This series on the Punjabi contribution to cinema traces its evolution in the background of the wider political and cultural context. A chronological approach is adopted with a view to establishing its structure and the process through which it unfolded while the larger drama of the future of India and British rule was being played out on the political stage. As I argued earlier, cinema withstood political pressure till the very end, and the film industry never succumbed to the divisive and communalist thrust of the 1940s and the post-partition continuation of that thrust except as aberrations during periods of extreme confrontation. At any rate, the 1930s were defined essentially the Congress-inspired freedom struggle, which emphasised the partnership of Hindus and Muslims and indeed of other Indian communities in a united and free India. The Lahore, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras film industries took their cue from it and highlighted what was common and shared in historical and cultural heritage.
I would like to argue even more forcefully that the unity of the Subcontinent was embedded most organically in its music: classical and folk. North Indian classical music, with its own grand variety of ragas and raginis, as well the South Indian Karnatic music, with its equally fascinating variations ragas and raginis, constitute the two foundational systems of Indian music. Under them can be subsumed regional and local systems and their sub-divisions. The core structure of Indian music is melody and rhythm in contrast to Western music, characterised by harmony. One can dispute whether Indian music originated first as folk music, and was later refined and sublimated into classical music by experts and specialists, or if it was the other way round. What we can say safely, however, is that both adhere to the same structure of melody and rhythm, and the ragas and raginis regulating them were the same. Indian music adheres to the boundaries of ragas and the rendering is always innovative with scope for spontaneity. Therefore, notations which can be written down for Western music are not possible, strictly-speaking. It has to be memorised and internalised and the teaching is essentially oral.
The unity of the Subcontinent was embedded most organically in its music
My own sense is that in its present shape, Northern Indian as well as Carnatic classical music are syntheses of Hindu devotional and Muslim sensuous aspects. This is especially true of the Northern Indian system. The ragas and raginis evolved in the temples as devotees tried to please the gods and win their probations. In the same way, devotional music that evolved under the patronage of Sufis, especially the Chishtis, was a variation of the same concern to please God, the Prophet (PBUH), and the grand Sufi masters, in order to win their favours and blessings. However, the sensuous route to Indian music evolved in the courts of temporal rulers. The focus shifted from devotion to entertainment and excitement of select audiences with the ruler as the object of adulation. The Muslim clerics and other orthodox forces were not invited to music recitals. The Muslim connection and contribution meant that music and melodies from the Middle East and Central Asia including instruments from those regions were added to the native heritage and such fusion greatly enriched Indian music.
The Punjabi contribution to film music is as great as that of actors and other creative artists
Consequently, the narrower focus of devotional music gave way to the broader interest in entertainment and sensuality that Emperor Akbar set as the standard of court patronage of musicians. Pakistan’s leading historian Dr Mubarak Ali writes that Akbar compelled a lesser Raja to let go of his court musician Tansen, and allow him to join the Mughal court. From that incident we can imagine how important it was for royalty to maintain court musicians. Naturally, the example of the emperor was emulated by lesser rulers and vassals. I would imagine that this explains why so many music ustads have been Muslims. Especially in Northern India, Muslim ustads were employed by royalty and aristocracy in large numbers. This practice continued well into the twentieth century because the British did not interfere with such traditions. What I am trying to say is that the courts of the rulers were outside the purview of the custodians of severe morality such as Muslim clerics. Cinema and films emerged during the British era. Although this time the audience was the general public, but the clerics had no political influence and their opinion was not sought by the state on such matters. In the code of conduct adopted by the censor boards, it was laid down that cinema should not attack religion or criticise the clergy of the various communities.
Indian cinema from the very onset had music as its backbone and even parallel or art cinema could not exclude it. The Punjabi contribution to film music is as great if not greater than the contribution of actors and other creative artists. Film music consists of three main contributors: the music director who composes a tune, the songwriter who gives words to the tune (with some exceptions when the verses are already written and the tune is composed later: a practice especially associated with Sahir Ludhianvi), and the singer who renders it in his/her voice.
We will end this article by just naming those Punjabi music directors who made a contribution at Calcutta and Bombay, and in forthcoming essays focus on some who shone bright and clear and became part of the never-ending Bollywood-Calcutta-Lollywood romance called cinema. The pioneers who were already from the 1930s working in all three were Ustad Jhandey Khan, Master Ghulam Haider, Shyam Sunder, Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, Feroz Nizami, and Pandit Amarnath, Pandit Govind Ram and AR Qureshi (Ustad Allah Rakha the table wizard). At the time of Partition, Husnlal-Bhagat Ram, Vinod and OP Nayyar left Lahore and ended up in Bombay. Others who soon afterwards, from West Punjabi, created absolute beauty at Bollywood were Roshan and Madan Mohan. The contributions of the Sikhs, Mohinder Singh and Sardul Kwatra and Sardar Malik (a Muslim from Kapurthala State and father of Anu Malik), are also remembered even more. As I go along I will mention more names. It is very likely that in this list I have missed some Punjabis. This happens when one is relying on one’s memory and a few reliable publications.
Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University, Visiting Professor at Government College University and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore