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Scholar Extraordinaire: Ashok Ranade on Hindi Film Music

A rare scholar-performer of Hindustani art music, Ashok Da Ranade passed away recently. This tribute looks at his pioneering scholarship on Hindi film music, to which he accorded seriousness as an independent and distinct genre of Indian music. The hope is that his powerful analysis of this field will pave the way for more contextualised and musically informed research, rooted in a firm understanding of Hindi films.


Scholar Extraordinaire: Ashok the effortlessness came from a complete mastery over the music, a deep compre-
Ranade on Hindi Film Music hension that was the result of years of immersion and practice (sadhana), coupled
with natural genius.
Ranade’s writings, in both Marathi and
Ashwini Deshpande English, on art music, ethnomusicology, on

A rare scholar-performer of Hindustani art music, Ashok Da Ranade passed away recently. This tribute looks at his pioneering scholarship on Hindi film music, to which he accorded seriousness as an independent and distinct genre of Indian music. The hope is that his powerful analysis of this field will pave the way for more contextualised and musically informed research, rooted in a firm understanding of Hindi films.

The author is grateful to G P Deshpande, Sudhanva Deshpande, Urmila Bhirdikar, Partho Dutta and Amlan Dasgupta for very quick feedback.

Ashwini Deshpande ( teaches economics at the Delhi School of Economics.

oted theoretician, ethnomusicologist, vocalist and voice-culturist, Sangeetacharya Ashok Da Ranade (1937-2011) passed away on 30 July 2011. Ranade possessed an exceptional ability to articulate a keen understanding of Hindustani art music and related genres through performance, text and speech. This combination is extremely rare, especially in the context of Hindustani art music, as is apparent from the dichotomy between performers and scholars of music. Ashok Ranade was a scholar-performer of the best kind, and easily one of the most lucid speakers, not only among those who speak on music or the arts, but among all those who aim to convey complex, difficult, highly specialised and otherwise inaccessible ideas or constructs to the lay public. He achieved this remarkable feat of making the topic at hand appear simple to the listener without compromising on its complexity.

The first time I heard Ranade was during a performance he had conceived of baithakichi lavani (literally, lavani performed in the sit-down style), in which vocalist Shruti Sadolikar performed the individual pieces, interwoven with his commentary. He had the audience in a packed Kamani Auditorium in Delhi spellbound, in pindrop silence. At the end of the programme, it was difficult to decide which of the two elements – the performance or the commentary – was more mesmerising.

Each time I heard Ranade lecture on art music, it was like listening to the popular Lata Mangeshkar songs from the 1950s and 1960s – so appealing that one was immediately tempted to try one’s hand at them, and so effortless that they seemed within reach. In the effort of replication, one became conscious of just how difficult the task was, and struck, anew, by the superlative communicative abilities of the performer, who was able to convey the complexity of the piece (or idea) without making it heavy. One also understood that

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theatre and music, on music and aesthetics and on musicians are prolific, widely read and discussed. What is relatively less known is his interest in, and his understanding of, Hindi film music (HFM), some selected aspects of which I attempt to capture in this short piece. In 2006, he wrote a book called Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries, which explores the role of music in cinema more broadly, its particular and changing place in Hindi cinema specifically, and goes on to document important landmarks in the evolution of HFM. That a scholar of the stature of Ashok Ranade chose to study HFM with his characteristic seriousness and comment on it so thoroughly provides legitimacy to the argument that HFM is an independent and distinct genre of Indian music.1

Ranade noted that while film studies have grown in quality and quantity, serious studies of HFM are few and far between. He argued that HFM needed to be studied in proper context, with the successive contextual levels being Indian music as the broadest category, followed by popular music, film music, HFM and Hindi film song. Scholars needed to move through successively narrower, intrinsically related and progressively specific musico-cultural contexts in order to understand and comment on HFM. In Hindi Film Song, Ranade made the extremely important observation that (p 25):2

linguistic bias in explaining cinematic communication and literary bias in examining aesthetic values, have both created problems in understanding and assessing HFM...[and that the research in HFM]... should not insist on explaining everything music-related via ‘Big Theories’ to the exclusion of concrete evidence of individual songs.3

Between 2006 when he wrote this and now, scholarly studies of both Hindi films and their music have mushroomed, but several of them suffer from this very shortcoming that Ranade was able to pinpoint sharply.

To those who wonder why HFM is such an important component of Hindi films,

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Ranade’s analysis can provide some answers. He reported that in 1937, when 1020 songs per film were the norm, Naujawan of Wadia Movietone did not have a single song. When the movie premiered in Jubilee cinema in Delhi, the audience went on a rampage, throwing stones, breaking chairs and shouting “Wadia ne loot liya” (“Wadia has robbed us”); the film had to be temporarily withdrawn. The spectators’ strong protest forced the producers to insert a trailer before the film to explain why there were no songs (p 117).

One simple explanation offered for the importance of HFM is the Indian weakness for songs. Ranade assumes this to be the cause; however, it could be argued that this reflects the importance of songs not only in Hindi, but in all Indian cinema. The deeper explanation Ranade offered is that historically, Indian cinema has relied on the heritage of Indian theatre, which is built on the intertwining of the drishya (visual) and the shravya (aural), giving rise to the musical drama. In some phases of cinematic development, Indian music drama has influenced cinematic creation, and this is seen in the presence of songs in films. The aural includes both the instrumental (represented through kutapa, or orchestra) and vocal music. But the main genre of theatrical music was dhruva or the song.

Ranade provided an interesting insight from Bharata’s (of the Natyashastra) writings. Bharata stated that the dhruva could be atmasanstha (sung by oneself) or parasanstha (sung by another). Ranade warned against using this statement to trace playback singing to Bharata, but pointed out the latter’s pragmatism in allowing for this possibility. Another dramatic insight provided by Bharata was allowing the dhruva the freedom to break away from the rules imposed in the Gandharva stream, the main category of art music during his times – a practice that was clearly carried over into films.

After discussing features of popular music, of which HFM is a part, Ranade went on to decompose film music (chitrapata sangeet) into its components: chitra (the visual image) + pata (as a noun, a tablet or a piece of cloth on which the painting is made; as a verb, it means “to go or move, to string or weave”) + sangeet

Economic & Political Weekly

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(music). Through this mode of analysis, he provided a fascinating link between cinema and the pata tradition in various part of the country – for instance, the Chitrakathis of Maharashtra, the Phad tradition of Rajasthan and so forth – which represented performance combining music, narration and scroll paintings as visuals. Ranade suggested that some patterns of combining music with moving images were already present in pre-talkie days and that these influences “reverberate” through various Indian cinematic traditions.

Songs and Sounds

Ranade’s analysis of the role of music in films was fairly detailed. For instance, it aided in the progression of the narrative or assisted the viewers’ suspension of disbelief, or served to accentuate an emotion (such as romance or grief), or create a mood without specifically referring to the psychological state of a character and so forth. All these are contributions of film music, particularly the song, to cinematic progression or representation. In addition to these, Ranade highlighted the very crucial musical contribution of film music. As a sub-stream of Indian popular music, film music, particularly HFM, has been in the forefront of musical experimentation, albeit with mixed results (“good, bad and indifferent”). Ranade characterised HFM as “modern”, suggesting that “the most notable borrowing that has formed a part of this modernity has been the use of musical instruments (largely western), chordal harmony since the late 1940s and some dance rhythms” (p 87). He then illustrated this contribution with reference to specific musicians, dividing the entire period into two broad phases preand post-independence, as the orientation of movies, and hence the role and focus of the music changed over the two periods.

After this historical and theoretical discussion, Ranade turned his attention specifically to the songs and sounds in HFM and listed important milestones and influences in meticulous detail, followed by a discussion of individual composers and singers. One can agree or disagree with a particular characterisation put forth by Ranade. What makes his analysis so insightful is that it provides a framework within which one can locate the various questions arising in a rich and meaningful analysis of HFM.

Consider the following question, for instance. Ranade outlined the influences of what he called the “gharanas” of HFM: the Marathi school of music (Govindrao Tembe, Keshavrao Bhole, Master Krishnarao, Pandit B R Deodhar and so on) and the Bengali school of music (R C Boral, Pankaj Mullick, K L Saigal, Kanandevi, K C Dey and Pahari Sanyal, followed by Pannalal Ghosh, Anil Biswas, S D Burman and




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Hemant Kumar). There were other regional influences too (for example, the “Punjab school”, represented by Ghulam Haider and with Naushad’s input of Uttar Pradesh folk music, with its close links with art music). Ranade’s detailed documentation indicated that HFM provided the frame within which these diverse patterns, with their varied inputs of the folk, the classical, the theatrical and accompanying rhythms, were woven together into a rich tapestry of sounds. In addition, there were sounds from the west in the form of new instruments, rhythms, melodies, orchestration and the use of harmony, notably seen in the compositions of C Ramachandra or R D Burman, among others.

Comparing this rich and diverse picture to contemporary HFM, one is struck by the fact that while western influences continue as before, there appears to be a narrowing of regional Indian influences as well as of inputs from art music, notwithstanding an occasional Rashid Khan or Sultan Khan number. Sounds and melodies from Punjab easily dominate other regional tunes. In fact, having at least one Punjabi song in a popular film seems to be almost mandatory, as is the case with the ubiquitous Sufi song. The argument is not that these sounds are not musically rich, but that perhaps the relative over-representation of these songs has resulted in a narrowing in the variety of regional as well as art music influences.

One possible explanation for this could be the increasing importance of the Indian diaspora audiences, critical to the box- office success of films, and the importance of the Punjabi migrant community within the diaspora. Sufi sounds arguably fulfil the same need of universal appeal. Another factor could simply be that HFM is displaying a tendency towards greater homogenisation of sounds, images (for example, as dictated by the global fashion industry), consumption patterns and values, a tendency to conform to global trends and a corresponding blurring of local cultural influences. These are conjectures; much more research needs to be done to delineate the various trends and patterns, and to examine the new confluence of sounds.

The lasting legacy of a scholar and thinker such as Ashok Ranade is that he compels us to think, to pose new questions and seek fresh answers. Unlike his prolific writings on art music, he wrote just one book on film music. Hopefully, his powerful analysis of this field will pave the way for more research on this topic; research which is contextualised, musically informed and rooted in a firm understanding of Hindi films.


1 Ranade once reportedly described dialects of

Indian languages as “language with music”, referring to the musicality inherent in the sing-song intonation of most dialects. He explained how mainstream language masks the musicality by flat and deliberate enunciation (personal communication with Sudhanva Deshpande). This description illustrates his immense fascination with all kinds of music and his ability to hear music in the most unlikely contexts.

2 All page numbers unless otherwise noted are from Ashok Da Ranade (2006): Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries (New Delhi: Promilla and Company).

3 I was engaged in a debate on the music of Lata Mangeshkar in the Economic Political Weekly (“The Singer and the Voice: Where Is the Music”, EPW, 27 November 2004) where one of the points I raised was precisely that the scholar in question articulated a “big theory” without any reference to individual songs.

september 24, 2011 vol xlvi no 39 EPW Economic Political Weekly

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