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Ragas that heal

TIMELESS GEM: K.L. Saigal and Khursheed In “Tansen”

Who has not heard the name of Tansen, the legendary musical genius of India? One of the emperor Akbar’s nine gems, Tansen was the creator of the best known ragas of Hindustani music viz. Durbari, Megh Malhar and Mian ki Todi. Three quarters of a century has gone by, yet I vividly remember the all-time classic “Tansen” I saw in my teens at a Lahore cinema. Produced by Ranjit Studios, Bombay, starring immortal singer-actor K.L. Saigal, Tansen is still hailed as the all-time greatest musical hit of Indian cinema.

Ever since his appearance in the cinema world with New Theatres, Calcutta, Saigal virtually did only one Hindi film a year. Invariably it was a box office hit such as “Devdas”, “President”, “Dhartimata”, “Zindagi”, etc. With the collapse of the studio system of New Theatres many of its artists moved over to Bombay. Saigal too was lured by Ranjit Studio with a contract to work for three films for one lakh rupees when he was drawing only ₹ 2,000/- a month. His first film was “Surdas” (1942), a great hit turning his heroine Khurshid into a super singer star. No wonder, cinema goers anxiously looked forward to the release of “Tansen” in 1943. The biggest attraction was the Saigal – Khurshid duo’s enchanting music created by another genius, Khemchand Prakash, foremost composer of his time who would later turn Lata Mangeshkar into a national icon with that famous hit number “Ayega aanewala” from “Mahal” (1949). Prakash who influenced the history of film music used classical ragas to perfection, bringing to the songs of “Tansen” a melodic grandeur that was his trademark. He employed a small orchestra but paid much greater attention to the words of a lyric and the singer’s diction.

Thirteen songs

“Tansen” was enriched with 13 songs, simple in style but universal in appeal, by the two leading lyricists, D.N. Madhok and Pt. Indra. Saigal’s striking duets with Khurshid reminded listeners of his duets with Kanan in “Street Singer”. Khurshid’s performance in “Tansen” was recognised as the best of her career.

Among the songs most remembered are Saigal’s “Jagmag jagmag diya jalao” and `Khurshid’s “Barso re kare badarwa piya par barso”, representing the Deepak and Malhar ragas; one is believed to light up lamps and the other to bring showers of rain. The powerful impact of Tansen’s music is depicted by its taming of a mad elephant, turning a desolate field into a flower garden, and instruments playing on their own to accompany his singing of Dhrupad in the royal Court. Among other songs was Saigal’s striking duet with Khurshid, “More balapan ke sathi”, “Ghata ghanghor”. “Bina pankh panchhi hun main”, “Bagh laga doon sajani” and “Kahe guman kare gori”, the great thumri in raga Piloo. I recall how the appreciative audience in the cinema hall not only expressed their joy by loud clapping after every song but one could also hear the tinkling of coins showered towards the stage, which was a common practice in those days.

Though not authentic historically, the film presents the story as a love fantasy between Tansen and a shepherdess named Tani. The historical segment is blended with the popular legends and anecdotes spun around Tansen during the last 400 years. Some interesting fictional episodes are also included to portray the illustrious musician as a gentle human, being with feelings and emotions, in order to entertain the viewers.

“Tansen” was directed with admirable skill and insight, by the then famous Jayant Desai who succeeded in showing the genius that was Tansen and the large-hearted emperor that was Akbar

The most novel feature of the film is its opening scene, showing the balding and bespectacled Saigal, sitting on a chair in the studio surrounded by camera equipment. He reads out an introduction to the film and explains the need to combine the historical part of Tansen’s story with some fictional episodes in order to make it interesting for the viewers and expects them to appreciate the scriptwriter’s creative licence and watch the film in that spirit.

The film opens with Tansen as an orphan boy brought up by an old poor man who gets him trained in music. Then follows the scene of Tansen meeting a village shepherdess Tani (Khurshid) who displays her musical prowess by assembling her cattle through a song. She makes Tansen realise the important role of rhythm in music. Tansen is thus inspired to devote himself to the emotional flights of music and with his proficiency in classical music already gained, he soon acquires a miraculous power over the elements that rule human beings.

Tansen with his performance wins the patronage of Raja of Bundelkhand. Emperor Akbar is shown as looking for a great musician as the ninth genius to complete his set of ` Navratnas’ (Nine gems) in his court in Agra. Interestingly, the role of Akbar is played by the then famous character actor Mubarak who virtually monopolised this role in quite a few later films notably the classic ‘Anarkali’ in 1953. Akbar’s scouts witness Tansen turning an arid forest into a flower garden with his powerful music. They persuade Tansen to join the Emperor’s court as the Ninth `Ratna’ and Akbar agrees to release Bundelkhand Raja’s son from prison in return. Tani follows him to Agra and rules the craving heart of Tansen whose infatuation for Tani drives him to defy the emperor’s orders to appear in court on his birthday. Akbar condones the offence and persuades Tani to leave Tansen and Agra. But Tani was the real source of inspiration of Tansen. Deprived of Tani, he was a lost soul and stopped singing even before the emperor.

In the meantime Akbar’s daughter, extremely fond of music, fell ill and she insisted for Tansen’s music to bring her relief. After a great deal of persuasion by Akbar himself, Tansen sang the `Deepak Raga’ which enkindled the latent fire in his body. It almost consumes him but he arrives where Tani was. She discovers the malady caused by Deepak raga as well as the specific cure with the raga Megh Malhar. Tani sings the rain making melody “Barso Re” and Tansen is cured. What music has done, music can undo.


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Printable version | Apr 20, 2022 11:28:02 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/ragas-that-heal/article24715207.ece