This article was written as part of the ‘Guzra Hua Zamana’ series on Sangeet Ke Sitare, a music group on Facebook
A pre-pubescent boy plays the violin, while a man cries his heart out on stage singing ‘ae dil mujhe rone de’…
The same boy narrates a tale of ill-fated lovers as he plays a harmonium hanging around his neck and lip-syncs to the voice of his real-life sibling - ‘do dilon ko ye duniya milne hi nahin deti’…
This boy, in a peculiar way, symbolizes two brothers who made their debut in this very film ‘Chaand’ (1944). One, an expert violinist and an accomplished classical singer, while the other, a talented harmonium player. We’re talking about the first popular music composer duo of the Hindi film industry – Husnlal-Bhagatram.
Brothers of composer Pt. Amarnath, Husnlal and Bhagatram made their debut as music composers with Prabhat Film Company’s ‘Chaand’ (1944). Thus began a career that saw a meteoric rise and, sadly, a dramatic fall as well.
Bhagatram and Husnlal were born in Jalandhar district in 1914 and 1920 respectively. In the early years they learnt music from their elder brother Pt. Amarnath, and later underwent formal training in classical music from Pt. Dilip Chandra Vedi of Jalandhar. Husnlal went on to learn violin from Ustaad Basheer Khan. It was this rigorous training that made violin such an important part of their compositions, right from their first film ‘Chaand’, where violin played a very prominent role in the background score as well. Most of the time Husnlal would play the violin solos in their compositions himself.
Before the brothers joined hands to compose as a duo, Bhagatram had already composed for around 9 films in 1939-40, either solo, or sharing credit with composers like Ramgopal Pande and Madhulal Master. None of these films met with much success and he had to wait for some years before tasting success with his brother.
Husnlal-Bhagatram emerged on the scene at a time when the Punjabi school of rhythm-based music had gained foothold in the Hindi film industry with the growing popularity of the works of masters like Ghulam Haider. They exploited this opportunity to the fullest with their brand of simple, hummable tunes embellished with pacey rhythm.
Following the success of the music of ‘Chaand’, Prabhat Film Company commissioned the brothers again to compose for their next feature ‘Hum Ek Hain’ (1946), a topical film based on National integration. The film marked the debuts of Dev Anand and Rehman as actors and Guru Dutt as a choreographer. It also featured Husnlal’s voice as a singer for the first time in a duet with Amir Bai Karnataki. The songs of this film were in a template similar to the ones from ‘Chaand’, a style that would soon develop into an easily identifiable Husnlal-Bhagatram style.
They continued to get a small number of assignments in the following years, including Noor Jehan’s ‘Mirza Sahiban’ (1947), which they got associated with when their elder brother Pt. Amarnath fell ill during the making of the film and eventually passed away. It was with ‘Pyar Ki Jeet’ (1948) that the brothers truly came on their own and began their rapid ascent in the industry. Suraiya’s ‘tere nainon ne chori kiya’, ‘o door jaane waale’, and Rafi’s ‘ik dil ke tukde hazaar hue’ from this film became immensely popular and are remembered to this day.
With ‘Pyar Ka Jeet’ and ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ in 1948 started a mutually beneficial collaboration between Suraiya and Husnlal-Bhagatram. Suraiya sang more songs for them than any other composer, while she was second only to Lata Mangeshkar in terms of number of songs sung by any female singer for Husnlal-Bhagatram. Suraiya lent her voice to around 58 songs composed by Husnlal-Bhagatram for 9 films (not counting 6 songs that were used both in ‘Amar Kahani’ and ‘Kanchan’).
Soon after Mahatama Gandhi’s death in 1948, Husnlal-Bhagatram teamed up with Rajinder Krishan and Mohd. Rafi to compose a multi-part song - ‘suno suno se duniyawalo baapu ke ye amar kahani’. The song became extremely popular due to it topicality and an instantly hummable tune, which admittedly tends to sound a bit monotonous due to its length.
The years 1949 and 1950 were the most successful years for Husnlal-Bhagatram. Not only did they compose for as 19 films during these two years, many of their songs climbed the popularity charts with regularity. Their biggest hit during this period was probably ‘Badi Behen’. ‘Chup chup khade ho’, sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Premlata in this film would surely count among the most well-known songs of the duo and can even be called their signature song. The soundtrack was studded with numerous other gems by Suraiya and Lata. In the same year Husnlal-Bhagatram brought together their favorite female singers in two duets in ‘Balam’, and repeated the feat a few years later with another duet in ‘Sanam’ (1951).
Husnlal-Bhagatram worked with a variety of singers, but as was the norm of that period, their female solos and duets far outnumber male solos. Apart from Lata Mangeshkar and Suraiya, their top two singers in terms of number of songs, they also worked with other major singers of that period starting from Zeenat Begum, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Amirbai Karnataki, Paro, etc. in the early phase, to Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum & Meena Kapoor at their peak, to Asha Bhosle and Suman Kalyanpur during the last phase of their career. At the same time, they also employed the voices of other female singers like Rajkumari, Surinder Kaur, Meena Mageshkar, Madhubala Jhaveri, Nirmala Devi, etc., although usually as a one-off case. Among male singers, they did the most work with Mohd. Rafi, followed by G. M Durrani and Talat Mahmood. Their usage of singers like Mukesh, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar was extremely limited. They even made Khayyam sing a duet with Zohrabai in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ (1946) when Khayyam was working under them, and towards the end of their career they roped in Purushottam Das Jalota for a song in ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh’ (1963).
No discussion about Husnlal-Bhagatram can be complete without talking about their partnership with Lata Mangeshkar. It was the 1949-1950 period that saw the beginning of Lata Mangeshkar’s dominance among female singers in Hindi films. Many music directors of that period had an important role to play in honing her talent and Husnlal-Bhagatram’s contribution cannot be overestimated. Around 105 songs in 29 films over a period of 8 years is quite a significant output. One can find all possible moods in the songs they created for Lata Mangeshkar - melancholy in ‘dil hi to hai tadap gaya’ (Aadhi Raat, 1950), youthful romance in ‘khushiyon ke din manaye ja’ (Afsana, 1951), thrill of first love in ‘aaj laila ko majnun ka pyar mila’ (Adl-e-Jehangir, 1955), the fear of separation in the Pahadi-infused duet ‘sun mere saajna’ (Aansoo, 1953), purity of motherly love in ‘aankhon ka tara’ (Aansoo, 1953), dejection in ‘lut gayi ummeedon ki duniya’ (Jal Tarang, 1949), playful banter in ‘mori bhabhi ke gaal gulaabi’ (Raakhi, 1949), complaint to the almighty in ‘zamane bhar ko hansane wale’… the list can go on and on.
Their most lasting partnership with any person in the film industry was with lyricist Qamar Jalalabadi. From their first film ‘Chaand’ (1944) to ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh’ (1963), they created close to 160 songs in 24 films. Their work together captures almost every possible genre and mood one comes across in Hindi film songs – romantic, sad, frivolous, motherly love, devotional, patriotic, qawwali, ghazal, and so on. The other prominent lyricists they worked with include Rajinder Krishan, Sarshar Sailani, Mulkraj Bhakri, and Majrooh Sultanpuri.
While analyzing the composing style of Husnlal-Bhagatram in his book “Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries”, Ashok Ranade says, “The duo is fond of fast pace and it is actualized mainly through dholak and employment of atonal drums such as matka or idiophones such as ghunghroo, etc.” He goes on to add that the essence of their style is “that the rhythmic pulse is quickly, unambiguously and immediately established.” One wouldn’t say that this is something unique to them, as many composers have followed this strategy, but they surely seem very fond of it. Another aspect of their composing style in Ashok Ranade’s words is that “they make a musical statement which consists of successive song-lines with a descending and repetitive tonal contours”, which “appears to resolve the melody into completeness and it seems easier to remember” and “very few notes are used in those lines”. One of the adjectives that Ashok Ranade uses more than once while describing their style is ‘bright’, even for sad songs. He wonders if brightness was their “main and stabilized mood” as is evident in their melodic phrasing and choice of instruments and orchestration. Think ‘do dilon ko ye duniya’, ‘chup chup khade ho’, ‘chale jana nahin’, ‘wo paas rahen ya door’, ‘ik dil ke tukde’, ‘o door jaane waale’, ‘tere nainon ne chori kiya’, ‘gori gori chandni hai’ or any of the more popular songs, the ‘brightness’ will shine through and the above described composing style will be abundantly evident.
One style feature that makes many of Husnlal-Bhagatram’s fast-paced songs catchy and instantly likeable is their tendency to punctuate the melody lines with very short and catchy orchestral phrases as a trigger for repetition of words or line, or by inserting short pauses at the end of a mukhda or antara before the rhythm moves forward. There are many examples to illustrate this point but I would pick two songs that to my mind can be easily identified as Husnlal-Bhagatram creations. The first example is Suraiya’s popular ‘tere nainon ne chori kiya’ from ‘Pyar Ki Jeet (1948). The pause after ‘tere nainon ne’ is filled with a brief flute piece that becomes such an integral part of the tune that if you try humming the tune, that flute piece would instantly play in your mind.
The other song that I would use as an example is Lata’s ‘tum dil ko tod doge’ from ‘Farmaaish’ (1953). The prelude itself is enough for one to identify it as their creation, but let’s look at the rest of the composition. The first line is broken right at the middle and filled with a music piece, then at the end of the line comes another music piece before the line is repeated in exactly the same manner. In the antaras, a similar approach is followed, although the musical punctuation is used at the end of each line and a lovely pause is introduced at the end of the cross-line.
Husnlal-Bhagatram are often accused of being repetitive in their approach. In “Dhunon Ki Yatra” Pankaj Raag says, “It has to be agreed that there wasn’t much variation in their style and their obsession with Punjabi Pahadi or Punjabi Kaafi often made their style repetitive.” Ashok Ranade has also not credited Husnlal-Bhagatram with much innovation or path breaking approach, but he does say that “they served a kind of historical role. Apart from firming up the idea of a composing pair, their work during the early phase of the later modern period built a bridge between early, theatre-oriented, raaga-heavy music and the film music which looked to new composing formulae, new tonal colours and virtuoso voices demanding ambitious music that afforded them a performing scope”.
While it is true that many of their songs sound alike, but their repertoire needs more exploration to dispel this theory. They have more variety in their creations than they are credited for, especially in their early and later phases. This could probably because of the fact that their more popular numbers from their peak (1948-1951) tend to have a similar template. One does see a gradual movement away from their trademark style starting with 1952-3, which ironically marks the beginning of their declining years. The songs from that period may be less popular but present a refreshing change in Husnlal-Bhagatram’s music style, both in terms of orchestral flourish as well as wider spread-out melodies.
After the dizzying heights they reached in 1949-50, success slowly started eluding Husnlal-Bhagatram. Despite good soundtracks like ‘Afsana’ (1951), ‘Raja Harishchandra’ (1952), ‘Aansoo’ (1953), ‘Shama Parwana’ (1954) and ‘Adl-e-Jehangir’ (1955), they had to remain content with a handful of films with B-list producers. New composers like Shankar Jaikishan (Shankar was closely associated with them in his early days and one could say that early SJ music had reflections of the HB style) and later O.P Nayyar created unassailable positions for themselves in the industry, while some of their seniors and contemporaries like Naushad, C. Ramchandra, etc. held strongly to their positions. Lack of support from successful producers and actors probably added to their woes. The film company that they worked the most with – Famous Pictures – too underwent dwindling fortunes in the 50s. However, director D. D Kashyap, who worked with them in their very first film, remained loyal to them and went on to use their service in 6 films over a span of 12 years. Towards the 60s, they had to be content with a handful of C-grade films like ‘Tarzan & Circus’ (1965) and ‘Sher Afghan’ (1966).
Disillusioned with the ways of the film industry, Husnlal moved to Delhi where he started teaching music and performed off and on at concerts and gatherings. Listening to a few clips of his classical singing and violin recital from that period, one wonders what turn his luck would have taken had he pursued a career in classical music instead of getting mired in the fickleness of the film industry. Bhagatram remained in Bombay, but the only work that came his way was as an instrumentalist in the orchestra of other composers. Husnlal passed away in 1968 while on a morning walk. His brother followed him in 1973. Their family legacy is being carried forward by Bhagatram’s son Ashok Sharma, a noted sitar player, and his wife Zarin Daruwala Sharma.
- Chaand (1944)
- Hum Ek Hain (1946)
- Nargis (1946)
- Heera (1947)
- Mirza Sahiban (1947) – with Pt. Amarnath
- Mohan (1947)
- Romeo & Juliet (1947)
- Aaj Ki Raat (1948)
- Lakhpati (1948)
- Pyar Ki Jeet (1948)
- Amar Kahani (1949)
- Badi Behen (1949)
- Balam (1949)
- Bansuriya (1949)
- Bazaar (1949) – with Shyam Sundar
- Hamari Manzil (1949)
- Jal Tarang (1949)
- Naach (1949)
- Raakhi (1949)
- Sawan Bhadon (1949)
- Aadhi Raat (1950)
- Apni Chhaya (1950)
- Birha Ki Raat (1950)
- Chhoti Bhabhi (1950)
- Gauna (1950)
- Meena Bazar (1950)
- Pyar Ki Manzil (1950)
- Sartaj (1950)
- Surajmukhi (1950)
- Afsana (1951)
- Sanam (1951)
- Shagun (1951) – with Sardul Kwatra
- Stage (1951) – with Sardar Malik
- Kafila (1952) – with Bhola Shreshtha
- Raja Harishchandra (1952)
- Aansoo (1953)
- Farmaaish (1953)
- Shah Ji (Punjabi) (1954)
- Shama Parwana (1954)
- Adl-e-Jehangir (1955)
- Kanchan (1955)
- Aan Baan (1956)
- Mr. Chakram (1956)
- Dushman (1957)
- Jannat (1957)
- Krishna Sudama (1957)
- Trolley Driver (1958)
- Apsara (1961)
- Shaheed Bhagat Singh (1963)
- Main Jatti Punjab Di (Punjabi) (1964)
- Sapni (Punjabi) (1965)
- Tarzan And Circus (1965)
- Sher Afghan (1966)
- Bambi (Unreleased) (1940s)
- Kya Baat Hai (Unreleased) (1950s)
- Bahadur Ramesh (1939)
- Bhedi Kumar (1939)
- Chashmawali (939)
- Deepak Mahal (1940) - with Ramgopal Pande
- Hamara Desh (1940)
- Hatimtai Ki Beti (1940) - with Madhulal Master
- Sandesha (1940)
- Tatar Ka Chor (1940) - with Ramgopal Pande
- Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries by Ashok Da. Ranade
- Dhunon Ki Yatra by Pankaj Raag