused to sing for the film as she had already cut an album of Meera bhajans, Chala Vahi Des (1974) with her composer brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar.
Another aspect of Krishna that has been fruitfully explored in film songs is his mischievous (natkhat) behaviour. A year before Meera, Mangeshkar had sung Yashomati Maiyya Se Bole Nandlala, in which the petulant Krishna complains to his mother about his dark complexion. In Bhor Bhaye Panghat Pe based on raag bhairavi, Roopa (Zeenat Aman) sings “Mohe natkhat Shyam sataye” (The mischievous Krishna bothers me), referring to his playful antics while on her way to the river. These songs were written by Narendra Sharma and composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal for Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978).
The tradition of listing out Krishna’s pranks has featured in songs such as Mohe Chhedo Na (Lamhe, 1991) and even filmed peculiarly in faux-mujra fashion as Maiyya Yashoda Yeh Tera Kanhaiya in Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999).
V Shantaram filmed a colourful Holi song in which Krishna troubles a village girl in Arre Jaa Re Natkhat (Navrang, 1959). In the unusual composition, Krishna sings in his defence. The track was sung by Asha Bhosle and Mahendra Kapoor, written by Bharat Vyas and composed by C Ramachandra. Few songs have been sung from Krishna’s point of view. Bol Radha Bol (Sangam, 1964), and Radha Kaise Na Jale (Lagaan, 2001), give vent to his feelings when he is accused of playing truant.
It’s usually the other way round, as is evident from the mujra number Ek Radha Ek Meera (Ram Teri Ganga Maili, 1985), queen Jodhaa praying to his idol in the bhajan Mann Mohana (Jodhaa Akbar, 2008), or the young hero of Kisna: The Warrior Poet (2005) singing a paean Woh Kisna Hai.
The one time Krishna and Ram got equal attention was in the hit song from Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971). In the song Dum Maaro Dum, sung by Asha Bhosle, written by Anand Bakshi and composed by RD Burman, Krishna comes first in the lyrics imploring listeners to get high before chanting the names of the gods: “Dum maaro dum, mit jaaye gham, bolo subah shaam, Hare Krishna Hare Ram” (Smoke up, it alleviates pain, chant day and night, Hare Krishna Hare Ram).
With such a vibrant repertoire of songs inspired by Krishna, the lyrics of Krishna O Krishna (Meera Ka Mohan, 1992), written by Indivar and composed by Arun Paudwal, is weirdly appropriate. Kumar Sanu and Anuradha Paudwal sing, “Oh Krishna, you are the greatest musician of this world”.