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Indian music through the decades: 1950 – 1959




As the 1950’s dawned, the popularity of Hindi film music increased month after month. Classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic, continued to attract audiences, and regional forms grew in select belts.

In film music, the role of playback singers and music directors was hugely appreciated, but despite the abundance of talent, lyricists did not get the mass recognition they deserved.


The top contenders

Lata Mangeshkar, whose songs in the 1949 film Barsaat made her a household name, had another huge hit that year. ‘Aayega Aanewala’ from Mahal dominated the radio in 1950, and soon, every music director – barring O.P. Nayyar – chose to work with her.

Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum and Asha Bhosle vied for the No 2 spot. Among male singers, the main competition was between Mohammed Rafi, whose Baiju Bawra (1952) was a major success, and Mukesh, who sang many songs for Raj Kapoor after the Awara hit in 1951. Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey and Talat Mahmood had great songs, and Kishore Kumar made a name in the latter half of the decade. Classical vocalists Amir Khan, D.V. Paluskar and Bhimsen Joshi also got opportunities in films, but the instances were few.



Among music directors, Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishen, S.D. Burman, C. Ramachandra, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Vasant Desai, Nayyar and Madan Mohan tasted most success. They had their own specialities. Naushad was known for using Hindustani raags, and also for his partnership with lyricist Shakeel Badayuni. Dada Burman did great songs picturised on Dev Anand. Shankar-Jaikishen teamed up with Raj Kapoor. Madan Mohan used the ghazal style, and did amazing work with Mangeshkar.

Lyricists Badayuni, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Rajendra Krishan, Hasrat Jaipuri, Qamar Jalalabadi and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan were much in demand.


Non commercial music marks its space

One interesting development was that with the popularity of jazz abroad, Indian music directors opted for western instruments like the trumpet, saxophone and trombone. They hired many new players, many of who were Anglo-Indian or Goan. Trumpeter Chic Chocolate, who played at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel, was the first celebrity name, and Goan arrangers Anthony Gonsalves and N. Datta followed suit.

Another aspect was that non-commercial and regional cinema music got its due. Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, which had music by Ravi Shankar, had a landmark score.



For a while, All India Radio was the main source for Hindi film music. However, the former information and broadcasting minister B.V. Keskar felt such songs were cheap and vulgar. In 1952, he limited the air time of this genre to 10 per cent, and eventually banned it.

Sensing an opportunity, Radio Ceylon was formed in Sri Lanka. The latest film hits were played there, and its host Ameen Sayani later became known for the show Binaca Geetmala. All India Radio was given the brand name Akashvani in 1956, and the following year, its Vividh Bharati segment was formed to counter Radio Ceylon.


Indian classical music makes new ground

With Hindi film music out of All India Radio for a while, classical musicians got a good platform. Keskar launched the National Programme, the Vrind Vaadya Vrind for instrumental music and the Akashvani Sangeet Sammelan. However, he disallowed the harmonium for having western origins.

Shehnai great Bismillah Khan reached out to newer audiences, as his music was played at weddings and festivals, and on national days. With many youngsters learning the sitar and tabla, and vocalists needing tanpuras, instrument-makers increased business, with Miraj in Maharashtra and Calcutta being important centres.

In vocal music, the khayal had replaced the dhrupad as the main style of performance, and lighter genres like the thumri flourished with singers like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan, Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai and Begum Akhtar being the leading names. In Pakistan, Mehdi Hassan led the ghazal movement.

Indian classical music got a western audience too. The famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin was fond of Indian music and yoga. In 1955, he invited Ravi Shankar to do a show in New York. But since he could not make it, sarod exponent Ali Akbar Khan did the concert. Shankar had a larger tour the following year, paving the way for an entire movement.

Many new festivals came up. If the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar and All India Music Conference in Calcutta set the trend earlier, we now had the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in Mumbai, Tansen Samaroh in Gwalior, Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune and Dover Lane in Calcutta.

Indian music

The advent of South Indian musicians

In the south, the Madras Music Season continued to be the main attraction for Carnatic music. With many Tamilians shifting to New Delhi, Bombay and elsewhere, shows began to be held in other parts of India. In Mumbai, the Shanmukhananda Sabha was set up in 1952, though the larger auditorium came up in 1963.

While Carnatic vocalists M.S. Subbulakshmi and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer thrived, instrumental music also got a boost, as violinists Lalgudi Jayaraman, V. Lakshminarayana, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, T.N. Krishnan and M.S. Gopalakrishnan, veena players S. Balachander, Doraiswamy Iyengar, and Chitti Babu and flautist N. Ramani flourished.


Besides the radio, the main source of listening was the vinyl record. Television on Doordarshan was launched in Delhi in 1959 but it was only in the 1960s that it aired music shows. Rhythm House, the iconic music store in Mumbai, did roaring business and marketplaces across India had dedicated music shops selling both Indian and western artistes. Some people also used the spool, or reel-to-reel audio tape – a predecessor of the compact cassette. However, only a limited amount of material was available on this format.

Whether it was film music, Hindustani, classical or a lighter form, the 1950s are considered by old-timers as the Golden Era of Indian music. Of course, there were many who believe that the magic only grew the following decade. More on that in the next part of this series.


Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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