Salil Chowdhury’s wide-ranging repertoire of musical genres finds a cosy home in Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958), that timeless story about a fresh faced young man and a wide-eyed woman loving, losing and finding each other again. Chowdhury’s Western classical riffs segue nicely into folk tunes made heady by the simple blend of the been, flute and a pulsating dholak.
We begin with Suhana Safar, a simple enough tune for singer Mukesh to carry. Rinki Roy Bhattacharya’s book on her father Bimal Roy’s films talks about how Talat Mehmood was the original choice for this song, Mukesh having being picked for the purpose of helping him salvage his financial situation. And perhaps Mehmood would have matched the vigour and rapture of the protagonist’s journey, past hills and valleys and rivers that leap and flow with abandon (“Yeh gori nadiyon ka chalna uchhal kar”). But Mukesh acquits himself well, reaching into the depths of his soul to send out a strident call into the valley. The echo is unmistakable: I’m back and here to stay.
The best flourishes are in the lyrics. Shailendra links the imagery of flowers and mountains to the hero’s sense of destiny (“Meri duniya, mere sapne, milenge shaayad yahin”). And there’s a moment at the end of each stanza where the music comes to a complete halt before starting off again with the opening refrain – an endearing ode to a journey on foot, where you stop to smell the flowers. In fact, when you hear the first snatches of the song, it almost reminds you of a marching song.
Meanwhile, our heroine has simple, romantic dreams of her own. In Ghadi Ghadi, the tabla teams up with the ghungroo, setting a frenzied pace for the dancer and keeping time with her beating heart. It is not often that you hear the onomatopoeia of a heartbeat matched with the moments of a ticking clock. Ghadi Ghadi has the weightiness and fervour that a Dhak Dhak will never have.
The Ghadi Ghadi refrain reappears as an interlude in another song, Aaja Re Pardesi, in which it feels rushed and awkward, smashing through the purer emotion of waiting for a lover. This is particularly upsetting if you’re the kind to sing along – it is as if someone is trying to distract you by throwing another song at you while you are happily focused on another. Thus, Ghadi Ghadi runs its frantic course after the first stanza and you listen to the next stanza in agony, wondering if the interloper will be back.
This is not unusual for Chowdhury. He used the same technique elsewhere, for example, in the ghostly Saathi Re Tujh Bin (Poonam Ki Raat, 1965) where the interlude is “Baag mein kali khili”, originally a gambolling in the park tune from Chand Aur Suraj (1965).
But Aaja Re makes up for the lack of creative interludes with a delicate framing of the verses in raag bageshri (with significant digressions) and lyrics that lift the mundane self-reflections of a young woman to something a little more philosophical (“Main nadiya phir bhi main pyaasi”). This is the song that is beloved of travelling orchestras, also one that has some complex turns of melody as the singer-along will find to her dismay.
Dil Tadap Tadap is a Mukesh-Lata Mangeshkar duet with distinctly Western classical reverberations and claimed by many to be fully inspired by a Polish folk song. No matter. Mukesh deftly tackles the twisting and winding first stanza and Mangeshkar elevates it with her alaap that runs in harmony. That’s another Western classical touch by Chowdhury – the use of the counterpoint, two melodies running parallel, prevalent in symphony music.
The folk melodies are one with the theme of the film, and there are three of them. Asha Bhosle gets one – the Nepali folk-based Kancha Le Kanchi Lai Lajo – but the high points are provided by Mangeshkar in the sensuous Chadh Gayo Papi Bichhhua and Zulmi Sang Aankh Ladi.
It is impossible to listen to the Bichhua song and not be mesmerised by the full-on allusions to desire and the been and dholak combo that latches on to your heart and takes it swinging through the smoky landscape of the night. Manna Dey makes a brief but welcome appearance in this song, his honeyed tones a perfect fit for the witch doctor who is trying to subdue all those uncontrolled passions.
But there is no respite. Only a lover’s glance will slay the offending creature, and so the beat then gathers pace, rising to a crescendo, summoning him (“Piya ghar aa re”) and all of his alluring powers.
For the listener, the sting doesn’t wear off though – it’s on loop in your fevered head for days. This is a Bichhua that is hard to shake off.
Zulmi Sang is more innocent, more playful, but here again the rhythm is transporting. There is little to do but go under, succumb to the spell of flutes, beens and the urgent, sonorous dholak. This song also has one of the loveliest descriptions of how dizzying new love can be: “What is this madness, I’m calling out to the moon using my beloved’s name, there’s a spell cast on me” (“Mera pagalpana to koi dekho re, pukaroon main chanda ko sajan ke naam se”).
Finally, this little gem. It would have been overwhelmed by all the other grand themes and melodies in this album if it wasn’t for Mohammad Rafi doing his best drinking act ever. To wit: “A peacock is dancing away in the jungle and nobody gives it a glance, but I drink and sway a little, and everyone notices.”
The unfairness of it all.