His songs have been sampled by music bands abroad and reprised in latter-day Hindi films. His composition Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja became a rage in many countries. His name appears in the Guinness Book of World Records for composing 180 songs in a single year (1986). He has trademarked his look and unfailingly maintains it in every public appearance. His gold ornaments and pendants make him a walking jewellery store. He is the big daddy of disco in Hindi films.

Bappi Lahiri’s flashy, unabashed public persona has been fodder for the media. That, and the fact that he single-handedly set off the decline of melody in Hindi films in the 1980s, have overshadowed the fact that he also created a long string of memorable songs, several of which are timeless classics.

Alokesh Lahiri was born in 1952 in Jalpaiguri in Bengal. Meera Lahiri, an aunt, gave him the nickname Bapi (years later, he changed it to Bappi at producer Shomu Mukherjee’s suggestion).

Lata Mangeshkar, who was close to his parents Aparesh and Bansari Lahiri, noted singers and composers of Bengali music, noticed Bapi’s interest in music when he was a tiny tot. At her suggestion, the child started learning to play the tabla at the age of five – from none other than the master, Pandit Samta Prasad. With a generous dose of music in his genes, he was an excellent learner. He composed his first tune when he was 11; his father happily recorded it as a Bengali song.

Lahiri had scant interest in academics. Music was his life. So, when he composed music for the Bengali film Daadu (1972), nobody was surprised.

But Lahiri didn’t want to stay on in Calcutta. He had set his heart on composing for Hindi films, a dream his parents encouraged. The family moved to Bombay, his parents giving up their music careers to nurture his – something Lahiri is deeply grateful for.

Nanha Shikari (1973), produced and directed by Shomu Mukherjee, was Lahiri’s debut as a music composer in Hindi cinema. He was just 21. Though this film doesn’t have an outstanding score, the sweet Tu Hi Mera Chanda, Tu Hi Taara (Sushma Shreshtha, Mukesh) and the ebullient Tu Meri Manzil (Asha Bhosle and a yodelling Kishore Kumar) were enough to signal the arrival of a bright new talent.

When Shomu Mukherjee and Bappi Lahiri met Kishore Kumar to request him to sing for this film, the maverick singer agreed to their request on one condition: that Lahiri act in Kumar’s forthcoming film! A surprised Lahiri accepted the offer. He not only acted in Badhti Ka Naam Daadhi (1974), but also sang for it.

In those early years, Lahiri scored music mainly for small-budget films. BR Ishara’s Charitra (1973) and Bazar Band Karo (1974) were two such productions. Both films quickly went nowhere, taking their music with them.

But the songs of Bazar Band Karo are worth listening to. The playfully sensuous Pyaasi Nigahon Mein Sajan (Asha Bhosle) has a mellow RD Burman feel (a la Anamika), while the romantic Asha-Kishore duet Nahin Chodoge Kabhi Mera Haath is redolent with the folk fragrances of SD Burman. But undoubtedly, the best song of the film is Mukesh’s Mohe Kar De Bida, a song of parting in which the plaintive notes of the shehnai pierce your heart.

Ye Jawani Din Char, Badhti Ka Naam Daadhi (1974).

Ek Ladki Badnaam Si (1974) also tanked, which is why practically nobody has heard of Koi Mare Jiye Apne (Asha, Bappi) and Zindagi Hai Hanske (Asha, Kishore), both of which carry an RD Burman whiff. In Rahen Na Rahen Chahe (Kishore, Lata), Lahiri strikes gold. His lush tune is supplemented by simple yet beautiful orchestration. A song declaring the eternal nature of love, it tugs at your heartstrings. It must have tugged producer-director Tahir Hussain’s heartstrings too, because he walked up to Lahiri’s flat in the Khar Danda area of Bombay with a peculiar offer.

Those days, RD Burman was so busy that he didn’t know whether he was coming or going. Having composed the songs for Hussain’s forthcoming film Madhosh (1974), he didn’t have the time to score its background music. So Hussain invited a young Lahiri to step into Pancham’s shoes.

Happy but taken aback, Aparesh Lahiri insisted that Hussain get a no objection certificate from Burman before his son started working on the film to avoid any potential unpleasantness. Working on the background score of Madhosh cemented the composer’s ties with Hussain and landed him Zakhmee, his first big break.

Mohe Kar De Bida, Bazar Band Karo (1974).

The multi-hued soundtrack of Tahir Hussain’s Zakhmee (1975) made everyone sit up and take note of the youngster from Bengal. While the film was a moderate success, its music was a bumper hit. It showcases Lahiri’s command over a range of musical styles and instruments.

Jalta Hai Jiya Mera (Kishore Kumar’s husky, low-pitched voice is perfect for the song’s slow-burn sensuousness) and Abhi Abhi Thi Dushmani (Lata Mangeshkar singing open-throated) are enjoyable songs with a Western melodic pattern and orchestration.

In Nothing Is impossible, Lahiri creates a freakish psychedelic rock soundtrack. In stark contrast is Aali Re Aali Re Holi. Its mostly boisterous tune, orchestration and chorus are punctuated by moments of melancholy, at which the music slows down and Kishore Kumar lowers his scale a bit. But the winner is the wistful Aao Tumhe Chand Pe Le jayen (Lata Mangeshkar, Sushma Sreshtha). Mangeshkar’s dulcet voice and the wonderful tune give this song a lingering, dreamy effect.

Nothing is Impossible, Zakhmee (1975).

The next year, Lahiri’s Chalte Chalte hit the screens. Its songs – youthful, energetic and happy – were instant hits. While the title song and Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi were received well, the others – Door Door Tum Rahe, Jaana Kahaan Hai and Sapnon Ka Raja – deserve appreciation, too.

After Zakhmee and Chalte Chalte, Lahiri could finally stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his senior contemporaries Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji and RD Burman. The talented struggler was now a sought-after composer.

Noted musician and composer Sunil Kaushik told me, “Bappi was eager to make a mark in Hindi films. His energy and enthusiasm were his biggest strengths.” Kaushik played the guitar for Lahiri in many songs, including Bambai Se Aaya Mera Dost (Aap Ki Khatir), Chalte Chalte and Abhi Abhi Thi Dushmani.

Chalte Chalte (1976).

Having found his groove, Lahiri went on to create a long string of memorable songs in the next five years, most of which have been lost in the mists of time. Listen to the classical Meri Payal Ki Jhankar (Pratima Aur Payal), the haunting Aur Kaun Aayega with its voice-overlap effect (Aur Kaun), Bheega Bheega Mausam (Suraag) and the qawwali Dildar Humare Dil Ko Tum (Sangram) and you will know what I mean.

By the time he created music for Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979), Bappi Lahiri was in full stride. One must look beyond the chartbusting Chahiye Thoda Pyaar (Kishore Kumar) to discover the hidden treasures. Like the mellow, romantic Mathe Ki bindiya (Anuradha Paudwal, Mohammed Rafi), which has Helen in an unlikely turn as the heroine; the melancholic Ro Ro Diwali Beeti (Anuradha Paudwal); the childlike Humse Tum Mile (Danny Denzongpa, singing for himself, and Chandrani Mukherjee); Muskurata Hua Gul Khilata Hua Mera Yaar (Kishore) with its wonderful guitar and sax pieces and that triumph of a song, Yesudas’s Zid Na Karo.

Muskurata Hua, Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979).

Lahiri’s music in the seventies and early eighties shows his experimental nature, versatility, astonishing sense of melody and rhythm and tasteful orchestration. A few of his earliest songs carry the thumbprints of Madan Mohan and SD Burman, composers he deeply respected.

That he came from the same mould as RD Burman is strikingly evident. Both had noted Bengali music personalities for parents. Both learnt to play the tabla at a young age. Apart from sharing the same musical instincts, both had a keen ear for music and readily embraced varied influences. And finally, they had an equally strong grasp of melody and rhythm.

Over the years, Lahiri managed to create his own musical ethos. He composed songs of practically every kind: romantic numbers, raga-based songs, bhajans, rock-based tunes, melancholic numbers, qawwalis, mujras, folk songs, comic songs and lullabies. In them, you hear the santoor, sitar and flute as much as you hear drums and the trumpet.

Curiously, the influence of Bengali music is not stamped all over his music, another indication of his proclivity to venture far from his roots. But from time to time, he would return home to draw from kirtan, Rabindrasangeet and other such founts, as in Shyam Ranga Ranga Re (Apne Paraye) and the goosebump-inducing Nanha Sa Panchi Re Tu (Toote Khilone). While Babloo Chakrabarty arranged music for him in the first few years, Anil-Arun (Anil Mohile and Arun Paudwal) took over later. His mother, Bansari Lahiri, also assisted him in a few films.

Nanha Sa Panchi Re Tu, Toote Khilone (1978).

The top playback singers of the day sang some of their most melodious songs under Lahiri’s baton. Apart from Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar, these include Asha Bhosle, Mahendra Kapoor, Manna Dey, Mukesh, Mohammad Rafi, Aarti Mukherjee, Sushma Sreshtha, Sulakshana Pandit, Chandrani Mukherjee, Usha Uthup and Anuradha Paudwal.

Time and again, Lahiri has credited Kishore Kumar (who he called maama) and Lata Mangeshkar with helping him shape his identity in Hindi films. Between them, the two legends have sung several hundred songs for the composer.

But it’s a little-known fact that the composer saved some of his most delectable compositions for Yesudas and Bhupinder. The euphoric Maana Ho Tum (Toote Khilone), the ruminative Char Din Ki Zindagi (Ek Baar Kaho), the anguish-ridden Teri Choti Si Ek Bhool (Shiksha), the dewy-fresh and glistening-with-hope Dheere Dheere Subah Hui (Haisiyat), the pillowy-soft Apni Baahon Ka Haar De (Kala Sooraj), the steeped-in-bhakti Shyam Rang Ranga Re and the philosophical Gao Mere Man (both from Apne Paraye): Yesudas’s voice and depth of feeling make each of these songs a deeply moving experience. In every way, these songs match the ones he sang for Salil Choudhury and Ravindra Jain.

As for Bhupinder, Kisi Nazar Ko Tera (Aitbaar), Saiyan Bina Ghar Soona (Aangan Ki Kali), Yeh Kis Bandhan Mein (Doosri Dulhan) and Har Jeevan Har Yug (Nai Imarat) brought out the best in him. They leave a lasting impression on us.

Kisi Nazar Ko Tera, Aitbaar (1985).

Lahiri himself sang a number of songs. While not being a patch on those of the playback singing greats, his voice has an eagerness that is appealing. He sings like a teenager trying to impress his girlfriend. Tumhara Pyaar Chahiye (Manokaamna) is a great example. And then there is Bambai Se Aaya Mera Dost. Likely inspired by the music of the fisherfolk living near his locality in Bombay, this song became symbolic of friendship and reunions. But of the many songs he sang, Tu Kahaan Aa Gayee Zindagi (Bhavna) is my favourite. Punching above his weight, Lahiri imbues this jewel of a composition with gravitas.

Tu Kahaan Aa Gayee Zindagi, Bhavna (1984).

Bappi Lahiri collaborated with brilliant lyricists, such as Amit Khanna, SH Bihari, Kaifi Azmi, Yogesh, Anand Bakshi, Hasan Kamal, Maya Govind, Farouq Kaiser, Gauhar Kanpuri, Shaily Shailendra, Naqsh Lyallpuri, Indeevar and Anjaan.

With the release of Disco Dancer (1982), his music transformed drastically. Extremely market-savvy, Lahiri was quick to spot the new trends and changing tastes in film music. And he adapted to these in a flash. Unfortunately, in doing so, he moved away from his roots, almost severing his connection with melody.

Lahiri discovered disco on a visit to the USA in the late 1970s. The pulsing beats blew his mind. Returning to India, he deployed this style in Mausam Hai Gaane Ka Bajaane Ka (Surakksha), his first song to incorporate a disco rhythm.

Mausam Hai Gaane Ka Bajaane Ka, Surakksha (1979).

Music historian Pavan Jha recognises Bappi Lahiri’s talent, but says that he lost his way. “When multi-starrer films gained ground after 1975, melody took a backseat,” Jha said. “The focus was on action and the star appeal of the lead actors.

Jha added a more interesting factor: “The presence of many big stars turned these films into logistical nightmares. Date problems and ego clashes between stars led to frequent delays in their production and release. Seeing this, producers from Madras and Hyderabad swiftly stepped in. They came with formulaic scripts, a disciplined approach to work and the ability to turn around films quickly. They needed a music composer who could churn out tunes fast enough. Bappi decided he would be that composer.”

While Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Rajesh Roshan and Kalyanji-Anandji also latched on to these trends, none did it more profitably than Lahiri. As for RD Burman, he struggled through the 1980s, finding himself caught between his creative impulses and the compulsions of the market.

Thankfully, even when he went all tha thaiya and ui amma or stormed the dance floor with his disco rhythms, Lahiri retained a tenuous hold on melody. Kya Khabar Kya Pata (Saaheb), Dheere Dheere Subah Hui (Haisiyat), Roshan Roshan Raatein Apni (Hum Rahe Na Hum), Manzilen Apni Jagah Hain (Sharaabi), Humko Aajkal Hai (Sailaab) and a few other tracks are proof of this.

Dheere Dheere Subah Hui, Haisiyat (1984).

Bappi Lahiri’s compositions from 1973 to 1981 rival those of stalwarts such as Shankar-Jaikishan, SD Burman, RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Kalyanji-Anandji in melody, orchestration and range. Unfortunately, he is known only for the thumping, raucous music he created later on. While many people sway to that music, many others curl their lips at it. The point is, neither group knows about the “other Bappi”, let alone appreciate him.

This must change. Because Bappi Lahiri deserves better.

Also read:

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