Naushad Ali ruled the world of Indian film music for about 25 years. When he came to Bombay in the late 1930s, he had no money so he slept on the footpath opposite the Broadway cinema. It was at the same cinema that he, in a way, reached the apex of his fame, when he was awarded the Filmfare Award for Baiju Bawara in 1953. In 1970, the demolition of Broadway cinema, also symbolised the collapse of the edifice of his music as the emphasis in film music had shifted away from its melodic richness.
Before Naushad, the film compositions were based either on folk melodies of the Punjab and Bengal (RC Boral, Pankhaj Mallick) or some Westernised orchestration as employed by Master Ghulam Haider. But he introduced the classical ang in film music, besides also heavily drawing on the folk melodies of his native Oudh. Whatever the source of inspiration, he kept the melodic content of the song foremost.
His father disapproved of his passionate interest in music. Naushad joined a theatrical company and, on account of the dispute with his father, bid farewell to his family. Unfortunately, the company had to close down following a financial collapse. The owners of the theatrical company abandoned Naushad in Gujarat in a state of absolute destitution. With help from a stranger, Naushad succeeded in reaching his native Lucknow. He remained there for a very short while before he left for Bombay, the city of his dreams.
Born in Lucknow in 1919, he was hardly 12 when he got access to a musical instruments shop where he learnt to play several musical instruments and started reproducing musical pieces that he had heard at the Royal cinema played by the orchestra in the days of the silent films. Though he was a worker there, he would sneak into the shop much before it opened for business and stayed late and practiced on the instruments for hours without the owner knowing about it. He was caught one day when the owner heard him playing. After reprimanding him initially, the owner wanted him to play on. Increasingly impressed by his talent and skill, he actually encouraged Naushad to play the instruments. Naushad’s prodigious ability was honed during the period by Ustads Ghurbat Ali, Babban, Yousaf Ali and Luddan. Later, he set up a music school, Windsor Music Entertainers, at Lucknow where he imparted training in the melodic arts to the youngsters of the city.
In Bombay, after months of effort, Naushad finally succeeded in getting employment as a pianist in the orchestra of the legendary composer Ustad Jhanday Khan for Rs 40 per month. Ustad Jhanday Khan was impressed by his talented shaagird. After a while, he promoted Naushad to the rank of his assistant. Naushad learnt much from the Ustad. On the way, he later assisted singer Manohar Kapur to compose music for the Punjabi film Mirza Sahiban, joined Ranjit Studios and became an assistant to composer Khemchand Prakash. He also assisted composer Mushtaq Hussain Khan for a short time. Employed by Kardar as an in-house composer at Kardar Studios, he composed some of his most memorable music for Kardar, his disciple M Sadiq and for Mehboob.
Naushad made his debut as a music director in producer Mohan Bhavnani’s film Prem Nagar, that was released in 1940. However, his first musical success was the film Station Master in 1942. It was a box office hit and all its songs gained wide acknowledgement and immense popularity. In the early phase of his career, Naushad’s musical score in Station Master and AR Kardar’s Sharda became an instant hit. However, he still wanted to do better and reach perfection. Ratan released in 1945 was a turning point in Naushad’s career. Directed by M Sadiq for producer Jaimani Devan, the movie became a top-grosser.
Even after Naushad had become very famous in the early nineteen forties, his mother did not want him to tell people what his profession was. So, when he got married, the bride’s family did not know that he was a music composer. His mother had feared that Naushad would never get married if people knew that he composed music. As he later recalled, the members of the band accompanying the barat, played his own songs, especially from Ratan.
Famous composers, such a Master Ghulam Muhammad, Muhammad Shafi and Khayyam, assisted Naushad and learnt the art of composition from him. Khayyam assisted him for the film Saathi and Laxmikant Pyarelal served in Naushad’s orchestra as instrumentalists for quite some time. Laxmikant played the mandolin while Pyarelal was a violinist.
A majority of the sub-continental film composers knew little about background music. Naushad was one of the very few music-makers who never neglected the background musical score. He was the first music director to bring about drastic changes in the method of recording. There was no separate recording of the voice of the singer and the orchestra. For the first time, Naushad used the method of separately recording all the different components in order to obtain greater clarity and a better tonal effect. Following in his footsteps, this method is now used by all music directors of the Bombay film industry. He was the first music director to maintain international staff notations of every piece of music composed by him. This facilitated the re-recording with the orchestra of BBC London.
Naushad introduced a number of singers and poets to the Bombay film industry. He creatively exploited the talent of an already popular KL Saigal, popularised singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Muhamad Rafi and introduced composers and singers like Shyam Kumar, Uma Devi, Mohindra Kapoor, Suraiya, Hridaynath Mangeshkar, Shanti Mathur and Sunder. Poets Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Khumar Barabankvi and Tanveer Naqvi wrote lyrics for his compositions.
During his long career, Naushad composed music for more than 60 films. The government of India eventually conferred on him the Dada Sahib Phalke Award as well as Padma Shri, the greatest Indian civil award for outstanding performance in arts, science and literature.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.