Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Bollywood: No Sax Please, Only Violins

For several years now, Hindi film music has had two defining characteristics. Well, 'defining' is too strong. Let's make that 'distinctive'. One of the features is the rather high pitch and shrill timbre of the singers, especially the female singers. Leading the pack is the strong leader for several years the undying Ms Lata Mangeshkar, the raashtriya kokila. This can often cause unwary listeners (even those used to operas in foreign languages that chiefly comprise people competing to shatter the glass over the heads of the audience) some grief. The second feature is the rather opulent use of violins (contributing the unison melodies, basic background harmonies in a second voice). In fact the violin seems to have served two purposes:

1. Act as the default instrument of choice when arranging a newly composed (or appropriated) melody.

2. Take the place of the main singer, giving him/her time to regain their breath and posture before plunging into another attack on the vitrics.

Most composers would often assign banks of violins to run chorus lines or provide mandatory interludes. Some begged to differ. One replacement for the bank-of-violins chorus was a bevy of usually unsynchronized inharmonious gaggle of out-of-work chorus girls. They would all, of course, consciously attempt to abide by rule I above and contribute to the main singer's efforts to shatter glass. Clearly, violins are more capable in this regard. Some composers often attempt to supplant violins completely, offering us some relief. In fact, modern-day composers have taken a leaf out of the 80s and have embraced technology to give us crisp, glossy, well-rounded, mathematically correct, musically overprecise, uniform, pre-sampled, digitized music enriched by strings retrieved from a talented tone bank. Composers of the past years did not have the luxury of hard disks and Cakewalk. I'm not sure when the propensity for violins gained momentum, but it definitely affects music of the 60s, 70s and 80s and so on.

I'm a melomaniac, and things like this can be very upsetting. However, there is still hopein this ocean of Indian Tchaikovskies and Brahmses. Just replayed a song from my RD Burman collection (yes, unfortunately, he too was swimming in the same waters) that had NO violins. Remarkable. The pitfall in the song is Annette, a chorus girl (remember the female voice in Dilbar mere from Satte Pe Satta?) elevated to the role of main singer, whose enunciation is atrocious at times. The song: chhodo sanam. The instruments: percussion, flute, electric guitar.

I encountered another song today evening that is devoid of violins: it's perhaps the first Hindi film song to employ the flanger. The only other things in the song are a train whistle and percussion...and of course R. D. Burman's growling voice: Dhanno ki Aankhon Mein from Kitaab.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.