Vasant Desai was an incredibly talented man who never got his due

That greatness has no correlation with commercial success is best personified in the life and works of Hindi film music director Vasant Desai. Well versed in every department of film making, Desai’s talent was a blessing to the music world. Though critics may credit Naushad as a composer steeped in classical traditions, Vasant Desai was equally, if not more, proficient in making tunes based on complex ragas. Sadly, despite his prowess, this simple man whose birth anniversary falls on 9th of June, has not been given his due by the film industry befitting his stature and contribution to its music.

Like many other gifted artistes who couldn’t market themselves and lost the celebrity race, Vasant Desai too was an unfortunate victim of fate who, despite understanding intricacies of film technology, was a novice when it came to business aspects of this competitive and cruel industry. Addicted to good food, milk and dairy products but not liquor, tobacco or betel, this lifelong gentleman bachelor was enthralled by life’s simple pleasures from chirping of the birds, the tinkling of cow bells and rustling of tree leaves to watching gully cricket of street urchins. In today’s age of abundant sound effects, it is difficult to fathom how he toiled to become probably the first person in India to capture and weave these ordinary sounds into musical compositions.

Veteran Marathi film music director and Desai’s creative mentor Keshavrao Bhosle in his memoirs “Maazzhe Sangeet” applauds Desai for many such firsts as well as introduction of echo in sound recording in India with Zohra Bai’s song “Jo Dard Ban Ke” from “Parbat Pe Apne Dera”. Hear Rafi’s immortal “Kahdo Koi Na Kare Yahan Pyaar” and you realise how echo was not a tool for experimentation for Desai but a magnificent instrument of creative ability.

Though Lata Mangeshkar doesn’t acknowledge any of Desai’s creations in her top 20 personal favourites nor praises his vast repertoire, it is a fact that some of her finest renditions were under Desai. Allegedly, Lata had a grouse against him for promoting other singers, especially Vani Jairam, and hence ignores his contribution in her career even when most of her songs under Desai’s baton have been unsurpassed till this day. Go down the memory lane and you can’t ignore sublime creations like “Jo Tum Todo Piya” (“Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje”), “Tere Sur aur Mere Geet” (“Goonj Uthi Shehnai”), “Main Gaon Tu Chup Hoja” (“Do Aankhen Barah Haath”), “Piya Te Kahan” (“Toofan aur Diya”) or “Ik Tha Bachpan” (“Aashirwad”). Even though Desai made her “Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum” (“Do Aankhen Barah Haath”) into a memorable secular prayer, Lata hardly ever commends the composition. May be she is unhappy that Desai created an equally powerful bhajan “Humko Man Ki Shakti Dena” into a nationwide school prayer through Vani’s vocals.

Chorus became an instrument

Upcoming music director Amey Gawand informs, Desai’s songs enjoy a cult status in Maharashtra with “Ghanshyam Sundaraa” occupying the top slot. Amey opines, “Desai’s smooth transitions from mukhdas (openings) to antras (stanzas) and the use of chorus is an absolute delight.” Listen to his evergreen Rafi-Lata duet “Sabko Pyar Ki Pyaas” (“Pyar ki Pyaas”) or Hemant-Lata’s “Nain so Nain Nahee Milaao” (“Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje”) and you comprehend how Desai used the chorus like an instrument alongside singers’ vocals. If the genius in him used Chinese folk tunes for “Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani” set in China, he successfully knotted rural bullock cart’s magic in Manna Dey’s classic “Jeevan Se Lambe Hain Bandhu” (“Ashirwad”), propelling listeners into throes of ecstasy.

His music even scored at Cannes

His proficiency was the reason why he was greatly admired by maestros like Bismillah Khan (who made the shehnai famous with his recitals in “Goonj Uthi Shehnai”, Amir Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and M. S. Subbulakshmi even got a song composed from Desai for her recital at the UNO headquarters. It was Desai’s virtuosity that made Dada Muni (Ashok Kumar) render an all-time favourite children’s song “Rail Gadi” (“Aashirwad”) with minimum instrumentals. Nowadays when Cannes Film Festival is a place of photo opportunity rather than exploration of artistry, it is overwhelming to know that decades ago Desai’s versatility made “Amar Bhoopali” the only Indian film to win a Grand Prix award for original musical score at Cannes! Obviously, lyricist Gulzar isn’t wrong to hail Desai as a “music composer extraordinaire” especially when he catapulted his “Bole Re Papiha” to Himalyan heights of popularity.

Born in a wealthy family in Sonwad village in Maharashtra, Desai joined the famous Prabhat Film Company at Kolhapur at its inception. Apart from performing several minor chores, he also acted, sang and sometimes composed songs in Prabhat’s films like “Dharmatma” and “Sant Dnyaneshwar” but once he had mastered the craft of music composition, he stuck to it. Devoted to V. Shantaram from his Prabhat days, Desai went along with the maestro when he broke away from Prabhat to form his own Rajkamal Studios. Scoring music for a majority of Shantaram’s films, Vasant’s career suffered a major blow when their relations soured in the late 1950s. Yet it is to his credit that even though they split after recording of “Aadha Hai Chandrama” (later re-done by C. Ramchandra), he never ever spoke ill about “Anna” till his dying day.

Film director Vikas Desai says, “even family members never came to know the reasons for leaving Shantaram though he went back to score the background music of ‘Geet Gaya Patharon Ne’ on Anna’s request”.

Going through his long and enviable list of songs would be difficult but suffice to say that his memorable songs are valuable gems of musical heritage. And though the patriotic Vasant Desai may have remained unsung for his cinematic as well as academic contribution to school music curriculum, his songs regale listeners with their inherent melodic fragrance.