Vasant Desai (1912-1975) was a music composer par excellence. The mainstay composer for the legendary V Shantaram, Desai created music that stayed true to the classical roots and yet gained mass popularity. Working with leading filmmakers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Vijay Bhatt and others, Desai created iconic songs. NS Rajan explores the oeuvre of the legendary maestro.
Vasant Desai was among the foremost composers in the Hindi and Marathi film music industry from the 1940s. He was very closely associated with V Shantaram and composed music for almost all his films for over a decade. These included Shakuntala, Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946), Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baaje (1955), Toofan Aur Diya (1956), and Do Aankhen Baarah Haath (1957). But, as it often happens, differences with Shantaram led to a parting of ways between them for a long time.
Seven years later, when Shantaram requested him to compose music for his Ladki Sahyadri Ki, Desai returned to Shantaram without any rancour and had Pandit Jasraj singing his first Hindi film song – a bhajan. He used classical, folk and thematic music perfectly for his films.
The score for Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje was based entirely on dance themes. He got Ustad Amir Khan, a great vocalist to sing the title song of this film. At his very young age of 17, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, played the santoor for Vasant Desai in this film. Sharma always felt deeply indebted to Desai for this auspicious stepping stone to his career and, in 1981, as part of the duo Shiv-Hari, he got Lata to sing her memorable song Jo tum todo piya from Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje again in Silsila, as a tribute to Vasant Desai (although the classical based tune in Silsila was different from the tune in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje).
Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946) was based on the real life story of Dwarkanath Kotnis, an Indian doctor who worked in China during the Japanese invasion in World War II. The film was screened in competition at the 1947 Venice Film Festival. Vasant Desai’s excellent compositions for this film included some songs with a ‘Chinese’ air to them.
Desai’s music for Do Aankhen Baarah Haath included the prayer song, Aye maalik tere bande hum, which achieved considerable fame, as it was regarded as being truly ‘secular’ (not pertaining to any specific religion or God). This song was declared by the then Punjab Government as a part of the morning prayers in their schools.
In 1959, Desai composed one of the best scores ever for Hindi films in Vijay Bhatt’s Goonj Uthi Shehnai with nine outstanding songs written by Bharat Vyas. Desai got the famous Ustad Bismillah Khan (who shunned films) to play his shehnai extensively for the songs and as background score in this film. All songs of this film were hits: Tere sur aur mere geet, Teri shehnai bole, Jeevan mein piya tera saath rahe and a lovely, fast-paced rollicking duet with chorus Ankhiyaan bhool gayi hain sona which had Geeta Dutt and Lata Mangeshkar vying with each other.
Vasant Desai composed for several Marathi films with superb songs in many of them. Among the most famous of them is Amar Bhoopali, based on the life of Honaji Bala, a highly patriotic poet during the rule of the Peshwas. Amar Bhoopali has the highly popular Ghanashyama Sundara, Sreedhara tuned in the morning Raag Bhoopali. Sampoorna Ramayan (1961) also had music by Vasant Desai.
Desai has several great films to his credit. Among them are Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi (1971), in which he introduced the sweet-voiced Vani Jairam to Hindi films, singing Bole re papihara, and Hum ko man ki shakti dena. Gulzar who wrote the lyrics for both these songs has rightly observed that Desai is a “music composer extraordinaire”. It is interesting that the song Hum ko man ki shakti dena almost did not get recorded because Hrishikesh insisted on using a Rabindra Sangeet tune for it. Vasant Desai asked him to let him record the song and then decide. When Hrishida heard the recording, he realised that Vasant Desai was right and the song was included as composed by Desai. Those two songs came to be the keynote for the film’s roaring success. Hum ko man ki shakti dena, true to the way it had been used in the film, actually became a prayer song in schools.
Desai also composed for Hrishikesh’s Aashirwad (1968), which had an interesting mix of songs written by Gulzar. Veteran actor Ashok Kumar sang three songs including a duet. His Rail gadi chuk chuk, is fondly remembered as much for his acting as for his robust singing. Although the song has minimal instrumentals, the brilliance of composer Desai and Ashok Kumar’s spirited acting makes this rap ditty so highly popular. Two other songs sung by Ashok Kumar in Aashirwad include Nani ki nao chali and the conversational duet with Harindranath Chattopadhyay Jhingapur takur takur, which had beautiful usage of the khol. Manna Dey’s soulful Jeevan se lambe hain bandhu and Lata Mangeshkar’s Jhir jhir barse sawani ankhiyan and the poignant Ek thha bachpan are just as beautiful. Gulzar’s songless directorial venture Achanak (1973) had the background score by Desai.
His last film was Shaque (1975). During the making of this film, in a tragic incident, Vasant Desai met with a horrible accident and died, mangled in a malfunctioning lift in his own apartment building. What a cruel end to a noble man and his glorious career!
Shaque was dedicated to Vasant Desai. Its background score was recorded after his death by musician Enoch Daniels and the film’s directors Aruna Raje and Vikas Desai. “Khayyam would later become famous for having Asha Bhosle lower her pitch for Umrao Jaan (1981) but he was not the first music director to do so. Meha barasne laga hai had Asha Bhosle singing at a lower pitch than her usual to devastating effect. Vasant Desai starts the song as a fair conventional semi-classical song embellished with a sarangi and introduces a novelty halfway through the song when a saxophone kicks in!
“Asha singing the song in a low pitch and a blissful ‘Thehrav’ in the tune, makes it a delightful experience. The use of Sarangi and later Saxophone makes it more appealing. A slow paced composition in Raag, Jayant Malhar.”
Long before Khayyam’s Umrao Jaan, OP Nayyar had created several songs for Asha with a lower pitch and all of them were hits. Sample Aankhon se jo utri hai dil mein; Bekasi had se jab ghuzar jaaye; Woh haseen dard de do; Meri jaan tum pe sadke, ehsaan itna kar do; Hothon pe hansi aankhon mein nasha, and many others).
On the occasion of United Nations’ UN Day celebrations on 23rd October in 1966, UN Secretary General, U Thant sent an invite to Sangeeta Kalanidhi Smt. MS Subbulakshmi, requesting her to sing for the delegates at the General Assembly in New York. Subbulakshmi and her husband Sadasivam (founder/ editor of the popular Tamil magazine Kalki) who never did anything without first obtaining the blessings of the Senior sage of Kanchi, Sri Chandrashekharendra Saraswati (1894-1994), went to Kanchipuram to seek his blessings. The Paramacharya, a great scholar in Sanskrit and a polyglot had a prayer which he referred to as an anthem for universal friendship. With this blessing of a prayer, the Sadasivams approached Vasant Desai to set it to tune in a medley of Ragas. The tune for this prayer, Maithreem Bhajata, a benediction composed in Sanskrit, was set to a Ragamalika by Vasant Desai. It was rendered at the United Nations by Bharat Ratna, Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi. Thereafter, she regularly rendered this prayer at every one of her concerts. Vasant Desai was given a cheque of Rs 501 for composing this prayer. Desai was so moved by the whole experience that he didn’t cash the cheque. He framed it and preserved it for the rest of his life.
Vasant Desai was greatly admired by maestros like Shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan, vocalists Ustad Amir Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and many other masters in Hindustani classical music. Nowadays when Cannes Film Festival is a place of photo opportunity rather than exploration of artistry, it is overwhelming to know that decades ago, Desai’s versatility made Amar Bhoopali the only Indian film to win a Grand Prix award for original musical score at Cannes!
(All pictures courtesy the Internet)
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