Listening and intimacy


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THERE is a general presumption that people who appreciate Hindustani film music are also cinema buffs. Growing up in a household with no television and parents who didn’t really care about going to cinema halls, I only got to see the Sunday evening movies on Doordarshan at a neighbour’s house or on the VCR when we visited relatives who had one. But I did grow up listening to Binaca Geetmala, Sangam, Bhule Bisre Geet, Jaimala, Chayageet and other Vividh Bharati radio programmes with my mother who loved the radio.

Radio music accompanied all our afternoon meals. The huge radio set was strategically placed behind the dining table which doubled up as my mom’s and our study table. There were also a bevy of young aunts and uncles, the generation of the ’70s, whose lives had been revolutionized by the cassette player. The entire household would listen to film music on their cassette players, transistors and two-in-ones. The more personalized listening on Walkman’s and i-Pods, and the digital playlists were still decades away. So was the shift in listening to the radio in cars instead of living rooms. Ours was a world bound by collective listening. This essay is an invitation into this intimate world of Hindustani film songs as it was experienced by a young Indian couple growing up in the 1980s-90s.

My personal journey with Hindustani film songs really started when I fell in love with a young man while studying at St. Stephen’s College in the early 1990s. What followed was decades of being serenaded with film songs. For a man of few words to whom prose didn’t come easily, he was a brilliant singer. The only way he emoted was through a film song. He had a Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi, R.D. Burman, Jagjit Singh or a Gulzar song for every season and as an answer to every question.

My consent for the relationship was asked with ‘jhuki jhuki se nazar beqaraar hai ki nahi, daba daba sa sahi, dil mein pyaar hai ki nahi’ (Is the lowered gaze as restless or not? It may be quiet but does your heart love or not?), Jagjit Singh’s romantic song from Arth (1983). I had lifted my eyes and smiled in reply. In the early days of our romance, I would be teased with lines ‘tum logon se ye na kehna, sanweria se laage naina’ (don’t say this to people, that you are in love with sanweria) which I later found out was from the Dev Anand starrer Mahal (1969). Coincidentally the word ‘sanweria’, an oft used term for the lover and the beloved in Hindustani film songs, was also this young man’s surname.

As we grew bolder and our courtship became more public, I was gifted with ‘kanchi re kanchi re preet mori saachi… rang tere maine ye tan rang liya, tan kya hai main man rang liya’ (my love for you is true, my body is soaked in your colours, nay my body and soul) from another Dev Anand starrer (and from Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar repertoire) Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) as part of the Valentine’s Day programme in the college. One day as we ran and took shelter under a tree, soaked from the pouring rain, he broke into ‘rim jhim gire sawan’, the famous rain song from Manzil (1979) and was rewarded with a kiss. I vividly remember each step landing on a cloud for the next few days.

Few months down, the romance touched a crescendo over the sounds of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s ‘Prem Jogan ban ke sundar piya ki ore chale’ (becoming insane/devotee of love she went towards the beloved) from the epic historical drama Mughal-e-Azam (1960) playing on a small cassette player in his hostel room. My not having seen many of these movies (and having heard many of the songs for the first time when he sang them) allowed my imagination to reign free. I could picturize the song in my head as I pleased.


After some years we decided to tie the knot. Given the traditional nature of our families, marriage was the only way we could live together as a couple. I proposed that we elope in filmy-style but with a little twist – the girl abducting the boy. But he insisted on a regular marriage with a baraat, horse and saat phere as he believed, rather naively, that it would make our families accept our inter-caste/class relationship. My apprehensions about our relationship meeting our parent’s approval were met with a sly rendition of ‘pyar karegi kya darnewali? Meri banegi koi himmatwali’ (how can one who is scared love, mine will be one who is courageous) from Amitabh Bachchan’s Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

Giving in to his wishes, I would mock our wedding plans by tunelessly singing ‘Chameli, Chameli, Chameli ki shaadi, jahan se anokhi niraali ye shaadi’ (Chameli’s wedding, the most unique and amazing wedding in the world). After all I was all Chameli, a feisty and defiant daughter of a coal-seller named Kallumal; and he was nothing short of Charandas, a fledging wrestler – the two protagonists of the Bollywood comedy Chameli ki Shaadi (1986).

In the years that followed, through life’s ups and downs, and in our struggle to keep it all together, on some days there was silence instead of the songs. The air would be really still. The ‘do diwaane’, the two lovebirds, in their search for ‘aab dana’ (food and water) would sit in their corners fatigued and a little lost. The drying up of the songs spoke to our ebbing soul-spirit. Sometimes he would hold me and quietly sing ‘pyar mujhse jo kiya tumne to kya paogi, mere halaat ki aandhi mein bikhar jaogi… ranj aur dard ki basti ka mai bashinda hoon’ (what will you gain from loving me, you will simply be caught in the storm of my circumstances for I am a resident of town of grief and pain), a lovely Jagjit Singh melody from Saath Saath (1982). The song captured the harsh unspoken reality of our lives and gave it a form.


A shift happened when we moved to the US for my new teaching position. It temporarily freed us from our social location and draped us with anonymity. The class and caste divide that we struggled with while living in Delhi was invisible to our American friends. Music and songs flooded our lives once again. We held hands and kissed with abandon in streets and parks. This expression of love was mixed with a deep longing for home as well. I would have a good cry listening to ‘ab ke baras bhej bhaiyya ko babul, sawan mein lijo bulaaye re’ (this year, father, please send my brother to take me home during the month of rains), Asha Bhonsle’s melody from Bandini (1963) that pictured women convicts grinding corn and longing to meet their loved ones.

The meaning of home was getting redefined from simply being a physical place to the songs that we inhabited. They held us in a melodious embrace. With the song ‘tumko dekha to ye khayal aya, zindagi dhoop aur tum ghana saya’ (on seeing you I realized that life is a sunshine you are a resting place/shade) from Saath Saath (1982) we would find ourselves back on the love-soaked sunlit lawns of St. Stephen’s College; and ‘gulmohar gar tumhara naam hota, mausam-i-gul ko hasana bhi humara kaam hota’, (if gulmohar/flame tree was your name, the job of making the flower of the season smile would have also been mine) from the movie Devta (1978) had us whizzing on a bike through Delhi’s traffic in pouring rain. We lived through these songs and the songs lived in us.


Years rolled by, we grew older and became ready to forfeit our coupledom to parenthood. With children came new songs in our lives. When we were expecting our first child, I could hear the expectant father singing in a low murmur as he did laundry ‘jeevan ki bagiya mehekegi, lehekegi, chehekegi… wo sapna tera hoga, wo spana mera hoga’ (the life garden will be full of aroma, it will be swinging and cackling… that dream will be yours, that dream will be mine), Neeraj’s lyrics and S.D. Burman’s composition from Tere Mere Sapne (1971). Or while doing dishes he would sing ‘sara pyar tumhara maine bandh liya hai aanchal mein… hum aur paas ayenge, hume aur pass koi layega’(I have tied up all your love in my aanchal/breast… we will be close and someone will bring us closer) a Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhonsle duet from Anand Ashram (1977).

After the birth, the father was tasked with bathing the infant, giving him an oil massage and putting him to sleep which he would accomplish while singing ‘chanda hai tu mera suraj hai tu’, (you are my moon, you are my sun) another S.D. Burman hit from Aradhana (1969) or Khayyam’s and Sahir Ludhianvi’s ‘mere ghar aaye ek nanhi pari, chandni ke haseen rath par swaar’ (a little fairy came into our home, riding a lovely chariot of moonlight) from Kabhi Kabhi (1976). My favourite was Asha Bhonsle’s melody from Vachan (1957), ‘chanda mama door ke, pue pakayein boor ke’, (moon uncle lives afar, we will cook sweets with sugar) a song from my childhood. Even a tuneless person such as me started humming the boys to sleep with these songs.

Within a few months of the birth of our second child we decided to move back to India. The social isolation of our lives that we had cherished as a couple began to gnaw at us young parents. We needed a village to raise the kids in. A part of us was also anxious about not having common points of reference with our kids, a shared cosmos, and they being lost to us in what we saw as the American monolingual wilderness. Even the grandparents who had found it difficult to forgive and accept their children’s transgression were willing to be kinder and more accepting when it came to grandchildren. Hereon began a new phase of our lives where we became extensions of our children, referenced and spoken about only in relation to them. The coming of children blurred the social lines that separated the worlds of our respective families, but it did not completely erase them.


We began to relive parts of our childhood with our children as we sang to them and told them stories. Our childhood had been filled with film songs from the 1960s through the 1990s – described as the golden age of Hindustani cinema songs. These mostly comprised of songs that our parent’s generation listened to and ones that continued to be popular later. Perhaps time moved a little slowly in the India of those days, as it didn’t inhabit the frenzy that has come to define our lives in this age of global neo-liberalism.

The time-distance between generations was not as vast as the one we felt with our children. This distance also widened by the fact that we were older by nearly a decade compared to our parents when we became parents. Families were smaller with fewer siblings, aunts and uncles and with fewer spaces for inter-generational exchange.

The India and the world we gave birth in had also changed. It had shaken off its colonial bearings and embraced the open market economy. This had brought with it a different kind of a freedom but also had in its tow an emotional disconnect from the old world. The songs from the earlier era had less emotive appeal for this generation. It was Taylor Swift crooning in English about existential angst or the Imagine Dragons that held greater meaning than Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar singing about love and longing. How were we to navigate this generational rupture as parents?


Accompanying this shift in the times was the growth of a different, more xenophobic and righteous right wing nationalism distinct from the Nehruvian-Gandhian nationalism of the earlier era. The nationalistic film songs of the 1950s and 1960s that we grew up singing ‘insaan ki dagar pe baachon dikhao chal ke, ye desh hai tumhara, neta tumhi ho kal ke’ (Ganga Jamuna, 1961); ‘aao bacchon tumhe dikhayei jhanki hindustan ki’ (Jagiriti, 1954); ‘nanha munna rahi hoon, desh ka sipahi hoon’ (Son of India, 1962); and ‘Apni azadi ko hargiz mita sakte nahi, sar kata sakte hain hum, par sar jhuka sakte nahi’ (Leader, 1964) now filled us with unease.

These songs of devotion and sacrifice to the nation describing the many beauties of India imagined the child as a little soldier. Although still enjoyable, their meaning had changed in the context of the new millennia. We wondered what kind of sense of self, notions of freedom and ideas of belongingness would we pass on to our children with these songs?

Our existence and thereby our essence as a couple was also transforming and with that our experience of the film songs. We were older, more courageous and less afraid of recognizing and drawing out the political in our personal and private. The unthinking heteronormativity, the cultural nationalism, the causal misogyny and the blindness to caste in our movies and their songs were not something we wanted to turn away from. Our lives were now also tinged with nostalgia for the young love and a longing for unknown worlds. Consequently, we were now listening to many older songs with different ears, several songs got discarded, and different ones were chosen.


The family repertoire shifted to include Hindustani poets such as Nirala, Jaishankar Prasad, Dinkar, and Bashir Badr, and also singers associated with the black and the working class resistance such as Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Pete Seeger. We found deeper enjoyment in Mukesh’s and Asha Bhonsale’s ‘wo subah kabhi to ayegi, in kaali sadiyon ke sar se raat ka anchal jab dhalkega’ (that morning will come, the veil will slip away from the face of these dark decades) from Phir Subah Hogi (1958), and the love song ‘bawra mann dekhne chala ek sapna’ (the crazy heart sets out dreaming) of Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005) that held out the promise of new dreams and new worlds.

Personally, for me ageing came with a relaxation, perhaps a deeper comfort with the self, and more openness to one’s needs and desires, taking life less seriously and seeing its humorous side. This meant a free enjoyment of Bollywood ‘item numbers’ such as ‘jaban pe laga lage re namak ishq ka, tere ishq ka… raat bhar cchana re namak ishq ka’ (my tongue tasted the salt of love, of your love, I sieved the salt of your love all night long), and ‘beedi jalaiyale jigar se jiya, jigar ma badi aag hai’ (light up the beedi with my chest, there is a fire raging in it) of Omkara (2006), and putting on occasional performances to regale the kids with my bad moves.

Gulshan Bawra’s ‘Samundar mein naha ke aur bhi namkeen ho gayee ho’, (you have become saltier after bathing in sea water) Pukar (1983), is now identified in our home as ‘mumma’s song’. Even discoking Bappi Lahiri made a comeback in our lives with me singing ‘yaar bina chain kahan re’ from the movie Saaheb (1985), ‘auva auva koi yahannache nache’ and ‘Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy aja aja’ of Disco Dancer (1982) at the top of my voice as we headed to a restaurant on our 20th wedding anniversary with boys admonishing me to maintain public decorum and their father shaking his head disapprovingly. The feisty Chameli (Chameli ki Shaadi, 1986) of yesteryears was not much different from the dhaakad Geeta Phogat (Dangal, 2016) of today.


What is the language of intimacy? Or does intimacy annul the need for language? Does intimacy exist outside language? For many of us, our inner lives are indeed woven around orality and aurality and not just reading and writing. The importance of ‘listening’ for accessing the inner lives reminded me of historian E.P. Thompson who had argued that listening was a vital cognitive and experiential tool for understanding the lives of the working class folks.

I had realised the value of this insight while working on the Indian revolutionaries whom I had to carefully listen to in order to access their inner lives. In their memoirs one could hear them at their raucous, unrestrained and voluble best. Here I sit on the side of Sartre’s existentialism who believed that existence preceded essence – in acting and living a certain way we give meaning to our essence; and this essence mediates the way we experience the world. Therefore, our experiences of intimacy are not separate from and outside of our socio-political location.


In this fraught social existence lay our little inner world that consisted of and was constituted by Hindustani film songs. I sometimes wondered that although the aurality of these songs made them accessible to all beyond class, caste and religion, would these songs have the same meaning if they were in some other language? Not for us. The fact that they were in Hindustani made them a vessel of our inner lives. It was the lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Neeraj, Gulzar, Yogesh, Kaifi Azmi and Gulshan Bawra that filled our lives with music and even accompanied us as our elders made their journey into the realm beyond.

My husband would sing to my mother her favourite songs from Abhimaan and Bandini as she was on her last in the hospital. The songs comforted and reassured her and kept both of them going through the long nights. These songs after all embodied their unsaid bond, her acceptance of him and our relationship.

It was not just the lovely music or the rhythm of the songs but really their lyrics, their poetry, the power of their imagination and their somatic embodiment that gave us the strength and succor to get through a mangled day. It was the language of the songs – literal and metaphorical – that tied us together, made us into a whole. It was not a language with formalities of grammar, and neither was it a language of the everyday. This language was also beyond its muscular nationalist avatar. It was the language of the unspoken, the unsayable and, at times, the forbidden as in ‘piya ang lag lag ke hui sanwali main’, (have grown darker with being repeatedly touched by the dark-skinned lover) S.D. Burman erotic rendition in Talash (1969).

To us these songs also offered the possibility of transcendence of social boundaries that sought to imprison us. They provided an escape – a realm beyond our socio-political locations and identities. They carved a space for us to exist in and we carved a space through them to be ourselves and to love. On some days I feel we may have just succeeded in passing on the love of these songs to our kids.


While writing this essay, the boys pointed out an error and insisted that ‘hum aur pass ayegnge, hume aur koi pass layega’ were not the opening lines of the song. I confessed that I only remembered these lines because their father would sing the middle portion of several songs. In response both chorused the opening lines of the song ‘sara pyar tumhara maine baandh liya hai aanchal mein’. Their father smiled as he listened to our conversation.

Later in the evening, I heard him humming ‘kal aur ayenge nagmon ki khilti kaliya chunane wale, mujhse behtar kehnewale, tumse behtar sunanewale’ (tomorrow others will come to pluck the buds of these songs, the ones who sing better than me and ones who listen better than you) as he stood gazing through the window at the children playing in the park.