Do you recall your initial days as an aspiring composer in Mumbai?
I came to Mumbai to work in the Indian People’s Theatre Movement (IPTA) with Salil Chowdhury, Balraj Sahni and other Marxist intellectuals. At IPTA I once again met Hemant Kumar whom I had met earlier. He took me around to meet all the big music directors and singers in Mumbai. I remember my first meeting with Lata ji. She took one look at me and said, Jitna naam hai utni umar nahin hai (laughs). I had just returned from the United States and I had never seen her. I wanted her to sing a song for my first film as a director, Tunes From The Deserted Path about a moonlit night in Assam. And she did it. The song became so famous she selected it as one of her personal favourites in her first golden disc.
And was it Hemant da who introduced you to Lata ji?
Yes. I remember when Hemant da took me to meet her she was playing with her brood of puppies. She was sitting on the floor in her home in Walkeshwar. From her window I could see the sea. She was a petite girl. And she spoke to me and Hemant da in fluent Bengali. She immediately agreed to sing for me. The minute she sang for my film my distributors clamoured to buy my film. I didn’t have much money back then.
I shall never forget Hemant da’s generosity. He used to take me to his house and give me his son and daughter’s room. Hemant da, Lata ji and I became friends. We would visit places like Pune together. Hemant da’s wife Bela ji was also very nice. Whenever I came to Mumbai and needed a recording studio Hemant da would cancel his own recording to accommodate mine. Lata ji would also go out of her way to help me. That sort of affection is very rare nowadays. In fact it’s gone. I remember Hemant da took me for a song in the Uttam Kumar starrer Jeebon Trishna although he was Uttam Kumar’s constant ghost voice. I became very famous singing for the Bengali superstar. Uttam Kumar insisted that I sing that particular song in his film. I tried to wriggle out,pleading I’d be assaulted if anyone but Hemant da sang for Uttam Kumar. But Hemant da insisted. Fortunately the song Sagor sangame became very famous. Later Gulzar translated it into Hindi in my album Main Aur Mera Saaya.
You were recently appointed the chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. What does the job require you to do?
It means I’ve to act as the storekeeper for art and culture(laughs). I’ve to look after dance and music and drama in various parts of the country. The Akademi has earlier been chaired by some very eminent intellectuals. I’m the first person from the music world to be appointed as its chairperson. I don’t get paid for it. But to me it’s as big an honour as the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Our duty is to take art and culture to the next millennium. If we don’t preserve our heritage we shall only have rust and dust to give to the coming generations.
Practically speaking, what are you doing to preserve our art and culture?
A millennium fellowship is being given to eminent musicians. We’ve already given the fellowship to vocalist Bhimsen Joshi and playwright Vijay Tendulkar. The honour is for people who have dedicated their lives to the arts.
And what about promoting fresh talent?
For that we are giving grants to young upcoming talent from all over India. Our motives are the documentation of knowledge pertaining to arts, honouring distinguished talent, encouraging new talent and promoting unrecognised Gharanas.
Don’t you think the classical heritage has somehow been lostdue to popular entertainment?
It’s our good fortune that right from the ‘30s onwards, All India Radio has recorded and preserved the voices of our classical artistes. Do you know, All India Radio was known as the BBC- Short for the Bukhari Brothers Corporation. They have a whole audio treasure in their archives. Now we need to promote and market the audio treasures. We’re also thinking of computerising all the departments of Sangeet Natak Academy. Another thing we must do is help youngsters to recover the classical element in our music. There will always be a conflict between the old and the new. Take for example fusion music. It’s not as though it’s a ‘90s phenomenon. A lot of it has been done in the past as well,but in an aesthetic manner. The only thing is, the audience should choose what to buy carefully. If they only buy new things then how do we encourage the older artistes?
But how do we encourage consumers to buy classical music?
Let me give you an example. When I was in the competition in the charts with Dil hum hum karey (Rudaali), I went by the need of the script. But I also hoped that the music in the film would be accepted by younger generations. You cannot create confusion in the name of fusion. Thesitar of Ravi Shankar and the violin of Yehudi Menuhin have been fused beautifully because neither has sacrificed his classical roots in coming together. Likewise Hariharan and Leslie Lewis’ fusion is feasible – My own Dil hoom hoom karey was in the market alongside songs about the blouse and khatiya. I thought there would be no buyers for my songs. But the album sold to the tune of six crore rupees. The NFDC made that much money out of the music and the film.
And how much of that money did you make?
Not even two paise. I was a member of the board of directors at the NFDC. Board of Directors paise lete hain kya? Nahin lete hain. I had told them I’d work for them only on condition that I don’t get paid. If the music company had decided to pay me later, tab theek hai. Finally I got so little money for Rudaali that I don’t even want to mention it. But I got the love and appreciation of listeners all over the world.
Do you think any of today’s composers have it in them to carry forward the tradition of film music initiated by people like you and Hemant Kumar?
Well there’s AR Rahman. People become immediately entranced by whatever he composes. Rahman is a phenomenon. He’s young and talented. And he has his fingers on the pulse of the young generation. Illayaraja too is a great composer. Like Salil Chowdhury he knows both Western and Indian musical styles. Rahman too belonged to that group until he was reduced to a consumer product. I remember once I went to Hyderabad after Rudaali was released. The South Indian press wanted my opinion on Rahman. I told them he should take it easy. He has even composed a song Take it easy policy (laughs). He’s a great talent but his talent shouldn’t be over-utilised. I’m glad he’s expanding his creativity, incorporating North Indian folk, and so on. Recently nine of us including Lataji, Ashaji and Jagjit Singh sang Jana Gana Mana under Rahman’s supervision. It’ll be released on August 15. The project has been produced bythe Vande Mataram producer Raja Bala. I was like a chorus singer singing for Rahman. He told me to sing in my own way. He also joined us in the singing. Hegot so excited that he picked up the guitar and started playing impromptu during the recording. I could make out Rahman loves me.
Do you know Urmila Matondkar is a great fan of yours?
(Shyly) I’ve heard this. It feels very good when youngsters appreciate my music. A few years ago I was at the John F Kennedy airport in New York when a very handsome and tall Pakistani gentleman approached me and said, Hazarika saab, gaate jaiye aise nagme. He had heard my songs in Rudaali in Islamabadon pirated tapes. Do you know what he said, Hum log acchche cheez chori karke sun lete hain aur har Pakistani ke ghar mein dil hoom hoom karta hai. And then he disappeared into the crowds.
In London a Supreme Court judge from Pakistan organised a private concert with me. More than half the audience was composed of Pakistanis. And mind you, this was during the Kargil incident. The Muslims touched my feet just like the Hindus do to show their reverence for an artiste.I feel I’ve got the same love from Pakistani music listeners as my Indian fans.
It makes me so happy that youngsters who like Michael Jackson and Madonna loved my music in Rudaali. Indian composers should not ape Western styles. They owe it to today’s listeners to give them something original. Ravi Shankar and Zakir Husain are legendary abroad. It’s considered prestigious to learn the sitar and the tabla in the United States. I feel melody will always triumph over cacophony in our own country. The jungle calls that today’s composers make in the name of music must be stopped.
Are you amused or disheartened by present day musical trends?
I’m a little sad. I’ve observed five decades of changing styles and trends. But you can’t kill a raga like Bhairavi or a clean melody by Hemant Kumar or Lata Mangeshkar. But why don’t they have music as a subject in all the schools? They teach Do re mi to the children in the schools out West.Why don’t they teach Sa re ga ma to our kids? Only then can the whole nationsing Jana gana mana in one voice. We musicians shouldn’t abuse youngsters for falling tastes. We should criticise music companies for marketing rubbish.There’s a lot of mediocrity in the name of music. My hopes are pinned on ARRahman. There are other youngsters also coming up.
Ah there you have got me! Yehin mushqil ho jata hai na.I find that spark in Hariharan. I also have great respect for Illayaraja. Ihave a feeling he’ll come back with some great music.
Let’s talk about your music in MF Husain’s Gaja Gamini.
I’ve completed the music score. It was an entirely new experience for me. Usually I’m given the script and song situations. But in Gaja Gamini, Husain bhai gave me only an abstract concept. We had to first tune into each other’s creative requirements. To do that, I had to work really hard. Husain Bhai has tried to explore 5,000 years of our culture in one film through several characters played by Madhuri Dixit. Her character jumps from one time frame to another, one ethos into another… I had to convey a sense of continuity through my music. I’ve used the services of big classical musicians for the songs. I had to synthesise styles in unusual ways to suit the unusual story telling, for example Leonardo di Vinci doesn’t paint Mona Lisa. He plays the violin and comes to Ujjain to meet Tansen.
So how did you synthesise all these influences?
I had to work really hard. I took help from a lot of great musicians. I had to compose a song in the Deepak Raag. For this I had to do a lot of research. There was a song by KL Saigal Jag mag jag mag diya jalao. But that isn’t really in the Deepak Raag. It’s a mixed raga, whereas I had to approach the Ustads and find out what a real Deepak Raag is. Then I caught holdof Hariharan and arranger Anil Mohile. The three of us worked the song out.
What have you enjoyed the most while composing in Gaja Gamini?
The jugalbandi between the East and West. The conflict was very inspiring. The impact of my music depends on the final product. The NRIs are waiting for this film. They’re all fans of MF Husain and Madhuri.
Not to mention you. Husain saab was inspired by Madhuri. Were you also inspired by her?
I didn’t know her before Gaja Gamini. But Madhuri turned out to be a very sweet girl. She’s very modest and respects Husain saab very much. Madhuri asked me once if I had the same difficulties as she did. Husain saab instructed both of us through abstract notions. One day after performing a dance she asked me if she did it okay. She was fantastic. Gaja Gamini was tough and challenging. I’ve given three of my best songs in this film. I think Kavita Krishnamurthy’s best song ever is Hansa re hansa in Gaja Gamini.
Didn’t you miss Lataji’s vocals in Gaja Gamini?
Very much so. But the time factor we had to record one song played … villain within one night. Shah Rukh Khan could give dates only for one day. Overnight I had to record a song to be picturised on Shah Rukh and Madhuri. It’s a very modern song. Because Shah Rukh has enacted the song it may become popular.
So you enjoyed doing Gaja Gamini?
Husain told me, Bhupen, you paint through your songs. But I can’t sing with my paintbrush. It’s up to you to fill this lacuna in my artistry. That’s why I’ve taken you.’ I asked Husain saab why he didn’t take a big Ustad for the music. He said he didn’t want an Ustad. He wanted a pagal like him.
What plans do you have for the future?
I want to make a film in Assamese. It’ll be a lyrical film.That’s my forte. I know only one language, and that’s music. Also a lot of musicians want to do fusion albums with me in Shubha Mudgal’s style. If I do fusion I won’t use parallel or contradictory ragas. Melodious fusion would help the cause of music in the coming millennium. Otherwise, the way things are going sometimes I fear music will get scared and run away from us.
Any other ambitions?
Tips has approached me for a project with Lata ji. It’s being worked out. The album will contain songs selected by her. I have the highest regard for her talent. When I recently met her for Rahman’s recordings she recalled incidents from our past. We were both appreciative of Rahman’s gentle and humble attitude. Otherwise there’s too much arrogance all around us.And mediocrity sab aksham anukram ho raha hai.