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Book Review: “Behind the Curtain”


Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios
Author: Gregory D Booth
Publisher: Oxford University Press 2008
Pages (including Index and References): 321
Price (Amazon Kindle Edition): ₹357

The SOY readers’, especially S Joseph’s, request to write a review of “Behind the Curtain” predates the series on Arrangers and Musicians, and my own desire to review the book goes further back by some years, well before the pandemic, when I would have written it as “In Conversation with Gregory Booth” – because during one of his regular visits to India, I had set up a meeting with him, but at the last moment he got stuck up in a small town in Western UP due to a medical emergency in the family of his musician friend he was visiting.

The Author
That gives you some sense of the author’s India connection. Born in Canada, a renowned ethnomusicologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, his karmbhoomi has been India. He has been coming to India for over 30 years for his research and, during this period, he developed close friendship with many musicians – both from Hindustani classical and Hindi film music streams. He also maintains traditional social commitments – he never misses the barsi of Abbaji (the legendary tabla player Ahmed Jan Thirakwa), or important family functions of Zakir Bhai, and so on.

In fact, his primary interest was Hindustani classical music – the last I interacted with him, he was working on the role of Gharana System in the evolution of Hindustani classical music. I thought, as most of us would, that it would be about one of the famous vocal gharanas, but his interest was a tabla gharana. I don’t know whether that book is published, but his two published books so far, that gave him great fame, and his numerous research papers are about Hindi film music.

The Book
How Greg came to “Behind the Curtain” is an interesting story. One of his research visits happened to coincide with the wedding season. From his hotel window, he could see colourful wedding processions, each accompanied by a brass band playing some interesting music. The ethnomusicologist’s interest was piqued by the musicians in their ornate maroon and gold liveries, their hats, batons and a variety of instruments. What is their social background, how did they come into this profession? Then Greg’s musical ears caught that all the bands seemed to be playing some identical tunes. Where this music came from that hundreds of disparate bands seemed to be playing? This was not classical music, but very melodious, extremely popular and ubiquitous. That inexorably pulled him into the fascinating world of the Hindi film music, and the product of that enquiry was “Behind the Curtain”. He took this detour via wedding bands, and his other book is “Brass Baja: Stories from the World of Indian Wedding Bands”.

Once a researcher delves into the Hindi film music, he can’t fail to notice its context, milieu and inter-relationships between finance, business, artist, the recording industry, the mode of consumption of this music, and technological advancements which brought about tectonic changes in how music was made in Mumbai’s film world. The digital revolution, which  enabled mixing of the sounds of different instruments and the voices of singers on a computer, has dispensed with the need for the singers and the orchestra to be together in a physical space for rehearsals before the final recording. The musicians remained behind the curtain during their lifetime and, now sadly, the ecosystem in which they flourished has gone with the wind.

Behind The Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios” is an ethnomusicologist’s insight into a bygone era of music-making in Hindi films: the era of music rooms of Naushad, SD Burman, Madan Mohan etc. where the great playback singers came to practice the basic melody of the songs the music director composed on the harmonium or piano; the era of the arrangers who decided the instruments – when piano, accordion, violin, mandolin or flute – would come in the prelude or interludes, and for how long and at times composed the background music, and the musicians who played those instruments and spent their time commuting from home to studios, from studios to studios to the composers’ music rooms, and to the final recording of live performances of songs by the full ensemble of the singers, music director and the orchestra.

The book is dedicated to Cawas Lord who passed away shortly before it was completed. Cawas Lord’s music career dates back to the early sound films of the 1930s. In his long career he played drums, bagpipes, trumpets for the British Army, later joining the jazz band of Chic Chocolate (Anthonio Vaz), and finally working with the legends like C. Ramchandra, S. D. Burman, Naushad etc. His legacy was continued by his sons Kersi and Burji Lord.

Greg Booth sets the tone of the book by wording the title of his Introduction chapter in the form of a riddle: “Who Is Anthony Gonsalves?” Of course, everyone knows that Anthony was one of the brothers in Manmohan Desai’s blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony. The character of  Anthony was played by the Big B, Amitabh Bachchan, who burst out of a huge Easter egg at a Goan Christian celebration, singing My name is Anthony Gonsalves. What many do not know is that Anthony Gonsalves was a great violinist and arranger of Hindi film music. Among his students was Pyarelal Sharma (Pyarelal of the L-P duo) and this song was his way of paying a tribute to his guru. It is interesting to read Greg Booth’s observations on this episode:

Pyarelal Sharma is not a man on  whom irony is lost. To name a character played by India’s most famous actor for a musician totally unknown outside the small circle of the Mumbai film-music industry was a gesture that no doubt appealed to him as both a sincere gesture of affection and a humorously ironic reflection on film-musicians’ anonymity. Nor is the irony lost on Anthony Gonsalves, who explains the film-music business as a life of invisibility: “We were always hidden, always behind the curtain. No one knew”.

(Manmohan Desai had earlier thought of the character’s name as Anthony Fernandes. However, the surname was changed to Gonsalves on Pyarelal’s suggestion. Anthony Gonsalves has since passed away.)

This anonymity or “playing behind the curtain” was a recurring theme in the conversations the author had with the musicians and technicians who were still around. That phrase became the main title of the book. The book can be seen as an oral history of Mumbai’s film-music industry based on these interviews between 2004 and 2007. Though the musicians remained behind the curtain, they had a sense of history, their importance in creating popular music of the nation and the irreversible technological changes that made that way of making music obsolete. Thus, there was nostalgia and poignancy in these narrations. A telling comment by Kersi Lord to the author was, “You’ve come ten years too late.” But, at the same time, the author as an oral historian is also conscious of the perils of nostalgia and romanticised longing for a ‘happier’, ‘purer’ past which may blur the distinction between accurate and nostalgic representation.

I should mention here that the book is not a compilation of profiles of the musicians and arrangers. It is an analytical book; it has a researcher’s academic rigour, though written in an accessible style. You get to know that the world of Mumbai film music was quite small, and remarkably collegial. The Cine Music Association (CMA) had rarely had a membership of more than 800 musicians. About 300 of those were playing music in the studios on a daily basis, and another 200 were working regularly but not daily. The book gives a survey of literature on Hindi film music and song production. Harmandir Singh Hamraz’s Hindi Film Geet Kosh is eulogised as “an indispensable research tool, written in Hindi, that has made possible much of the statistical foundation for studies in this filed”. Many works get special mention which would encourage you to check them out. An interesting section is “English/Indian Usage and Structure”, which seems to be addressed primarily to the foreign readers.

Part I
The book is not organised as a series of chronological chapters to describe the history of Hindi film music scene from 1931-2000. Instead it is structured in three thematic parts, each having a number of chapters. Part I is titled, “History, Technology, And A Determinist Milieu For Hindi Film Song”. This part is divided into three chapters which give a historical perspective of technological changes, such as introduction of playback technology in 1935, technological changes in the recording industry, and industrial and cultural practices that shaped the evolution of music making in Hindi films. Playback was a pathbreaking technological advancement, which made possible separate audio and visual recordings that were subsequently merged into a single finished product. This new technology did not immediately herald any advancement in microphones, film printers, recording medium or format. However, the playback technology led to separation of actors and playback singers, and ultimately became one of the factors that led to the demise of the Studio System as a vertically integrated monopoly for film and music making.

During the period of the book’s primary concern, from the mid-1940s through the early 1990s, 6 to 8 songs in a film became an unquestioned norm. In the pre-playback era, Indian music-drama traditions, such as Marathi Sangeet Natak or Parsi Theatre became our earliest source of popular music. These were recorded on discs by the recording companies. Thus these companies had ready access to songs that had been, in a way, market-tested for audience response. “The consumption of an individual recorded song required less time and less attention than did dramas and was not dependent on whether the song’s consumers had seen the drama.” This decoupling of the song as a stand-alone product to be enjoyed separately from the film became sharper in the golden era of film-music. This also led to the practice of recording songs well before even the shooting started, which in turn led to the practice of the recording companies releasing songs before the release of the films. Thus, the songs which earlier achieved popularity due to the films, now became a vehicle of advertising the upcoming films. In terms of technological changes in music making, Greg divides the Mumbai film industry in three rough historical periods: the Studio Period (1935-1950), old Bollywood (1950-1998), and new Bollywood (1998-). This is not  coterminous with the division this blog has been following based on musical styles, i.e. the Vintage Era (1931-1949), Golden Era (1950 -1969), and Modern Era (1970 -). But Greg agrees that there is no fixed template for chronological division of the film music history.

Part II
Part II titled, “The Life Of Music In The Mumbai Film Industry“, is divided into three chapters, numbered consecutively as Chapters 4, 5 and 6. Part II is more oral history than the first part which was more analytical and impersonal. This section highlights the major presence of Goan musicians, as also proportionately Parsi musicians. An interesting observation the author makes is that these communities were conspicuously absent at the level of music directors. The reason for Goan dominance is their earlier association with dance and jazz bands in nightclubs and hotels in British India. As this cultural milieu was going to change after independence, these musicians made a timely and wise switch to film music. Cultural identities, such as belonging to a music community also determined career choices. Some were helped by their belonging to a particular community, some had to overcome these constraints. The gendered nature of film-music community was quite conspicuous; most of the women instrumentalists were Goan because of Portuguese culture. The only other female instrumentalist was Zarin (Daruwala) Sharma, born in a Parsi family, and a classical sarodist of renown.

Mumbai was becoming a big magnet for actors, singers, musicians, composers and directors. Manohari Singh, and many Western musicians came to Mumbai from Kolkata where they were playing in nightclubs in hotels. One reason for Kolkata losing its attractiveness was the Partition. East Pakistan, which was earlier a part of one linguistic cultural region, became inaccessible for Indian films and artistes. Some struggling musicians, too, without any connections arrived in Mumbai. As the traditional royal patronage disappeared, many classical musicians too, including renowned ones, such as Ustad Halim Jaffar Khan, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma and Hari Prasad Chaurasia were caught up in the film industry. Some felt unease what it would do their reputation as a classical musician; for some it was of little importance. Film music gave easy money.

Among musicians, some played by notation – either Western staff notation or sargam – some by memory. Some learnt formally under teachers, some were self-taught. Gradually knowledge of staff notation became a preferred skill in Hindi film music. Goan musicians had the advantage of knowing Western music traditions because of the impact of the Catholic Church, its educational system and association with the Portuguese for over 450 years. The early domination of Goans in, say, Shankar-Jaikishan orchestra created some internal tensions. Here it is important to note that terms like S-J or L-P or OPN-orchestra did not mean that they owned orchestras on monthly salary, or a recording space. It was a colloquial expression signifying an informal system in which some musicians played regularly for successful composers as they were assured of a steady income.

Pyarelal at the height of L-P’s popularity took this association to extreme lengths. He would call his entire orchestra continuously – all at the producer’s expense, even if some musicians were not needed. Pyarelal had no compunction in abusing their power – if they want our music they have to pay for it. No one denied their talent; the musicians saw Pyarelal as a benevolent lord who made their sustenance possible. Bappi Lahiri exaggerated his stardom to absurd lengths – gaudy dress, laden head to toe with gold jewellery, surrounded by gun-toting security guards, and coming late for his sessions where the musicians and others had been waiting for hours – all at the producers’ expense – after all they were getting Bappi Lahiri’s music.

These musicians came from different musical traditions: Indian classical and drama music, jazz, Westen classical and other popular forms. Greg makes a perceptive observation that the popular account giving credit to music directors for Hindi film music’s eclecticism tells only part of the story. Music directors were, in a way, borrowing musicians who came from different traditions and skills with instruments that the composers valued. “Without them Hindi film music would not have been as diverse as it is.”

Background music was composed after the visual and spoken elements of the film had been completed. This involved watching the film and deciding emotions of selected parts with stopwatch for synchronisation. Sometimes the music director also composed the background music. About Pyarelal’s style one assistant said that first they would watch the film and see the timings with a stopwatch for different moods; thereafter, the assistant would sit with Pyarelal, who composed the background music. Then the orchestra players who would be around would copy out their parts quickly. On the other hand, Jaikishan who composed background music for many S-J films, relied on feel rather than stopwatch. It had to be ensured that the timing was flawless in recording. Zarin Sharma describes the perceptiveness of  Master Sonik, the blind arranger who composed background music for Madan Mohan in Rishte Naate (1965). She was to play her part from a mark on the film to the next mark of a piece Masterji had composed. Even though Masterji had given her the sign to begin, she completely missed it. Despite being blind, Masterji knew where the mark was.

This laborious and inefficient process and some artistes’ excesses were crying out for a change in the system. Thus digital technology came as a boon. Now computer skills with programmable keyboards etc. were at a premium. The arranger could now score the entire background music by himself. This also changed the way background music was credited. Kersi Lord had to fight for credit for his background music, the new generation arrangers started getting credited for background music as a matter of course.

Part III
The Part III titled Music, Instruments, And Meaning from Musicians’ Perspectives has been divided into two Chapters #7 and 8. After the ethnographic narrative of Part II, the author reverts to broader perspectives in this part. He talks about the interaction between the size of the orchestra, introduction of new instruments, and musical style and situations. Further, musical style, instrumentation and orchestral size were sometimes vulnerable to the attitudes of music directors, film director and producers. ‘Situation’ was a significant factor in these decisions. Some conventions developed to associate certain instruments with specific emotions or situations. Moreover, musicians often watched foreign films, and borrowed their style and sometimes even specific melodies in Hindi film songs. Part III further goes to mention important milestones in terms of composers and musicians who were responsible for orchestral development.

Between the two major film centres – Mumbai and Kolkata – in the early 1930s, many orchestral innovations are credited to New Theatres stalwarts RC Boral and Pankaj Mullick. They are in a large part responsible for early adoption of Western instruments. New Theatres had the best sound technology and their tracks were technically superior to Mumbai’s best efforts. Anil Biswas who shifted from Kolkata to Mumbai was regarded as a pioneer in orchestral development in Mumbai, in association with the earliest musician in Mumbai, Ram Singh as his arranger. Anil Biswas seemed to give entire credit to himself, but Naushad profusely acknowledged the contribution of  New Theatres for orchestral development. Naushad’s earliest arranger too was Ram Singh. Later jazz pianist Martin Pinto worked with him, as did Kersi Lord a few years later. They were all praise for his classical base – Indian classical and Western arrangements. Naushad had outdone Anil Biswas in the size of orchestra.

Shankar-Jaikishan with their arranger Sebastian D’Souza come in for universal praise for their talent, which was also an important factor in their large orchestra. The size of the orchestra was not merely an ego trip, they had to know what to do with four rows of violins. You also get a trivia that because of the erratic behaviour of S-J’s earlier arranger Sonny Castelino, D’Souza became a regular fixture with them. D’Souza also arranged for several top music directors of the time, such as O. P. Nayyar, S. D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury etc. Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Master Sonik and R. D. Burman came next in the line of creative talents. A large number of talented musicians are mentioned though they may not be known to general public.

Electronic keyboards have been around for quite some time. In the 1990s more advanced instruments like music sequencers and samplers came. Samplers could replicate the sound of entire string section or Indian percussion. At the peak of L-P’s prowess, if a filmmaker could not hire them and their 100-piece orchestra, he had a less expensive alternative available. There was a period of tension between live acoustic music and the electronic music until the latter completely took over. Some arrangers such as Kersi Lord blamed themselves for their enthusiasm for imported electronic instruments. They had never thought that these devises would finally devour the earlier system of music making. The new age musicians are clear that music making would never go back to the live way.

The book ends with a conclusion chapter, titled “Oral History, Change, And Accounts of Human Agency”. This brings together the main theme of the book. The musicians were responsible for the everlasting melodies of yore, but we know the actors, singers and music directors. We don’t give much thought to the musicians who played the songs. In many cases the musicians themselves did not remember the songs in which they had played in the orchestra. None of the musicians who played in the Studio Era on monthly salary is alive today.

The transition to Old Bollywood (1950-1998) primarily meant from salaried work to freelancing. Any transition could be traumatic, but this was the period when all styles – Indian classical, folk, Western classical, pop, jazz, dance band – converged in Hindi film music, the orchestra size grew and everyone was busy from morning to night. But the transition to New Bollywood (1998-) was distressing. Digital technologies brought in radical changes in the way music was made. Studios have become small, musicians have become few, and the collegial atmosphere where everyone met and chatted in the canteen has disappeared. From Kalyanji who brought the first digital instrument, clavioline, in 1954, to produce been sound, to AR Rahman whose studio was “as if every keyboard that ever came to India ended up in his studio”, has been the story of how technological changes spelt the end of the old way of music making. There is a sad realisation that some could see that this was coming, but the process was inevitable and irreversible.

1. Amazon India has Paperback and Hardcover editions too, but the readers may find them expensive.
2. Some quotes are statements by the interviewees, some by the author.


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