Beyond appearances

The Hindu 24 Oct 2017

Deepa Ganesh

Many film songs have two versions. Why is one version more popular than the other? Does it have to do with the way we are as a society, or is it based on our artistic understanding?

One song having two versions is not uncommon to film music. Some of the all-time great melodies have had a male and female version, and at times in two different female or male voices… so on and so forth. Recently, a persistent ear bug took control of me: it was that intense rendition of “Ninnai Saranadandein” by Ilaiyaraja. The song is from the Tamil film Bharathi (2000) – which has some stunning compositions – set to Raga Pantuvarali. The song, a Spartan tune, and simple lyrics, gets its impact from its sustained, unadorned bhaava, and the attractive background score. The main melody is strictly Carnatic in its tenor, but the background score is modern and exegetic.

The song has a female version as well, rendered by the Carnatic vocalist Bombay Jayashri. There is no modification as far as the tune is concerned. Both versions – by Ilaiyaraja and Bombay Jayashree – are similar. The question however is, if they are similar, and the tune remains unmodified, are they identical? While this is an important question, there are also other questions that arise in discussions among film music connoisseurs as to which version is better – the male or female? And why?

Several ideas and thoughts have floated around: the discussions include everything from voice analysis to sociological reasons. Many are of the opinion that the male versions are remembered more than their female counterparts because the male voice is powerful: it is capable of creating an impact on listeners and hence, even in the world of classical music, the voices that move us are of say…Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, D.V. Paluskar, Ustad Amir Khan etc. Patriarchy is such a rooted phenomenon in Indian society that even in our choice of music, the needle tilts towards the man – say some. For another section of listeners, it has nothing to do with maleness or social beliefs, but an artistic choice that determines a favourite. It depends on the context of the song and its picturisation — that’s what lingers on, say others. There is some truth in all of this perhaps, but it is impossible for all of these to be applicable in all cases. We could, as case study, take “Tum Bin Jaaon Kahan” from the film Pyar Ka Mausam, which has music by R.D. Burman. The song has two versions by two legends, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar. So even before we set out to examine if the “male voice” is privileged, and “patriarchy” is a determining factor, they collapse. Coming to picturisation, the scenes in which these two renditions play out, are equally memorable. Yet, why do the millions who have listened to this splendid song, remember Rafi’s version first?

Let us consider “Jaaye to Jaaye Kahan” from the film Taxi Driver, sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Talat Mahmood. Think of the song, both voices occupy the mind at once – Lata’s version is flawless and haunting for its pertinence; Talat Mahmood for its mellow undertones. Despite not choosing one over the other, Talat Mahmood’s rendition feels closer – listen to the manner in which he articulates words like “kahaan”, “samajhega” etc. The drama that he creates for those words seems compatible to the musical sensibility that he bestows on it; it is better acted out than in the other version.

Music is a complex animal. It is music, and yet more than music. It is context, and beyond context. It is artistic capability, but not just that. If you look for answers in dichotomous territories then music is simply a failed exercise. It is an abstract idea, but it manifests itself in the real before it settles in you as abstract again. Parveen Sultana’s rendition of “Hamein Tumse Pyar Kitna” is charismatic (Kudrat): the sensuousness, her effortless bandish like rendition, her enchanting voice, the superb background score… you cannot ask for anything more perfect. But on placing it alongside Kishore Kumar’s rendition, its modesty appeals to you. In “Ehsaan Tera Hoga” from Junglee, both versions (Lata and Rafi) are exquisite. For a song that has lyrics and melody which can easily slip into melodrama, these two phenomenal singers handle it with amazing restraint and dignity: it is easily one of the best songs of Hindi cinema. So is the case with “Mayee Ree” from Dastak. Both Madan Mohan and Lata Mangeshkar are extraordinary in very different ways. In terms of music and rendition, Lata is phenomenal, however, Madan Mohan’s singing has a self-effacing quality to it — it is hard to resist it.

If exactly same songs — set to same notations, same melodic structure and same beat — sound different in different voices, where does difference lie? There is surely an interplay between two selves, that of the singer and that of the composition. The bodily dimension of the self is the song, and the singer is its reflective dimension. Interpretation therefore, is natural. The way in which these two dimensions interact is the relational dimension of the self, groomed as it were by the language and culture. Music therefore has two pre-requisites: one is to recognize its own self, and to also distance itself from it. Great music lies in the negotiation between these two. Even though Parveen Sultana’s rendition is every singer’s dream, Kishore Kumar endears because there is a dialogue between the bodily and reflective selves.

Music therefore, is beyond notations. It is impossible to ‘sing the notes’ just as it is superfluous to say ‘sing with expression’. The challenge for a musician is to match his self with the self of that piece of music which he has to render. In other words, to catch more than the meaning of the notation or the lyrics – his reflective self has to ‘see’ the essence. That is the moment in which music is born.

For Ilaiyaraja the song “Ninnai Saranadandein” is a journey to reach his vision, for Bombay Jayashri it is a Carnatic journey also. Hence, Ilaiyaraja sheds all entrapments to touch music in its barest form – in the process, he touches the naked self of the listener as well.

Soulful music is bare. It is a collision and subsequent disappearance of the self with the self-less. It is simple and grand, all at once.

Inner Voice is a fortnightly column on film music