Ruling the airwaves

August 2, 2020

The rise and fall of radio music

The best thing about film music was that it was easily accessible and in abundance. The radio stations in Pakistan used to broadcast film music all the time under various programme labels. On the other side, Vivat Bharati and then Radio Ceylon were the most favourite stations for Indian film songs.

It all seemed inevitable and one did not have to make any effort to be surrounded by film music as the songs continued throughout the day and night.

Very few people had gramophone players for playing film songs, but it was a great privilege. However, records soon lost their pristine quality and started to deteriorate. Sometimes the record player itself developed varying speeds other than the one prescribed. This, too, distorted the sound, either playing faster or slower than the required speed.

The early record players had to be manually wound up. There, too, at the end of the playing time the speed slowed down and elongated the sound or it worked faster creating a shrill screech. It was a test of one’s patience to listen to or enjoy music.

Radio Ceylon and Vivat Bharati were mostly heard on short wave frequency and the voice quality was not always consistent. The short wave transmission varied for a number of technical reasons, but these eluded most listeners. At times, there was encroachment by other stations, particularly Radio Moscow, which had more powerful transmitters. The sound could be heard in undulating waves, increasing and decreasing forever, but never consistent. The same ordeal was faced by those who tuned into cricket commentaries in faraway England, Australia or South Africa. Catching an odd phrase and then building upon it was a very favourite pastime that engrossed many.

When one developed interest in classical music, it became clear that it was not that easily accessible. One had to make an effort. It was either the 78 rpm discs or extended play or (later) long-play records that were sought after. Discovering or owning some was like winning a trophy.

For me, listening to film music was later relegated as being commonplace; classical music seemed to be a sign of class and good taste.

Also popular Western music was to be shunned. ‘Popular music’ was for the masses, who lacked ‘class’. All this changed with the Beatles and popular Western music started being seen as a sign of sophistication.

The Indian film imports were banned in the mid-fifties. There were re-runs of films already imported. This, too, came to end after the 1965 war.

From then to the mid-’70s, till the commissioning of Amritsar Television, and then the VCR revolution, film music could be heard only on radio.

Mostly songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi dominated the airwavess. While Rafi was the most popular male singer in the sub-continent, ruling the world of music from faraway Bombay, one heard rumours that he was from Lahore and had lived in the city before moving on to greener pastures.

Information about films, stars and singers came mostly in the form of rumours bordering on the scandalous. The other source, perhaps relatively more reliable, or so we thought, were the film magazines that thrived on rumours and scandals, that were like today, accepted by a gullible readership as gospel truth.

Mohammed Rafi was born in Kotla Sultan Singh village in the Punjab. He moved to Lahore and spent the formative period of his life in the city, working as a barber around Mohni Road and Bhaati Darwaza.

But his heart was in music and he moved and mixed freely with the music circles picking up the intricacies of music from a number of well-known vocalists and instrumentalists of Lahore. The music scene was quite vibrant and people like Jeevan Lal Mattoo served as connoisseurs and patrons of music in the city. It was in these sittings and soirees that Mohammed Rafi picked up the finer aspects from Ustads like Abdul Waheed Khan and Chotay Ghulam Ali Khan. Feroz Nizami introduced him to the radio in Lahore before he made his film debut for Shayam Sunder’s Punjabi film Gul Baloch in 1944. He moved to Bombay and was given a break by Naushad in the film Pehlay Aap, the same year.

Though he was noticed when he sang alongside KL Saigal in Shah Jehan, it was his duet with Noor Jehan in Jugnu, composed by Feroz Nizami, that catapulted him to the title of the leading male vocalist. He truly arrived as an individual vocalist in Mela where again he sang under the musical direction of Naushad.

Now music was making a transition from the purist tradition cultivated by individual patrons and super virtuosity of master musicians to a more popular level. Despite being hemmed in by the limitations of the market and disparate popular expectations, the music composers did a fine job of not letting go of the essentials of the local musical traditions.

Mohammed Rafi lived in that phase. Despite the innovations and changes, he never tinkered with the essentials of the classical tradition. When film music moved into top gear with greater input from the enriched musical heritage, Mohammed Rafi had the credentials to be its chief exponent among the male vocalists.

For the next two decades, he ruled the world of film songs. During the 1970s, as musical tastes changed, he gave way to other singers. He died at a relatively young age and is still remembered by many in all parts of the world, particularly in the sub-continent.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Ruling the airwaves