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The Bai and the Dawn of Hindi Film Music (1925-1945)

Yatrindra Mishra

The arrival of music in Hindi films was an important event. In the last hundred years or so there have been discussions galore about how film music could never come into its own. However, the most relevant phase in the development of Hindi film music is the era when the institution of Bai or Tawaif was still a force to reckon with. The years between 1925 and 1945 when the music of the courtesan was located in the feudal soirees are also the years when Hindi film music was beginning to evolve. I personally am of the view that Indian, and specially Hindi Film music owes its origin to Bais and Tawaifs, ‘nautch girls’ and ‘nautanki’. This was immediately before India won her freedom in 1947, the years when the Bais dominated the performing arts scene in Indian society.   Referring to the Bai and her contribution to the development of film music historian Saleem Kidwai says: ‘while investigating the biographies of court protégés, Bais and Tawaifs, one must remember that most of these women had to reconstruct their history. In their personal lives these women artists had to take recourse to so many lies that it is difficult indeed to separate fact from fiction.’   Kidwai’s statement contextualizes the attitudes of both mainstream Indian society as well as the film industry.   The bais themselves tended to follow a rigid ‘caste-system’ of their own and so the top hierarchical group was averse to the idea of becoming accessible to the plebian medium of films. Veteran courtesans like Janakibai Chhappanchuri, Malka Jaan, Anwarbai Lucknavi, Kashibai, Rasoolanbai and Malka Pukhraj kept away from films. Then, there was the second category of courtesans who performed mainly at courts and sometimes for films. Though Kamala Jharia of Jammu and Kashmir, Angoorbala and Anaarbala of Bengal, Gauharjaan, Rajkumari, Sitara Kanpuri, Ameerjaan and Akhtaribai did perform for films they had no particular liking for the silver screen. The third category is that of courtesans who performed mainly for films. Between 1931 and 1940 they and their music reigned the silver screen. It is ironical that for several decades now glorious singers like Jahanara Kajjan, Jillu, Mushtari, Chanda, Miss Gulab, Miss Moti, Shanta Kumari, Shakeera, Mohini, Khursheed, Heera, Phoolkumari, Padmabai, Miss Anusuya, Bibbo, Kamalabai, Miss Shaila, Miss Badami, Tara , Pushpa, Sundarbai, Vimala, Miss Anwari, Madhuri, Rampyari, Miss Iqbal, Shireen Banoo, Lalitha, Ratanbai, Miss Lobo, Leeladevi, Hameeda, Shahjadi, Kashmeera Devi, Champa, Ms ...

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