Sometime in the midst of the swinging sixties, the great Naushad Ali realised the urgent need to re-invent himself. The astute music director, famed for his classical scores, knew what he needed to do: hire a new arranger, someone who could give a more contemporary feel to his melodies. Luckily for him, he didn’t have to look too far.
The young man Naushad turned to was a Parsi named Kersi Lord. Naushad had first noticed Kersi when, as a child, the latter would accompany his father Cawas Lord – an ex-jazz drummer who became one of the most respected percussionists in the film line – to the recording studios. After recordings, Naushad would often send the boy in his car to the nearest railway station so that he could reach school on time. Even 50 years later, Kersi would recall this gesture with fondness – as also the name of the driver, the car’s make and number!
Kersi literally grew up in the studios. Among his mentors was the legendary arranger Anthony Gonsalves, a tough taskmaster. “I have often cried on his sets. He would write difficult parts and if you could not play, he would sarcastically say, ‘Can’t play, huh? Don’t practice, go and watch movies!’ That forced me to practice, na.”
All those hours of practice stood him in good stead. Kersi started off as a percussionist, playing a whole range of smaller Latin percussion instruments (many of them introduced by his father). Gradually, he started playing bongos and congas in recordings, and later a series of mallet instruments – the vibraphone, the xylophone and the glockenspiel. (The glock is used to great effect in the famous lighter tune that occurs as an aural leitmotif in Hum Dono). And if it wasn’t enough that he played a series of percussion instruments with a certain level of dexterity, he was an ace accordionist to boot.
But it was one thing to be a first-rate instrumentalist. Could he also be a capable arranger to the formidable Naushad Ali? In an attempt to first assess the competence of the untested young man, he surprised Kersi by casually asking him to do the background score for a scene in Ram Aur Shyam (1967). The result seems to have pleased Naushad because Kersi was promptly hired to do his next film. Saathi (1968) stands out musically as a radical departure from Naushad’s earlier (substantial) oeuvre. In the film’s most famous song (see playlist below), Kersi channels his fondness for Carnatic percussion, especially the work of the great mridangam player Palghat Mani Iyer, to elevate what is essentially a very simple central melody.
Kersi’s career as an arranger, however, was short-lived. He had always asked for a separate credit line, something not always forthcoming. (Arrangers were conventionally credited as Music Assistants and their names clubbed with assistants from other departments). And when he did not get credited for arranging the background score for Kamal Amrohi’s epic Pakeezah (1972), he decided to work only as an instrumentalist. But not before giving us at least two more great tracks. The bluesy Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho is a classic and no case needs to be made for it. Not as well known is the scorching instrumental theme from Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma (1974). The track, which has been sampled a few times, is credited to composers Kalyanji-Anandji, but it was in fact composed, arranged and conducted by Kersi Lord.
While Kersi worked with almost every composer of any significance from the late ‘40s to the ‘90s, it was his work as an instrumentalist with RD Burman that has been often highlighted. Kersi was a critical cog in the Burman hit machine, someone who could be always called upon to go the extra mile to get the right sound. It was also Burman who got Kersi to make a comeback as an arranger for the background score of Shalimar (1978). Krishna Shah, the producer-director of the film, which boasted of international stars like Rex Harrison and John Saxon, was delighted with the eventual result and considered it at par with any international score.
In March 1968, Columbia Masterworks Records released an album titled Switched-On Bach by Walter Carlos (who later underwent a gender reassignment surgery to become Wendy Carlos). The album became a bestseller and played a massive role around the world in popularising “electronically rendered music in general, and the Moog synthesizer in particular.” Kersi Lord was one of those who was bowled over by the sounds of the Moog synthesizer. And when a more portable version of the instrument came out a few years later, he got himself one. While electronic keyboards of some sort had been in sporadic use since the early fifties in Hindi film music, the late seventies saw a quantum shift in their use. And Kersi was at the vanguard of this.
By the 1990s, the synthesizers had begun to replace the orchestra. He was often asked if he held himself responsible for what happened. His answer: “When I started using programming, it was only to improve the sound, to augment it. I never thought it could replace real instruments.”
Kersi Lord retired in 2000, still very much at the top of his game. In 2005, he was approached by filmmaker Chris Smith and composers Didier Laplae and Joe Wong to arrange the background music for an independent American production. The Pool – shot in Goa and featuring a brilliant performance by Nana Patekar – went on to win an Audience Award at the Sundance film festival. Its beautiful but understated music was recorded with live musicians playing under Kersi’s baton one last time at Mumbai’s last analogue studio.
Fifty two years. Upward of 5,000 songs. A staggering number of background scores. Unsurprisingly, Kersi would find himself inundated with queries about the making of some song or the other. Sometimes, in exasperation, he would claim to have “a delete button” in his head. “I would play something and then forget it. Otherwise you cannot do anything new. You cannot progress.”
The “delete button” was a survival tool in more ways than one. For someone who tasted heady professional success, he had also withstood a series of crushing personal blows. His first wife died only months into their marriage, after a seemingly harmless appendectomy went terribly wrong. A few years later, he lost his mother in a horrible road accident. And then, in 1990, his second wife Rose passed away, leaving Kersi in charge of three young daughters.
But that part of him always remained well hidden. What the world saw was an argumentative but genial old Parsi, sharing bawdy SMS jokes and guffawing at every opportunity. The only time he came close to breaking down was when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at a major music award function in 2009. As he walked on to the stage, everyone in the audience stood up to clap. For someone who had spent his entire life in the background, this was probably the ultimate validation of his work.
Talking about delete buttons, one should not forget that with the passing away of Kersi Lord we have, in one fall swoop, lost a remarkable and substantial chunk of our film history. Having started his career in the ’40s, he was our last link to that chain, the keeper of the flame. We couldn’t get in all our questions in time. In the end, that is what will always rankle. That it all came to an end so suddenly. That we couldn’t even say our goodbyes.
The essential Kersi Lord playlist:
Rudradeep Bhattacharjee is the director of the documentary The Human Factor, about orchestras in the Hindi film industry.
Correction and clarifications: This article has been re-edited to correct the number of songs Kersi Lord was involved in himself. While the Lord family recorded an estimated 15,000 tunes between them, Kersi Lord was probably associated with the creation of 5,000 songs.