Panchhi Banoon Udti Phiroon Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

Nargis
Nargis frees a bird from its cage in a symbolic representation of her unfettered joy in Chori Chori (1956)

I have some good news to share with our readers: I was recently accepted to my top-choice medical school and I will be matriculating there this fall! To celebrate this momentous occasion in my life, I am providing the lyrics and English translation to one of Bollywood’s most memorable feel-good numbers from Chori Chori (1956): panchhii banuu.n uDtii phiruu.n. 

Adapted from Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1932), Chori Chori (1956) narrates the story of a wealthy socialite (played by Nargis) who flees her home when her father objects to her decision to marry a pilot with a reputation for womanizing and greed. En route to Bangalore, Nargis encounters Raj Kapoor, a journalist hoping to scoop this exciting story about an heiress on the run. Throughout the course of their journey, the initial bickering and animosity between Raj Kapoor and Nargis gradually transforms into love.  This film’s most memorable asset is the on-screen chemistry shared by Raj Kapoor and Nargis, who were involved in a real-life affair that became the talk of the town in the Bollywood industry during this era. 

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable star in It Happened One Night (1932).

Placed into the context of the film, panchhii banuu.n uDtii phiruu.n sung by Lata Mangeshkar is picturized on Nargis as she basks in her newfound freedom after running away from home. Composed by Shankar-Jaikishan and penned by Hasrat Jaipuri, this song is inspired by a traditional Scottish standard calledComin’ Thro’ the Rye.” In addition to its Western influences, Hindustani classical music buffs may also argue that this melody is based on the pentatonic Raga Bhupali. Indeed, the diversity of musical influences found in the Chori Chori soundtrack make this one of Shankar-Jaikishan’s most treasured scores. From classical (“rasik balma“) to folk (“man bhaavan ke ghar“) to Western (“aajaa sanam madhur chaa.ndnii“), the compositions in Chori Chori are remarkable for their technical quality and popular appeal. It is no surprise that Shankar-Jaikishan received a well-deserved Filmfare Award for this soundtrack in 1957.

The exuberant essence of panchii banuu.n uDtii phiruu.n is undeniable: its exaltation of life brings a smile to my face with every listen. As I celebrate my acceptance to medical school, I hope to continue pursuing my dreams in the future with this spirit of joie de vivre always in mind. Until next time…

-Mr. 55
Nargis
The rural landscape accentuates Nargis’s liberated state of mind in Chori Chori (1956).

Panchhi Banoon Udti Phiroon: Lyrics and Translation

panchhii banuu.n uDtii phiruu.n mast gagan me.n
As a bird, I want to fly in the beautiful sky.
aaj mai.n aazaad huu.n duniyaa ke chaman me.n
Today, I have been liberated in the garden of the world.

(hillorii, hillorii)

mere jiivan me.n chamkaa saveraa
The morning light has shined brightly in my life.
miTaa dil se vah gham kaa andheraa
It has removed the darkness of sorrow from my heart. 
hare kheton me.n gaaye koii lahraa
Someone sings, billowing in the green fields. 
yahaa.n dil par kisi kaa na pahraa
Here, no one keeps guard over the heart. 
rang bahaaro.n ne bharaa mere jiivan me.n
The Spring has filled my life with color.
aaj mai.n aazaad huu.n duniyaa ke chaman me.n
Today, I have been liberated in the garden of the world.

dil yah chaahe bahaaro.n se kheluu.n
My heart desires that I play with the Spring. 
gorii nadiyaa ke dhaaro.n se kheluu.n
I shall frolic in the currents of the fair river. 
chaand suuraj sitaaro.n se kheluu.n
I shall play with the Moon, the Sun, and the stars. 
apnii baaho.n me.n aakaash le luu.n
I shall embrace the sky in my arms. 
baDhtii chaluu.n gaatii chaluu.n apnii lagan me.n
I shall forge ahead as I sing to my own tune. 
aaj mai.n aazaad huu.n duniyaa ke chaman me.n
Today, I feel liberated in the garden of the world. 

(hillorii, hillorii)

mai.n to oDhuu.ngii baadal kaa aa.nchal
I shall wear a shawl of clouds.
mai.n to pahnuu.ngi bijlii kii paayal
I shall wear an anklet of lightning rods.
chhiin luu.ngii ghaTaao.n se kaajal
I shall steal some kohl from the dark clouds.
meraa jiivan hai nadiyaa kii halchal
My life is like the movement of a river:
dil se mere lahre.n uThe.n ThanDii pavan me.n
waves arise from my heart in the cool breeze.
aaj mai.n aazaad huu.n duniyaa ke chaman me.n
Today, I have been liberated in the garden of the world.

panchhii banuu.n uDtii phiruu.n mast gagan me.n
As a bird, I want to fly in the beautiful sky.

*Female lines in red are sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Male lines in green are sung by Manna De

Glossary

panchhii: bird; mast: beautiful, incredible; gagan: sky; aazaad: liberated, free; chaman: garden; saveraa: morning; andheraa: darkness; haraa: green; khet: field; lahraanaa: to billow; pahraa: guard; rang bharnaa: to fill with color; goraa: fair; dhaar: current of a river; sitaaraa: star; aakaash: sky; baDhnaa: to advance, move forward; aa.nchal oDhnaa: to wear a shawl; pahnaa: to wear; bijlii: lightning; paayal: anklet; chiin lenaa: to steal; ghaTaa: dark cloud; kaajal: kohl; halchal: bustle, movement; lahar: wave; pavan: breeze, wind.

Nargis
The color version of this song released by UltraHindi offers modern vibrance to a timeless beauty.

 

Raat Ke Humsafar Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

S
Sharmila Tagore and Shammi Kapoor enjoy the magic of Paris at night in An Evening In Paris (1967).

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

This quote by Ernest Hemingway is perhaps my favorite description of Paris, the quintessential city of lights and love. Being in Paris is truly a feast for all senses, but it is an opportunity that the average citizen in 1960s India would never receive. Not in person, at least.

In the 1960s, the advent of a new escapist genre of films allowed Indian audiences to be transported to exotic cosmopolitan locales through cinema. Films like Love in Tokyo (1966) and Night in London (1967) offered Indian movie-goers the chance to catch a glimpse of foreign culture from the comfort of their seats in a movie theater. In these tourist fantasies, consistency in plot and character development was not important; the real star of the show was the international destination being featured in the film.  The lyrics and English translation that we have provided today come from one of this genre’s most well-known examples: Shakti Samanta’s An Evening in Paris (1967) starring Sharmila Tagore and Shammi Kapoor.

The soundtrack for this film, composed by Shankar-Jaikishan and penned by Shailendra/Hasrat Jaipuri, contains a number of memorable hits. Yet, in my opinion, “raat ke hamsafar stands out from the rest for its beautiful melody, poetic lyrics, and passionate rendition by Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhonsle. This romantic duet reflects a strong Western musical influence, which is enhanced by the gorgeous strings-centered orchestration and the non-traditional modulations in Rafi and Asha’s voices.

To bring an interesting perspective that may not be known to all fans of this song, there is a story behind its making that has been narrated by Nandu Chawathe, a musician in Shankar-Jakishan’s troupe. In a tragic turn of events, composer Shankar’s mother died the same morning that a musical sitting was planned for “raat ke hamsafar.”  Jaikishan, Shammi Kapoor, and others were waiting for Shankar, but most of the group left after hearing the news under the assumption that Shankar would like to take the day off. When Shankar arrived late, he asked Nandu Chawathe why everyone had left before the sitting occurred. Shankar was angry when he realized everyone had left and canceled the sitting without telling him when it was his mother who had died. An evening sitting was rescheduled the same day. When Shankar arrived, he turned off all the lights and lit a candle, much to everyone’s surprise. He hummed the opening line of “raat ke hamsafar,” and everyone was stunned instantly. The first line of the mukhDaa was even Shankar’s own words! Shammi Kapoor approved the composition, Shailendra finished out the rest of the lyrics, and a treasured gem of Hindi film music was born.

French onion soup!
Sharmila Tagore and Shammi Kapoor snuggle in a Parisian cafe as they enjoy a late-night snack–French onion soup!

Raat Ke Humsafar: Lyrics and Translation

raat ke hamsafar thak ke ghar ko chale.n
Oh companion of the night, let us wander home wearily,
jhuumtii aa rahii hai subaah pyaar kii
as the dawn of love arrives, swaying about.
dekh kar saamne ruup kii raushnii
After encountering the light of your beauty,
phir luTii jaa rahii hai subaah pyaar kii
the dawn of love is being stolen away.

sonevaalo.n ko ha.ns kar jagaanaa bhii hai
Those who are sleeping are to be awakened with a smile.
raat ke jaagato.n ko sulaanaa bhii hai
Those who have stayed awake tonight are to be lulled to sleep.
detii hai jaagne kii sadaa saath hii
Though it also gives the call to awaken,
loriyaa.n gaa rahii hai subaah pyaar kii
this dawn of love evokes calm by singing lullabies.

raat ne pyaar ke jaam bhar kar diiye
The night has filled our wine goblets of love.
aankho.n-aankho.n se jo mai.ne tum ne piiye
You and I drank from them with our eyes.
hosh to ab talak jaa ke lauTe nahii.n
After leaving us, our consciousness has yet to return.
aur kyaa laa rahii hai subaah pyaar kii?
What else does this dawn of love have in store?

kyaa kyaa vaade hue, kis ne khaayii qasam?
What promises were made tonight? Who has sworn to new vows?
is nayii raah par ham ne rakhe qadam
Upon this new path, we have taken our first steps.
chhup sakaa pyaar kab? ham chhupaaye.n to kyaa?
When could our love be hidden? Even if we could, so what?
sab samajh paa rahii hai subaah pyaar kii
This dawn of love is able to understand everything.

raat ke hamsafar thak ke ghar ko chale.n
Oh companion of the night, let us wander home wearily,
jhuumtii aa rahii hai subaah pyaar kii
as the dawn of love arrives, swaying about.

Glossary

hamsafar: companion; thaknaa: to be tired, weary; jhuumnaa: to sway; subaah: dawn; ruup: beauty; raushnii: light; luTaa jaanaa: to be stolen away; jaagat: one who is awake; sulaanaa: to lull to sleep; sadaa: call; saath hii: also; lorii: lullaby; jaam: wine goblet; hosh: consciousness; ab talak: yet; vaadaa: promise; qasam khaanaa: to take a vow; qadam rakhnaa: to take steps; chhupaanaa: to hide; samajh paanaa: to be able to understand.

Seine
Sharmila Tagore and Shammi Kapoor float away into the night on the Seine.

As an aside, I thought that I would say a word about the time that I spent in Paris during the summer of 2011! I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship to conduct a research internship for three months in a cancer immunology laboratory at the Institut Curie. Besides the academic opportunities presented to me in the lab, my summer in Paris was a formative experience in terms of cultural enrichment and personal growth. I always look back fondly upon the time I spent in Paris, and the memories of that summer have stayed with me ever since. In keeping with the theme of this post, a couple of my pictures of Paris by night are presented below. Enjoy! À bientôt!

-Mr. 55
Seine
An early evening view of the Seine river.
EiffelTower
Enjoying the Eiffel Tower with friends on a Parisian summer night.

Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujhpar Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

Shammi Kapoor’s wistful gaze wins over hearts as he pines about unconditional love in Junglee (1961)

Our next translation is a truly special song from Subodh Mukherjee’s Junglee (1961): ahsaan teraa hogaa mujh par. Junglee stars Saira Banu in her debut role as a stunning Kashmiri beauty who wins over a stoic, arrogant businessman played by Shammi Kapoor. This film was instrumental in launching Saira Banu’s career as a heroine and solidifying Shammi Kapoor’s image as a charming loverboy. As an aside, this film is also noteworthy because it ushered in an era of producing mainstream Bollywood films in Eastman color!

Composed by Shankar-Jaikishan and penned by Hasrat Jaipuri, this song ranks among my all-time favorites rendered by the inimitable Mohammed Rafi. This touching melody rooted in raga Yaman Kalyan with heartfelt words expressing the beautiful struggles of unconditional love is perfectly suited for Mohammed Rafi’s delicate, velvety vocals.  Shammi Kapoor’s on-screen portrayal–especially that sensual look in his eyes–adds to Rafi’s romantic rendition.

Lata Mangeshkar has done an apt job performing a second shorter “sad” version of this song in film. Yet it somehow lacks the magic and sensual ease of Rafi’s rendition, and this might be attributed to Shankar-Jakishan’s decision to have Lata sing this song in the same “male scale” as Rafi. For more on this phenomenon, please see our previous post on the role of the soprano voice in Hindi film music here.

Please enjoy this veritable gem of Hindi film music by reading the lyrics and our English translation provided below! Until next time…

-Mr. 55
16-year-old Saira Banu makes a stunning debut alongside Shammi Kapoor in Junglee (1961)

Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujhpar: Lyrics and Translation

ahsaan teraa hogaa mujh par
You would be granting me a favor 
dil chahtaa hai vah kahne do
if you permit me to reveal my heart’s desires. 
mujhe tum se muhabbat ho gayii hai
I have fallen in love with you. 
mujhe palko.n kii chaa.nv me.n rahne do
Please let me dwell in the shadows of your eyelashes.

tum ne mujhko ha.nsnaa sikhayaa
You taught me how to smile,
rone kahoge ro le.nge ab
yet I would cry now upon your request.
aa.nsuu kaa hamaare gham na karo
Please do not mourn for my tears.
ve bahte hai.n to bahne do
They have started to flow, so let them fall.
mujhe tum se muhabbat ho gayii hai
I have fallen in love with you.
mujhe palko.n ki chaa.nv me.n rahne do
Please let me dwell in the shadows of your eyelashes.

chaahe banaa do chaahe miTaa do
Whether you build me up or destroy me, 
mar bhii gaye to de.nge duaaye.n
I will give you my blessings even if I die. 
uD uD ke kahegii khaak sanam
Oh beloved, as they fly in the air, my ashes will say:
yah dard-e-muhabbat sahne do
“Let us bear the burden of this pain in love.”
mujhe tum se muhabbat ho gayii haii
I have fallen in love with you.
mujhe palko.n kii chaa.nv me.n rahne do
Please let me dwell in the shadows of your eyelashes.

ahsaan teraa hogaa mujh par
You would be granting me a favor. 

Glossary

ahsaan: favor; muhabbat: love; palke.n: eyelids, eyelashes; aa.nsuu: tears; gham karnaa: to mourn; bahnaa: to flow; miTaa denaa: to destroy; duaaye.n: blessings; uDnaa: to fly; khaak: ashes; sanam: beloved; dard-e-muhabbat: pain in love; sahnaa: to endure, tolerate.

Junglee (1961) showcases the beauty of the Kashmiri countryside.

Plagiarism in Hindi Film Music: Is Imitation the Most Sincere Form of Flattery?

Music directors in the Bollywood industry today are often accused of plagiarizing songs without giving proper credit to the original sources. Pritam Chakraborty, in particular, comes to mind as a composer who has been subjected to such accusations in recent times. Yet, lifting tunes is not a new trend in the industry: its origins can be  traced back to the industry’s earliest days when music directors of the Golden Era composed melodies heavily inspired by unattributed sources. Below, let’s take a listen to some plagiarized works composed by five of the greatest music directors of yesteryear: R.D. Burman, S.D. Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan, Salil Chowdhury, and O.P. Nayyar.

 R.D. Burman

Among the music directors of his time, R.D. Burman was perhaps the most notorious for composing inspired tunes.  Within the list that I’ve provided below, the magnitude of plagiarism varies from song to song. Some numbers below are direct lifts from their originals, such as the cult classic “mahbuubaa mahbuubaa” from Sholay (1975). Others represent more subtle variations of plagiarism: for instance,  the Kishore Kumar classic “dilbar mere kab tak mujhe” only takes it mukhDaa from “Zigeunerjunge” but has original antaras and interludes.  As a musician, I personally feel that the latter form of lifting is somewhat justifiable because it still reflects a level of creativity and originality on the part of the composer. The direct copying of tunes, however, raises ethical concerns and may have even placed music directors like R.D. Burman in legal trouble had such songs been released today.  Regardless of your opinion on this issue, what is universally striking about the list of songs below is the diversity of sources from which R.D. Burman drew his inspiration.  Collectively, the original melodies come from a smorgasbord of musical genres from all over the world: traditional folk, American pop, Greek, German, French, and even Iranian rock!

aao twist kare.n (Bhoot Bangla, 1965)  / “Let’s Twist Again” (Chubby Checker, 1962)
churaa liyaa hai tum ne  (Yaadon Ki Baraat,  1973) / “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” (Bojoura, 1969)
teraa mujhse hai pahle kaa naataa koii  (Aa Gale Lag Ja, 1973)/ “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (Traditional)
mahbuubaa, mahbuubaa (Sholay, 1975) / “Say You Love Me” (Demis Roussos, 1974)
mil gayaa ham ko saathii (Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin, 1977) / “Mamma Mia” (ABBA, 1975)
jahaa.n terii yah nazar hai (Kaalia, 1981) / “Heleh Maali” (Zia Atabi, 1977)
kaisaa teraa pyaar (Love Story, 1981) / “I Have A Dream” (ABBA, 1979)
dilbar mere kab tak mujhe (Satta Pe Satta, 1982) / “Zigeunerjunge” (Alexandra, 1967)
kahii.n na jaa  (Bade Dilwala, 1983) / “La Vie En Rose” (Edith Piaf, 1955)
tum se milke  (Parinda, 1989) / “When I Need You” (Leo Sayer, 1977)

Zeenat Aman sizzles in “churaa liyaa tum ne” from Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973)

S.D. Burman

Like his son, S.D. Burman has also composed melodies that reflect marked inspiration from foreign sources.  Although we have already investigated the influence of Tagore’s music on S.D. Burman in a previous post, we now observe how his compositions also were inspired by non-Indian genres.  For a composer who was rather traditional in his musical output, who would have imagined that he lifted material from Mexican, Italian, and American country melodies?

chaahe koi khush ho (Taxi Driver, 1954) / “Tarantella” (Traditional)
jiivan ke safar me.n raahii
 
(Munimji, 1955) / “Mexican Hat Dance” (Traditional)
ek laDkii bhiigii bhaagii sii (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, 1958) / “Sixteen Tons” (Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1955)
ham the vah thii (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, 1958) / “Watermelon Song” (Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1957)
yah dil na hotaa bechaaraa (Jewel Thief, 1967) / “March” (Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957)
saalaa mai.n to sahab ban gayaa (Sagina, 1974) / “Chella Lla” (Renato Carosone, 1959)

The ever-versatile Kishore Kumar stars in a comic role in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1955)

Shankar-Jaikishan

In my opinion, Shankar-Jakishan were the quintessential music directors of Bollywood’s Golden Age. They combined the authenticity of traditional Indian music with the modern sophistication of Western influences to produce songs that appealed to the masses. It’s not surprising that some of their tunes reflect inspiration from foreign influences, but what is remarkable is that several of the songs listed below are remembered today as some of this duo’s most treasured gems.  Two songs from Chori Chori (1956), two songs from Gumnaam (1965), and the title track of Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai (1961) — among many other hits — were heavily inspired by existing Western numbers. I think you’ll be surprised to see some of your favorites on the list below…

ghar aayaa meraa pardesii (Awaara, 1952) / “Al Balad El Mahboub” (Umm Kulthum)
aajaa sanam madhur chaa.ndnii me.n ham (Chori Chori, 1956) / “Tarantella” (Traditional)
panchii banuu.n uDtii phiruu.n (Chori Chori, 1956) / “Coming Through The Rye” (Traditional)
aigo aigo yah kyaa ho gayaa?
(Boyfriend, 1961) / Stupid Cupid” (Connie Francis, 1958)
jiyaa ho jiyaa kuchh bol do  (Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai, 1961) / “Broken-Hearted Melody” (Sarah Vaughan, 1959)
sukuu sukuu (Junglee, 1961) / “Sucu Sucu” (Ping Ping, 1961)
dekho ab to kis ko nahii.n hai khabar (Janwar, 1964) / “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (The Beatles, 1963 )
gumnaam hai koii (Gumnaam, 1965) / “Charade” (Henry Mancini and Orchestra, 1963)
jaane chaman sholaa badan (Gumnaam, 1965) / “Autumn Leaves” (Nat King Cole, 1956)
le jaa le jaa meraa dil (An Evening in Paris, 1967) / “Man of Mystery” (The Shadows, 1960)
kaun hai jo sapno.n me.n aayaa? (Jhuk Gaya Aasman, 1968) / “Marguerita” (Elvis Presley, 1963)

Rajendra Kumar definitely breaks conventions of automobile safety during the picturization of “kaun hai jo sapno.n me.n aayaa?” from Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968).

Salil Chowdhury

Salil Chowdhury’s compositions always reflect an intelligent and sophisticated mastery of music that set him apart from his peers in the industry.  Instead of describing the songs listed here as cases of plagiarism, I would be more likely to categorize them as adaptations. When Salil Chowdhury used another Western melody as an inspiration, he always managed to make it his own by adding something special that would resonate with Indian audiences. Take, for example, the evergreen Talat-Lata duet “itnaa mujhse tu pyaar baDhaa.” Although the mukhDaa is clearly inspired by Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Salil composes new antaras that beautifully complement the original melody.  As another example, consider “bachpan o bachpan” from Memdidi (1961).  Inspired by the children’s rhyme “A Tisket, A Tasket,” Salil takes the melody to a new level of complexity by inserting operatic interludes sung by our beloved diva Lata Mangeshkar.  Bravo!

dharti kahe pukaar ke (Do Bigha Zameen, 1953) / “Meadowlands” (Lev Knipper, 1934)
halke halke chalo saa.nvare (Tangewaali, 1955) / “The Wedding Samba” (Edmund Ros and Orchestra,  1950)
dil taDap taDap ke (Madhumati, 1957) / “Szla Dziewczka” (Traditional)
zindagii hai kyaa, sun merii jaan  (Maya, 1961) / “Theme from Limelight [from 3:27] ” (Charlie Chaplin, 1952)
itnaa na mujhse tu pyaar baDhaa (Chhaya, 1961) / “Molto allegro” from Symphony No. 40 (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1788)
bachpan o bachpan (Memdidi, 1961) / A Tisket, A Tasket” (Traditional)
aa.nkho.n me.n tum ho (Half-Ticket, 1962) / “Buttons and Bows” (Dinah Shore, 1948)

Vijayantimala coyly hides behind a tree in the picturization of “dil taDap taDap ke” from Madhumati (1957)

O.P. Nayyar

O.P. Nayyar is known for his characteristically Western-inspired approach to crafting melodies for Hindi films, but his contribution to our list of directly plagiarized songs is relatively small in comparison to some of his peers in the industry. The most well-known example here is, of course,  the Rafi-Geeta duet “yah hai bambaaii merii jaa.n” which has been lifted from its predecessor “My Darling Clementine.”

baabuujii dhiire chalnaa (Aar Paar, 1954) / “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas(Trio Los Panchos, 1947)
yah hai bambaii merii jaa.n (C.I.D., 1955) / “My Darling Clementine” (Traditional)
lakho.n hai.n yahaa.n dilvaale (Kismat, 1968) / Red River Valley” (Traditional)

Biswajeet hams it up for Babita during the picturization of “lakho.n hai.n yahaa.n dilvaale” in Kismat (1968)

What is your opinion on plagiarism in Hindi film music? Was it acceptable for music directors of this time to lift material from Western sources in order to introduce musical diversity to Indian audiences? Or, is it unethical for such plagiarism to occur without giving credit to the original musicians who created the songs in the first place? Let us know in the comments, and feel free to share any examples that go along the theme of this post!

-Mr. 55

Bollywood’s Beloved Sopranos: Lata and Asha’s Highest Notes

I feel like we’ve all been in this situation at some point: one of your favorite aunties steps up to the microphone at the annual Diwali function, and you have a sinking fear in your heart that she’s going to embarass herself by butchering another Lata classsic on stage. As she struggles through the sky-high notes of the antara, you cringe and ask yourself why you’re here again, subjecting yourself to this torture…

Well, it turns out it’s not entirely her fault. The reality of the situation is that Bollywood songs from the Golden Era tend to be pitched at extremely high scales for the average female singer. Unless a woman is a veritable soprano like Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhonsle, it is going to be quite a challenge for them to sing many of the classic songs from this period in their original keys. The high-pitched soprano female voice has become a hallmark of Hindi film music, and I’d like to explore this phenomenon in greater detail with this post.

Two sisters who changed playback singing forever: Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle.

Why are Bollywood songs for females from the Golden Era pitched at astronomically high scales? I don’t know for sure, but I definitely have a few ideas that could explain this trend. First, the high-pitched female voice is consistent with the image of the ideal Indian woman that was prevalent during the 1950s and 60s. The soprano register suggests innocence and purity, which enhanced the traditionally feminine perceptions of heroines advanced by film directors of the time. Lata Mangeshkar  is the ultimate example of this phenomenon; her voice, with its ethereal purity, has been considered the traditional female voice of India for decades. However, this explanation is less pertinent to Lata’s younger sister Asha Bhonsle. The voice of Asha, who was widely known for her experimentation with non-traditional genres such as the cabaret, is not a national emblem of purity in the same way as her elder sister’s. For this reason, an alternative explanation is needed to describe the popularity of the soprano female voice in Bollywood, and I would venture to say that this alternative explanation is rooted in musical origins. Before the arrival of the Mangeshkars onto the filmi musical scene, female singing in Hindi films was dominated by artists with heavy, nasal voices, such as Suraiyya and Shamshad Begum. Once music directors had the opportunity to work with the Mangeshkars, things changed forever: the nasalized heavy female voices were out and the delicate soprano voices were here to stay. After Lata and Asha became established as playback singers, I would argue that  music directors of the time pushed the boundaries of their compositions in terms of range to test and showcase the virtuosity of these two exceptional talents.

Before we take a listen to some of Lata and Asha’s highest highs throughout Bollywood’s musical history, explaining a little bit of musical nitty-gritty is necessary to fully appreciate the gist of what’s going on here. From my experiences with transcribing and performing many songs from this era, I would estimate that the vast majority (perhaps 90%?) of songs composed for Lata and Asha max out at F5 or F#5 (two F/F#’s above middle C on the piano) as their highest note. Therefore, in the brief list  of high notes that I’ve compiled below, I’ve only chosen to include those rare songs that surpass the typical upper limit of  F#5. Songs for both singers are listed in order of ascending pitch of the composition’s highest note.

Keyboard labeled with note names and frequencies. C4 is taken as middle C. The high notes listed here range from G5 to C6.

Lata Mangeshkar: Selected High Notes

 jhuumta mausam mast mahiinaa (Ujala, 1959):  In this Lata-Manna duet composed by Shankar-Jakishan, Lata nails a G5 (taar komal ga in the key of E) when she repeats the “yalla yalla” line in the taar saptak (high octave) at the end.

ajii ruuThkar ab kahaa.n jaayiega?  (Aarzoo, 1965): Shankar-Jaikishan is once again the culprit here: listen as Lata reaches an Ab5 (taar shuddh ma in the key of Eb) in the antara of this gem picturized on Sadhana from Aarzoo. Regarding the high pitch of this song, Lata has said:

“I remember “ajii ruuThkar ab kahaa.n jaayiegaa” in Aarzoo (1965). What a high pitch that was! My ears reddened when I sang it. But I stubbornly sang at that impossible scale, refusing to admit defeat to any range. I would get very angry and sing at any range without complaining. Composers would take full advantage of my silence and keep raising the scale. In fact, I used to have arguments with Jaikishan. I would ask him, “kyaa baat hai, aap merii pariksha le rahe hai.n? mai.ne aap kaa kyaa bigaDaa hai jo aap meraa kaan laal kar rahe hai.n? (What’s the matter? Why are you testing me? What have I done that you should trouble me so much to redden my ears?)’

jiyaa o jiyaa kuch bol do (Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai, 1961): The tandem effect described below with “ahsaan teraa hogaa mujh par” is also observed here. Lata gives it her all as she reaches a Ab5 (taar komal ni in the key of Bb) in the antara of the female tandem version of the fun Rafi classic from Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai.

rasik balmaa (Chori Chori, 1957):  This Raga Shuddh Kalyan-based Shankar-Jakishan composition is one of my all-time favorites! Lata hits a G#5 (taar shuddh ga in the key of E) when she sings the antara.

Nargis in a melancholic mood as she sings “rasik balma” from Chori Chori (1957)

ahsaan teraa hogaa mujh par (Junglee, 1961):  The Rafi version of this number is an all-time classic. Although the Lata version is less popular, it is still beautiful in its own right and brings up an interesting point about scales in tandem songs from this era. In almost all cases that I can think of, music directors made the female singer of a tandem song sing her versions in the same key as the male verion. Because men tend to be more comfortable in the higher register of their voices than women, this practice often put the female playback singer at a disadvantage when it came to hitting the highest notes of the composition. But who else would be up for the challenge of adjusting to the “male scale,”  if not Lata Mangeshkar? She hits a G#5 (taar shuddh ga in the key of Ein the antara of this evergreen Shankar-Jakishan composition based in raga Yaman. Regarding the difficulties of singing tandem songs, Lata has remarked:

Actually, “ahsaan teraa hogaa mujh par” was only meant to be sung by Rafi. But the film’s hero, Shammi Kapoor, suddenly decided that the heroine should sing it as well. It was picturised with Rafi’s voice on Saira Banu and later dubbed by me. So I had to sing it in the same sur as Rafi. The same was done with “jiyaa o jiyaa kuch bol do.

tere baadalo.n kii khair (Champakali, 1957): This Bhairavi-based composition composed by Hemant Kumar and picturized on Suchitra Sen is not as well-known as the rest of the songs on this list, but it’s worth mentioning for the A5 (taar ma in the key of E) that Lata hits  at its conclusion.

ahaa rimjhim ke yeh pyaare pyaare geet  (Usne Kaha Tha, 1960):  Salil Chowdhury was known for his incorporation of ideas of Western classical music into his Indian compositions. As an example, he has Lata sing an operatic-style counterpoint passage here in which she reaches an Bb5 (atitaar sa in the key of Bb) against Talat’s rendering of the mukhda at the end of this composition. Subtle, but exquisite!

aa ab laut chale.n (Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai, 1960): Shankar-Jaikishan score another point here with this patriotic composition from Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai. Mukesh and Lata both sing this song, but it is not structured as a prototypical romantic duet. Mukesh takes the main lines while Lata provides a few supporting lines and interesting background vocals, including the virtuosic glide in which she nails an Bb5 (taar pa in the key of Eb) with finesse.

aaja bha.nvar/jhananana jhan baaje paayalia (Rani Roopmati, 1957): Both of these drut bandishes based in Raga Brindavani Sarang and composed by S.N. Tripathi from Rani Roopmati are truly virtuosic by Bollywood standards. Lata sounds so impressive when she nails the Bb5 (taar pa in the key of Bb) at the end of both “aaja bha.nvar” and “jhananana jhan.” In addition to showing off her range, Lata also showcases her classical training and vocal dexterity as she navigates through a host of intricate taans in both songs. I have to say Lata’s virtuosity leaves Rafi in the dust in the duet here (sorry, Mrs. 55!).

Nimmi sings “aaja bhan.var” in Rani Roopmati (1957)


ham ramchandra kii chandrakala me.n bhii
 
(Sampoorna Ramayana,
1961): The Mangeshkar sisters team up here to sing a duet from Sampoorna Ramayana composed by Vasant Desai. It’s somewhat interesting to note that the song here is actually picturized on two pre-pubescent boys, who are receiving playback from female singers. At the end of the song, there is a dramatic ascent in the melody until both sisters climax at a powerful  Bb5 (taar pa in the key of Eb).

ai dil kahaa.n terii manzil
 (Maya, 1961): Salil Chowdhury makes another contribution to our list with this composition rendered by Dwijen Mukherjee (a noted Bengali singer with a voice similar to Hemant Kumar’s) and Lata. Like “aa ab laut chale.n,” this duet is not structured traditionally; rather, Dwijen sings the main lines and Lata provides background support. Lata sounds heavenly as she hits a Bb5 (taar shuddh dha in the key of Db) in one of Salil’s signature opera-inspired vocal passages.

woh ek nigaah kyaa milii 
(Half-Ticket, 1962): To the best of my knowledge, Salil Chowdhury wins the contest for having recorded Lata’s voice at its highest pitch in the history of Bollywood cinema with this composition.  In this duet with Kishore Kumar picturized on Helen, Lata manages to hit  the elusive soprano C6 (taar shuddh dha in the key of Eb) in the second staccato sequence of the interlude played between stanzas. Her voice is so high here that it blends in naturally with the instrumental piccolo parts.  Nailing a staccato passage in the soprano register like this is incredibly impressive for a vocalist trained in the Indian tradition (in which the emphasis is not placed on vocalizing at the extremes of one’s range)–brava, Lata, brava!

Asha Bhonsle: Selected High Notes

sakhii rii sun bole papiihaa us paar (Miss Mary, 1957): You get the opportunity to hear some some sibling rivalry in this Hemant Kumar composition loosely based on Raga Tilang from Miss Mary! Lata (on Meena Kumari) and Asha (on some rando actress I can’t recognize) duke it out at the end with some intricate taans, but Asha actually takes the more complex passages and touches an Ab5 (taar shuddh ma in the key of Eb)in her last taan here. For those keeping score, Lata also hits the same note in her taan right before.

Meena Kumari in a rare non-tragic role in Miss Mary (1957)

dil na kahii.n lagaanaa (Ghunghat, 1960): I hadn’t heard this Ravi composition picturized on Helen before doing research for this post, but it’s quite special. The song is divided into several differents segments with lyrics in four different languages: Hindi, Tamil, Bengali (a cover of Geeta Dutt’s classic “tumi je amar“), and Punjabi. During in an alaap in the final Punjabi segment, Asha manages to hit an A5 (taar shuudh re in the key of G).

tarun aahe ratra ajunii (Non-Film):  This composition by Hridaynath Mangeshkar is a Marathi bhavgeet, so I guess it technically doesn’t belong on the list. Even though I don’t understand the Marathi lyrics, this is one of my favorite Asha songs because the tune and rendition are simply sublime. Here, the line “bagh tula pusatos aahe” begins on Bb3 and climbs up to A5 (taar shuddh ni in the key of Bb) with the ornament Asha sings on the words “gaar vaaraa.” In the span of one musical line, Asha covers nearly two octaves of vocal range–wow!

suunii suunii saa.ns kii sitaar par (Lal Patthar, 1971): This Shankar-Jakishan composition picturized on Rakhee from Lal Patthar is a beautiful example of the use of Raga Jayjayvanti in filmi music. In a passage towards the end of the song (beginning at 3:13), Asha touches a Bb5 (taar komal ga in the key of G). She also finishes the song off with some powerful taans. For comparison, see Shankar-Jakishan’s Jayjayvanti beauty from Seema sung by Lata (note the exquisite taankari at the end!): manmohana baDe jhuuThe

daiyaa mai.n kahaa.n aa pha.nsii (Caravan, 1971): This song from Caravan is probably remembered more for Asha Parekh’s crazy dance moves than its musical underpinnings, but this song is composed in a manner that is rather unique for Bollywood music. Most songs in Bollywood are sung at a fixed tonic (sa), but R.D. Burman experiments with a musical technique all too familiar to those who listen to 90s Western pop: the key change. He goes wild here by changing the tonic of the song by half-steps multiple times, and Asha hits a Bb5 during a transition at the very end.

Asha Parekh hides herself on stage during the performance of “daiyaa mai.n kahaa.na aa pha.nsii” in Caravan (1971)

aa dekhe.n zaraa (Rocky, 1981): Despite my aversion to Bollywood music from the 80s, I still decided to include this song on the list for the Bb5 (taar pa in the key of Eb) that Asha manages to yell out at around 2:20.

nadii naa re na jaao shyaam (Mujhe Jeene Do, 1963): In the alaap of this Jaidev composition picturized on Waheeda Rahman, Asha nails a G#5 and briefly touches a B5 (taar pa in the key of E) before descending to pitches that are more comfortable for the average mortal.

tu mi piaci cara (Bewaqoof, 1960):  This cute S.D. Burman composition sung by Asha and Kishore features an opening line in Italian. Maybe it was the Italian lyrics that inspired S.D. Burman to have Asha sing some background operatic passages in addition to her normal lines. During one of these passages before the second-last antara, Asha hits a B5 (taar ma in the key of F#).

jo mai.n hotaa ek TuuTaa taaraa (Chhupa Rustam, 1973): This composition by S.D. Burman rendered by Asha and Kishore features some more opera-like passages at its conclusion. Asha is impressively comfortable as she nails a B5 (ati-taar sa in the key of B)  several times in a row as counterpoint against Kishore’s rendering of the mukhda!

o merii jaa.n maine kahaa (The Train, 1970): You wouldn’t expect this fun item number composed by R.D. Burman and picturized on Helen from The Train to be particularly virtuosic in terms of vocals, but Asha actually hits the a B5 (ati-taar sa in the key of B) in the song’s opening line with her leap on the word “kahaa.” For those of you listening very carefully, it’s important to keep in mind that the film version appears to be transposed a half-step higher than the album version of this song.

If you’ve managed to pay attention so far and take a listen to some of these songs, you may have noticed some interesting trends when comparing the high notes rendered by our two beloved Bollywood divas. After taking a look at the years I’ve listed next to each song, you’ll notice that all of Lata’s highest notes on this list span a range of nine years from 1956 to 1965, while Asha’s highest notes range over 24 years (!) from 1957 to 1981. The broad range of years in which Asha hit her high notes might provide evidence to those who support the notion that Asha’s voice aged better than Lata’s over the decades. But there is one caveat: the manner in which these two divas produce their high notes is distinct and may play a role in mediating this trend. If you listen carefully, you can hear that Lata always employs her “chest voice” to belt out the notes of a composition, even at the highest registers. On the other hand, Asha often employs her “head voice,” the more commonly used technique by female singers to access high notes. Head voice has a softer, gentler sound because it resonates around the nasal cavity instead of the chest during vocal production. This technique of singing is traditionally forbidden in the Indian classical tradition, so purists might consider some of Asha’s highest highs as “cheating”–head voice is sometimes even referred to as naqlii avaaz (fake voice). I’m not so much of a purist that I would discredit Asha for using her head voice in these compositions, but I will venture to say that, if asked to do so, she would not be able to hit the notes of the high soprano register in her later years using her chest voice as gracefully as Lata did during her peak.

Another interesting trend to note is how different music directors composed differently to suit the individual styles of  Lata or Asha. Although all the music directors on this list have worked extensively with both sisters, the music directors who asked Lata to sing at her highest range are not the same as the music directors who asked the same of Asha. Shankar-Jaikishan and Salil Chowdhury, by far, contribute to Lata’s highest record pitches whereas R.D. Burman and S.D. Burman seem to have saved their highest notes for Asha. Just some food for thought.

R.D. Burman teaches Asha Bhonle during a rehearsal session.

Please let us know if you find any more examples of Lata and Asha’s highest highs that are not on this list! I have attempted to find the best examples, but given the vast repertoire of Bollywood film music, I may have naturally missed out on some that are worth mentioning. Also, if you enjoyed this post, let us know in the comments and I’ll try to do some similar-themed posts in the future–perhaps next, we can take a listen to Lata and Asha’s lowest recorded notes or a an analysis of the Bollywood tenor’s highest highs? The possibilities are endless!

-Mr. 55