Of times lost | Ayaz Amir

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Anil Biswas was a great name in music in his time. Now I suppose he is largely forgotten, except by aficionados and those into old-time music, the film music of the 1940s and 50s, an era which will never return.

To get an idea of how good a composer he was just listen to two of his songs: ‘Balma ja ja ja, ab kon tujhe samjhaye’ sung by Lata, and ‘ae jaan-i-jigar dil mein samane aa ja’ by Mukesh. Listen to them and even a dull evening will become soft. And I can wager you would play them over and over again. Both songs are based on raags as the best songs of that golden period usually were. But what particular raags? Alas, this is the extent of my music knowledge.

I should have gone to music school or taken tutelage under some ustad to get a basic understanding of the technical side of music but never found the time or was too lazy. Therefore here I am stuck with my ignorance. But never mind. When the evening stars come out and if you are lucky and not deprived, and your table is laid out, and everything is where it should be – decanter, glasses, everything – the thing is to enjoy good music if you have an ear for it and the rest will take care of itself.

It’s like Julia Roberts going to the opera for the first time in the film ‘Pretty Woman’. She’s never listened to opera before but listening to the music her eyes get wet and, when he notices this, Richard Gere smiles because he realises that this call girl, and she is one in that film, has a musical ear after all.

Balma ja ja ja is a dance song and whoever is dancing – I tried finding out the name but couldn’t – is riveting. It’s actually the power of the music…that’s where the lilt comes from. But the dancer matches the music and when it rises to a crescendo, and it rises twice in the course of the song, you have to see her arms, and her bewitching smile. And it’s all addressed to a customer – couldn’t discover his name either – who looks quite a chump. And she teases him but he’s lost in his world, contending with his demons.

And there’s a friend sitting with him who is the very picture of the practised tamashbeen – is there an English equivalent of this evocative word? – from whose slightly sardonic expression you can make out that he is familiar with this whole scene, knows every dancer there is to know and has been to every kotha. His knowing half-smile, and you get just a passing glimpse of it as the dance goes on, would be worth the price of the cinema ticket.

And where’s that engaging vagabond now? This scene, and the song and the dance, are from the 1951 film ‘Aaram’ when Lata was young, very young, and Anil Biswas was at his creative best. On life’s stage all these characters played their part and caused a stir while they were at it. Lata even as she lives, and may she live long, is already among the immortals. A hundred years from now, two hundred years, folks will still be listening to her songs…her best ones as many of her everyday songs fade into oblivion. Noor Jahan too is among the immortals. Her best songs will live forever.

Saigal of course resides with the gods…his songs imperishable. He sang no second-rate, forgotten songs. The entire body of his repertoire will live, the quality of his voice such that a thousand years from now people will still be listening to his songs.

But ordinary mortals are forgotten heroes. The dust around them settles and that is it…they fade into oblivion. I have just given an example of the tamashbeen. How engagingly he sits – I would give all the little money I possess to acquire some of his panache and presence. And now I am finding it hard to discover his name. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more.”

No one, incidentally, has done this famous speech better than Ian McKellen…it’s the pathos and force he brings to it. And his eyes are piercing, and his voice commanding. And if it means anything, he’s gay and was openly gay and outspoken about his orientation, when it wasn’t quite the fashion to be thus open.

Talking of Shakespeare speeches, there is one I keep going back to when feeling down and in need of a chuckle: the famous one towards the end of Henry IV when Falstaff is standing alone on the field of Shrewsbury and having just spoken to Prince John of Lancaster whom he doesn’t think much of, launches into a soliloquy about the great merits of drinking, and of drinking a particular kind of liquor, sherry, which in Shakespeare’s time was called sherris-sack.

This speech no one has done better than the great Orson Welles. This was at a show that used to be hosted by Dean Martin in Las Vegas. Welles first puts on makeup, and it’s great watching him do it, and then goes into the speech which ends with the ringing words, “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations, and to addict themselves to sack.”

As everyone knows Welles was not only a great actor but also a great film maker. He made a masterpiece out of the Falstaff plays, ‘Chimes at Midnight’. He himself in the film is Falstaff and in the opening scene is walking across the snow with Master Robert Shallow. They enter a hall with a high timber roof where a fire is burning and Shallow talks of old times – “The days that we have seen” – and Falstaff in a low, deep voice says, “We have heard the chimes at midnight.” And Shallow mentions the names of women they once knew – actually Falstaff knew because Shallow is all talk and no action – and Falstaff says, “Old, old” and it is at once amusing and touching, the tragedy of time and its passing evoked by the rendering of this one word.

I think wherever Shakespeare is taught, and a Shakespeare play is taught at least in our English medium schools, ‘Chimes at Midnight’ should be shown.

And there should be more shops selling old music. I have listened to Suraiya all my life but only recently discovered a truly haunting song by her: “Raaton kee neend cheen lee”. It’s again from a 1951 film ‘Shokhiyan’, the music by Jamal Sen, another extraordinary composter, and lyrics by Kedar Sharma. Two days ago while going to Islamabad I kept listening to this one song.

Did Suraiya nurse a broken heart? She was in love with Dev Anand and they both wanted to get married but Suraiya’s naani, grandmother – there’s always a naani in these settings – put her foot down and said she couldn’t marry a Hindu. That was it. Suraiya never married and when her film and singing career was over kept to herself and would not be seen in public. But her songs remain, and her acting too.