I am an avid Hindi film music fan (I know, this sounds clichéd) although of late I wasn’t getting much time to listen to 100s of my favorite songs. While recovering from a severe bout of herpes (no, as many of you might think, it was not sexually transmitted) I got to spend lots of time in my bed, with my Samsung Galaxy Tab constantly playing 300 odd songs that I have saved in it. Most of the songs belong to the 50s, the 60s and the 70s eras and to my pleasant surprise, many of the highly popular songs have been sung by Geeta Dutt.
After completely dominating the Hindi film music industry for a very long time, due to some illness and other reasons, she took a break and then tried to reignite her singing career with a melodious Mujhe jaan na kaho meri jaan. But by 1972 the style of singing had totally changed and you can actually feel how “out of time” she sounds, especially after listening to the songs of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle. No wonder, she never sang again. This also helps you understand clearly why some singers are timeless and why some are not.
This characteristic of timelessness can be applied to any art, whether it is singing, instrumental music, writing or painting. Artistic expressions that are slaves to their times don’t last much but those who attain popularity simply due to their quality are always in demand (not considering fads). But here my focus is in the film songs.
If you listen to Muhammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, aside from the fact that they were highly versatile and hard-working, you will notice that they got rid of time-specific accents and started singing with very clear pronunciations. They developed their voice culture in such a manner that no matter when you listen to them, they’re not going to sound old or out of date. This is the reason why their songs became so popular and why in various remixed and twisted forms they keep on surfacing in many films and advertisements.
Take for instance contemporary Hindi film singers. None of them sounds in command. They are either shrieking or purposely singing in a weird style so that they’re not judged on the basis of their singing. Many of them sing in an Anglicized accent. Some resort to Sufi styles. Some try to imitate the rustic rural styles. Nobody just sings, the way Rafi and his contemporaries used to. Just imagine Kailash Kher, or even Rahat Fateh Ali Khan trying to sing Tum muje yun bhula na poege or Koi hota jisko apna. Which contemporary singer can sing Roop tera, mastana with the same level of passion and sensuality?
The key things that made Rafi and company timeliness are:
- Total command over their vocal cords
- Love for the art instead of the lifestyle
- No particular accent
- Very clear pronunciation
Of course music directors and lyricists played a very important role, but eventually it was the singing that did the trick. And it is not about being old and being contemporary. Very old singers like Sehgal, Surya, etc. wouldn’t have been able to compete with this set of singers because they used to sing with a certain style. Surya singing Khallaas or Sehgal singing Ajaa ajaa, mai hun pyaar teraa would be total disasters. Attitude too must have contributed to a great extent.
Being a successful singer doesn’t mean always trying to sound philosophical and Sufi, growing beards and hair, always trying to sing in the taar-saptak, singing and talking as if Hindi is your second language and English is the first and so on. It is about relentless practice. It is about singing from your stomach. It is about having full command over your vocal cords so that when you are singing, you’re focusing on the lyrics and the expression, and not on the effort required to maintain notes. You become timeless when you sing with a clear accent and you have had so much practice that your every song seems so easy and effortless.