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Go Read Note By Note, It’s Like Listening To The Soundtrack Of India

The songs in the book by Sushant Singh, Ankur Bharadwaj and Seema Chishti remind us of the pluralism inherent in our music and in our DNA.

If India had one film song as its soundtrack, what would it be? Jinhe naaz hai Hind pai woh kahaan hai from Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa? It gets my vote, but it is a tribute to the richness of Hindi film music and to the depth of Note by Note: The India Story 1947-2017 by Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chishti and Sushant Singh, one of the most innovative books I’ve read recently, that it doesn’t figure as the song of the year in 1957. Another song from Pyaasa does, however, the brilliant Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai, also written by the great Sahir Ludhianvi.

The book takes us through the hopeful 1940s to the 1950s, which are increasingly dipped in moral disgust to the carefree emerging cosmopolitanism of the 1960s. As the national mood changes, so does the music, until it becomes merely serviceable in the 90s, where the three forces of Mandal, Masjid and Market changed India forever to the dark times of 2010s where the spectre of corruption emerged uncontested by UPA-2 to legitimise one of the most toxic establishments of its time.

Along the way, there is much to be proud of. Bollywood’s celebration of talent, regardless of religion. The song of 1952, Mann Tadpat, from Baiju Bawra, written by Shakeel Badayuni, composed by Naushad and sung by Mohammad Rafi, all Muslims. Or the lyricist of the song of 1954, Tu chhed ek baar, mann ka sitar, was Qamar Jalalabadi, who was born Om Prakash Bhandari and given the pen name as a means of encouragement. Equally, a Muslim bus conductor named Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi became Johnny Walker after Guru Dutt’s favourite whisky and sang 1956’s iconic song from CID, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahaan/Zara hatke, zara bachke/Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan. And as if to complete the circle in 2001, four Muslims–musician AR Rahman, lyricist Javed Akhtar, actor/producer Aamir Khan and choreographer Saroj Khan – combined to produce one of the most memorable bhajans in a while: Radha kaise na jali for Lagaan.

It is a measure of the divided times we live in that we have to recognise the faith of some of our most talented stars behind and in front of the screen. But in this age of policing of what we eat, how we pray, and whom we love, it is necessary to remind ourselves of where we came from. At a time when an entire period in history is being sought to be erased, monuments are being called out for the religion of those who built them, cities and streets are being renamed, the spirit of India needs to be celebrated. That is the beauty of the unputdownable Note by Note. It reminds us in ample measure of the spirit of our founding fathers, the men and women who toiled for almost three years to give to ourselves a Constitution that celebrates political democracy and aims for social democracy even against the backdrop of horrific violence which killed at least a million people during Partition and claimed the life of the architect of our peaceful revolution, Mahatma Gandhi.

Sometimes poignant (the 1960 song from Mughal e Azam, Pyaar kiya to darna kya echoes the Nanavati murder), at times playful (O Haseena zulfon wali from Teesri Manzil in 1966, written by Majrooh Sultanpuri and composed by RD Burman) but always worth total recall (Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haye by Manna Dey for Rajesh Khanna in Anand in 1971), Note by Note is like listening to the soundtrack of India. it is moving, funny, tragic but also hopeful. Note by Note celebrates the wonderful partnerships that have produced this music–Raj Kapoor and Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianvi and Guru Dutt, Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj, Imtiaz Ali and AR Rahman, Amit Trivedi and Anurag Kashyap.

It even has a song for most of our politicians. If Manmohan Singh is like Jordan in Rockstar, 2011, singing Jo bhi main kehna chahu/barbaad kare alfaaz mere, Indira Gandhi is the woman who made anhoni honi (Anhoni ko honi kar dein, Amar Akbar Antony, 1977). If Jawaharlal Nehru was like Raj Kapoor in Awara, 1951 (Abaad nahin barbaad sahi/Gaata hoon khushi ke geet magar/Zakhmon se bhara seena hai mera/Hansti hai magar yeh mast nazar) then Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the man to whom India sang: Hum dil de chuke sanam, 1999.

An easy read, Note by Note needs to be read with the playlist booming in your ears. Delicate, powerful, subtle and sometimes resounding, the music binds us, torments us, soothes us and salves our wounds. Along the way, it informs and enlightens, whether it is telling us of Kapany who first discovered fibre optic, or that Amartya Sen was named by Rabindranath Tagore who bestowed this special name on the son of his private secretary. The ethnic, cultural and communal mix that was India was reflected in its movies, in its songs and its history.

Boom! It finds its place on my bedside table. I recommend it highly to yours as well. If nothing else, it will inspire you and send you humming: Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai/aaj phir marne ka iraada hai (Guide, 1965).

Note By Note is now available in stores and on Amazon.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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