Vasant Desai – The Traditionalist
Death should never come to any man the way it came to Vasant Desai in the December of his career. That dark evening of December 22, 1975, the ramshackle lift in his building took off just like that dragging Vasant Deasi three floors up. His head hit the ceiling with the impact of a thunderbolt. He died instantly, characteristically leaving others to benefit by way of any compensation claimed for the freak accident. Even while he lived, they had paid him but a fraction of what he merited for the splendidly consistent quality of his music, sweetly steeped in tradition: ‘Murliya baale jamuna ke teer’; music that caressed your ears: ‘Baadalo barso nain ki kor se‘; music that took hold of your heart: ‘Saiyyan pyaara hai apna milan.’
His mentor V. Shantaram summed up the public sentiment, “Today I am angry with God, too have snatched away such a fine human being in this ghastly manner. We now know that ‘to err is godly.”
His music was steeped in the Indian tradition, yet its language was universal. With him the theme came first, the tune after. And he ‘tuned’ best with Shantaram who gave full play to his flair for thematic scoring. Remember the chinkara of Sandhya in ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath’ (’58)? How smoothly it blended with the theme, starting with ‘Saiyyan jhooto ka bada sartaaj nikla.’ There were other memorable tunes in the film, like ‘Main jaagun tu so jaa‘, ‘Tak tak dhoom dhoom‘ and ‘Umad ghumad kar aayee re ghata‘. But they were so evocatively used that you think of them, not as mere tunes, but as part of the theme.
‘Do Aankhen…..’, ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje’ (’55), ‘Toofan Aur Diya’ (’56) along with ‘Goonj Uthi Shehnai’ (’59) took Vasant Desai to his peak. At this stage, he began to think aloud about retiring – so as to devote himself to research in music. “The world of music is a bottomless pit”, he used to say, “The deeper you go, the more you realise how shallow is your knowledge and achievement.”
Yet he was never shallow or shoddy in approach. Since music was his only ‘vice,’ his quality never suffered. To the end he remained a composer of depth and dignity, never once losing faith in his classical style.No man in our films was more respected by our classical musicians than Vasant Desai.
After all, it was he who took the genius of Amir Khan to the masses with his Adana notes of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. And there was not a ‘raag’ he did not exploit with distinction. If it was Bihaag you wanted, you got it in ‘Tere sur aur mere geet’ (Goonj Uthi Shehnai); if Kalavati, in ‘Aayee pari rang bhari’ (Do Phool); if Marwa, in ‘Ek to main ek murli bairan’ (Jai Radhe Krishna) and Sur Malhar never sounded sweeter than in Lata’s ‘Dar laage garje badariya‘ (Ram Rajya); nor Mian Malhar so euphonious as in Vani’s ‘Bole re papihara’ (Guddi).
After Shantaram left Prabhat, Desai too migrated to Bombay and met J B H Wadia (Wadia Movietone) asking for work as a music director. As Wadia recalled, ‘He came to residence Casa Da Vinci on Worli Sea Face. I mistook him for a gymnast wanting to be stunt actor in my films for he was built like one but when he regaled us with his music, we knew he was deserving of a break. We signed him on a contract and Shobha’ (’42) was the first film in which Vasant Desai became a music director. I may be permitted to take legitimate pride in the fact that it was I who was instrumental in bringing to Desai in Hindi films as I had done in the case of Feroze Nizami and Avinash Vyas. H also scored for my next film ‘Ankh ki Sharm’ (’43).”
“We wanted to continue with him but one day he came to and explained, with some trepidation, that he wanted to go back to his former master V. Shantararn who was going to start his maiden film in Bombay. It was with a heavy heart that I released him.
And that’s how Vasant Desai deservingly skyrocketed to fame in Rajkamal Kala Mandir’s record-breaking ‘Shakuntala’ (’47).
“In 1960, my brother started ‘Sampooma Ramayan’ under the banner of his Basant Pictures as a Wadia Brothers Production. As usual, the music side was entrusted to me and I renewed our connection with Vasant Desai with Bharat Vyas as its lyricist. Surely, his music in ‘Sampooma Ramayana’ ranks among the best compositions in his repertoire.”
Although he worked in a few Marathi and Hindi films like Dahej and Shyamchi Ai, his first big challenge was ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje’ (’55). He worked very hard on its dance music, but could see that Shantaram was worried. The last two films of Rajkamal had not done too well, so on an impulse he said, “Shantaramji, I suggest you drop me and take Naushad for this film, you are staking your all on it and you need a name that sells.” But Shantaram would have none of it Desai was his discovery and he had faith in him and he was ultimately rewarded with a composite score in which you thrilled to the notes of ‘Saiyan jaao jaao’, ‘Mere ae dil bata‘, ‘Jo tum todo piya‘ and ‘Nain se nain.’
What really took one’s breath away was the background score Desai created for the theme. This is an art on which Desai always prided himself. “Tunes are important, but they are not as testing as background scoring,” he would say, “It is the background score that lends visual rhythm to a film. You will not fail to notice this visual rhythm in my Shantaram films.
Bismillah Khan had been signed for the shehnai part of ‘Goonj Uthi Shehnai’, but he had his reservations about playing for a mere ‘film composer.’
He was inclined to treat the whole thing as purely, commercial proposition and so came for the first recording with an attitude of supercilious contempt. He was thus psychologically unprepared for the subtle classical demands Desai made on him and could not quite get going. Shrewdly Desai told him he was cancelling the recording that day as the rain outside was affecting the Ustaad’s playing. Bismillah took the hint and came next day with a new-found respect for Desai’s knowledge and background. The outcome was a score with some of the finest pieces of music to go into our films; ‘Jeevan mein piya’, ‘Dil ka khilona’, ‘Kehdo koi na kare’, and ‘Teri shehnai bole’.
Although Manna and Rafi, Lata and Asha, were his main singers, he always kept an open ear for new voices. After Vani Jairam in Guddi, he gave a big break to Dilraj Kaur in (Rani Aur Lalpari), ‘Ammi ko chummi’.
And now, in his nephew Vikas Desai’s ‘Shaque,’ he presented Kumari Faiyaz in a fascinating new hue in ‘Do nainon ke pankh laga kar.’ At the same time, in this very film, he has also captured Asha at her dulcet best in ‘Megha barasne laga hai’.
Lata, too, exuded at all times a special sweetness in Vasant Desai’s compositional custody, as exemplified by Jhir jhir barse (Aashirwad), Tera khat le ke sanam (Ardhangini) and Dekha hai sapna koi (Yaadein).
Actually, there is not a film of his from which you cannot recall a song with nostalgia. Remember the milan ho kaise refrain of the Lata wistful from ‘Dhuaan’, ‘Main sagar ki mast lahar’. Also how he had Lata excelling in the desi and videsi styles alike in the theme song of (Do Behnen) Main natkhat ek kali. If it was Shamshad in the fifties in a strain of ‘Husn walon ki galiyon main jaana nahin’ (Sheesh Mahal), it wass Asha in the Seventies in a vein of ‘Mera phool badan ko malaye re (Rani Aur Lalpari). And he was one composer who gave Mahendra Kapoor a fair chance after proclaiming him, with four other judges, the male winner of the Metro-Murphy Singing Contest in 1956. Mahendra’s fine chorus number in Samrat Prithvirai Chauhan, ‘O maanjhi re himmat na haar,’ and his soft duet with Lata in Amar Jyoti – ‘Kalpana ke ghan barase,‘ are but two of the others he sang for Desai.
Vasant Desai was an lndian to the core; But he never wore his lndianness, his classicism as a badge – like Naushad did. He never needed to since he knew that his music bespoke his classicism in every note. No one stressed this point better than OP Nayyar, a musician whose style was diametrically opposed to Vasant Desai’s. As Raju Bharatan remembered, “On meeting Nayyar some time late in 1959. I congratulated him on having moved to the number one spot – ahead of Naushad, C. Ramchandra, Madan Mohan, S.D. Burrnan, even Shanker-Jaikishen.
“Yes. I have forged commercially ahead of all of them,” said Nayyar, “But what have you to say to the fact that side by side, I have just not been able to ward off the classical challenge of Vasant Desai? Right through the period of my ascent to the top, Vasant Desai, if you notice, has kept pace with the high quality of music scored by him for films like ‘Jhanak Jhanak…’, ‘Toofan Aur l Diya’, ‘Do Ankhen Barah…’ and ‘Goonj Uthi Shehnai’. How do you account for his firm hold on the public imagination with purely traditional Indian music at a time when they are roundly accusing me of debasing public taste with my westernized tunes?”
Success and failure for Vasant Desai were but swings of the eternal pendulum. There never was any put-on about this man whose music was illustrative of the idea that the meek shall inherit the earth. Vasant Desai drew his musical sap and pith from the soil of Maharashtra. Yet his vision was never anything but aII India. That is why he rose to his full stature when called upon to do the music of Mahesh Kaul’s ‘Pyar Ki Pyas’, India’s first CinemaScope venture in color.
What a masterpiece of choral and orchestral integration was his ‘Bolo woh hai kis ka desh,’ as expounded by Lata, Geeta & Chorus; What thematic sweep he brought to the composition of ‘Kya dharti aur Kya aakash, sab ko pyar ki pyas’ through the vibrant vocals of Lata Rafi & Chorus amd fusion of oral and instrumental in ‘Mere angana mein ujiyala’ by Lata, Geeta & Chorus. Truly was Vasant Desai, like Naushad, master of choral composition. As the State Composer, Maharashtra he derived a rare thrill hearing a thousand voices bloom. He was one composer who ever thought only what he could give, never of what could take.
When films and film—makers deserted him, he turned to the stage—from where he had come to the screen. He composed with sue for ballets. He epitomized in his persona the music maxim that there are no small themes, only small composers.
His music belonged to the court, not the courtyard, in a career spanning 33 years, he barely did 50 Hindi films into which he packed some 350 tunes. That quite a number of those have stood the test of time, being wistfully heard full 40 years after his death, is a tribute to the musical tradition that Vasant Desai scrupulously upheld right through his composing life.
Music for him was the elixir of life that spark of divinity which so set him apart.
His “Ae maalik tere bandhe hum” became a prayer in many schoolrooms of India. Today Vasant Desai is gone, so is Bharat Vyas, the man who wrote that prayer Today, all that survives is ‘Char Botal Vodka.’.