The Lost Art of the Raga-Mala

For musically-inclined fans of Hindi cinema, the Lata-Rafi duet “Kuhu Kuhu Bole Koyelia” from the film Suvarna Sundari (1957) stands out as one of the finest examples of how Hindustani classical music has been incorporated into the genre of Bollywood music. This song has always been a personal favorite of mine, and it happens to be one of the first pieces of Indian music I adapted for performance on the piano. This song takes on the structure of a raga-mala (literally, a garland of ragas), a form derived from Hindustani classical music in which different musical modes are intertwined within a single composition. In “Kuhu Kuhu Bole Koyelia,” four ragas are used beautifully in combination: Sohini, Bahaar, Jaunpuri, and Yaman.

A.N.R and Anjali Devi star in Suvarna Sundari (1957)

Whenever I listen to a song like this, I feel compelled to draw comparisons between the music created during the Golden Age of Hindi cinema and the music produced by the Bollywood industry today. Aside from the occasional gem, the songs found in Hindi movies today fail to impress on all counts. The music produced today simply lacks the magic found in the songs from the yesteryears of Hindi cinema, which reflect the efforts of a host of talented music directors, lyricists, and vocalists.

Take, for example, the skillful manner in which Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi render this composition. Their voices navigate through the intricacies of each raga with a level of musical precision and maturity that is sadly missing in the singers who rule the Bollywood industry today. In addition to nailing the technical sargam and harkats, they sing with a graceful ease and poise that allows this complex composition to appeal to a broad audience, regardless of musical background. Will we ever get to hear such a beautifully intricate raag-mala sung in a Bollywood film produced today? Based on current trends, I am skeptical about the prospects of such an opportunity – the industry needs to stop celebrating Sheila’s jawani and return to its roots in order to preserve the rich musical heritage of our culture.

–Mr. 55

P.S. Some of you may be interested to know that a Telegu version of this composition also exists, which was sung by Jikki and Ghantasala.

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