here are few artistic achievements that independent India can be proud of. Perhaps the only one that stands up to scrutiny is the Hindi Film Song in its most fertile period, that is, from about 1935 to 1968 or say, ’70.

The melodies were usually based on Hindustani ragas or folk songs from various regions of India. The orchestration or the combination of instruments accompanying the singer was an acquired characteristic. Those who followed the polyphonic orchestral explorations of Timir Baran (a sarod player of high promise and pupil of Ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar, and the man who tried to orchestrate Hindustani Raga music) were a little too inhibited to use the harmony and counterpoint freely until they worked with Goan musicians who could read and write Western music and formed an integral part of the Hindi film song orchestra as players and arrangers.

These, mainly Goan, musicians played in the big hotels and restaurants of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata). They cut their teeth playing in the bands of people like Teddy Weatherford. A Black pianist fed up with the racism in the United States of America, he got on to a ship as a dance band leader and headed for the Far East.

Naresh Fernandes’ book A Seminal history of the Advent of Jazz in India brings to mind how Jazz and Allied dance music along with a bit of classical music from the Western world enlivened the Hindi film song, indeed became an integral part of it.

If you listen to the maverick-genius O P Nayyar’s songs from a 1960 film, 12 ‘O’ Clock, two things become amply clear. First, waltzes played at tea-time and dinner by the musicians in hotels and restaurants in cosmopolitan India had found a place in the hearts of leading composers like Sajjad Husain and Naushad, not to forget OPN himself. Secondly, you marvel how effortlessly the Latin influence has been integrated into a song from this particular film, “Aji O, Suno Toh”.


TWband: Teddy Weatherford at the piano with foreign and Indian musicians, including Josic Menzie, Hal Green and Henry Green.  |  Photo: From Taj Mahal Foxtrot; The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age (Roli Books). 

Nayyar, who claimed he knew no Ragas or Raginis—not strictly true, someone should have called his bluff—had an unerring ear for fusing snappy jazz-like scores with Indian melodies, in the antara, or the main body, of the song. Both Nayyar and his equally popular rivals Shankar-Jaikishan used the services of Sebastian D’Souza, an arranger of exceptional talent. However, Sebastian’s arrangements for Nayyar’s films on the whole were a lot more elegant.

Shankar and Jaikishan were trained musicians. Shankar had learnt to play the tabla systematically and Jaikishan played the harmonium very well, though not possibly as well as the self-taught Nayyar. SJ had been trained by first Pandit Husnlal and then Ram Ganguly, Hindustani musicians working as composers of Hindi film songs in Bombay. Nayyar had never assisted anybody before his first break in Aasman (1952). He had, it is believed, composed the background music for Kaneez, for which Naushad had done the songs. By temperament and training Nayyar was an uninhibited character, therefore willing ungrudgingly to integrate Sebastian’s gifts as an arranger into his songs.

Sebastian D’Souza, according to Fernandes, had led his own dance band at the Stiffles Hotel in Lahore before Partition in 1947. Following that trauma, he came to Bombay and found work in the recording studios sustained by film music.

He made the acquaintance of O P Nayyar who, after a period of struggle had been commissioned by the rising young director Guru Dutt in 1955 for a situation-comedy titled Mr and Mrs 55!

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Frank Fernand in the studio. | Photo: From Taj Mahal Foxtrot; The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age (Roli Books).

What impressed Nayyar deeply about Sebastian’s innate musical talent was the orchestration that went with a melancholy, slow tempo song, “Pritam Aan Milo”, rendered memorably by Geeta Dutt, the director’s wife. This song had been recorded earlier by C H Atma in Lahore, before Partition when Nayyar had composed it at the age of 17. Although Merlin D’Souza, Sebastian’s daughter-in-law, feels he did his best work with Shankar–Jaikishan from 1952 to ’75, it may be due to reasons of personal musical preference. SJ’s best songs, especially those in Raj Kapoor’s films, were raga-based but with lush orchestration. In most cases, their songs suffered from over-orchestration. Merlin may possibly have felt her father-in-law’s undoubted gifts as an arranger and conductor found their true expression with the large orchestras they employed.

Nayyar’s songs were melodious but not as simple as they seemed structurally, as they did on first hearing. The songs were often set to pulsating rhythms. Sebastian was responsible for the total product that came out, that is the sung melody set against the often sparkling orchestration. Unlike Shankar-Jaikishan, who regularly used a large orchestra of a hundred musicians or more, Nayyar usually used 30-35, though on occasion he used up to 70. For him, Sebastian did more with less and with sparkling elegance, than he did for any other major composer.

Sebastian survives in the annals of Hindi film song because of his collaboration with three major composers—Nayyar, Shankar-Jaikishan and Salil Choudhury, a musician schooled in Western music and a former member of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), the cultural arm of the Communist Party of India.

Guru Dutt once said, “Nayyar composes emotions.” His best songs were indeed intimate and, apart from the rendering by the singers, what brought out their intrinsic character was Sebastian’s impeccable orchestration.

Sebastian survives in the annals of Hindi film song because of his collaboration with three major composers—Nayyar, Shankar-Jaikishan and Salil Choudhury, a musician schooled in Western music and a former member of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), the cultural arm of the Communist Party of India.

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Chic Chocolate with C Ramchandra, Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. | Photo: From Taj Mahal Foxtrot; The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age (Roli Books).

Where did this idea of using orchestral backing for songs based on ragas and folk tunes come from? Possibly it was the availability of both American and German sound recording systems. The artistic reason, of course, may well be the availability of Western music—popular and classical—on gramophone discs, the military and police bands playing in the city, and the dance bands that played at hotels like The Grand and The Great Eastern

Like many Goan musicians of genuine talent, Sebastian D’Souza was well acquainted with Western classical music. He was an accomplished violinist, read music like a top and wrote it just as well. Having been weaned on Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, upon attaining man’s estate D’Souza found no takers for his musical knowledge in undivided India. He did what most Goan musicians of his standing did, join a dance band and then eventually lead one; there was after all a living there, what with a well-heeled British and anglicised–mainly Parsi–Indian clientele readily patronising hotels and restaurants.

The fact that all the major composers of Hindi film songs could compose moving, tuneful melodies, play the harmonium, and sing them out to the singers who were to record them but could do nothing really about the orchestration to accompany their compositions, indeed bring them alive, riled the Goan musicians no end. Frank Fernand, a major Jazz band musician and arranger in Hindi films, felt the musicians did all the real work, Fernandes observes in Fox Trot. Fernand felt it was salesmanship that got the composers all the work, accolades and money, rather than just their talent. He was not entirely correct but nor was he completely wrong.

Orchestral accompaniment became a reality as early as 1935 when, with improved technology, New Theatres, Calcutta, under the guidance primarily of two music directors, Raichand Boral and Pankaj Mullick—both trained in Hindustani music, particularly Boral who came from a family well-versed in Dhrupad—started combining Indian instruments with those from the West. Many songs sung by K L Saigal, a uniquely gifted singer, Pankaj Mullick, Pahari Sanyal, Uma Shashi, Kanan Debi and the kirtaniya K C Dey, were accompanied by small or medium-sized orchestras featuring Indian string and percussion instruments with violin, piano, cello and sometimes even clarionet and trumpet.

These bands played Jazz; Teddy Weatherford, a very fine pianist from Pittsburg, US, led a band at The Grand until his death from cholera in 1945. Bombay had already acquired musicians like Ustad Jhande Khan, Gyan Dutt, Anil Biswas, Ustad Mushtaq Husain Khan Bareillywale, S K Pal, Khemchand Prakash and soon after, Naushad Ali. However there were no arrangers of note until the Goans came along.

They also played with verve wind instruments like the trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, and string instruments like piano, double bass and guitar. The music too had to change because of the presence of British and American soldiers as the Second World War (1939-1945) was on. Radio broadcasts on short wave too became a vehicle for carrying musical ideas from the West to Bombay and Calcutta.

Sebastian D’Souza, it was said, had devised a means of notating microtones or shrutis in Hindustani music and incorporated it into the orchestration. Those who take orchestration in old Hindi film songs for granted as they do OP Nayyar’s statement, “I always (what he meant was, often) used sarangi along with cello” do not understand the difficulties involved. People familiar with the difficulties of matching the pitch of the two instruments so as to make them harmonious will truly appreciate the efforts of musicians like Sebastian.

The human voice, according to Hindustani music, has varying pitch. Therefore the ‘Sa’ in each person’s case would be different. The ‘Do’ in Western music is fixed, as in a mathematical principle. Only those who have participated in music-making of this kind are aware how difficult it is to find a ‘golden mean’ while backing a singer from a musical tradition that has microtones, and 22 of them at that, apart from the standard seven notes each way, to go up and down the tonal ladder.

Ry Cooder, virtuoso guitarist and great exponent of various forms of popular Western music, called his collaborative album with the eminent Hindustani exponent of the Mohan Veena, Vishwamohan Bhatt, “A Meeting By The River”. What would one call the most fruitful, creative collaboration between Goan and Anglo-Indian instrumentalists and arrangers trained in Western music, and composers and singers from the north Indian musical traditions, in the main, who together created literally several thousand Hindi film songs of note?

Anthony Gonsalves, the guru of violinist Pyarelal Sharma of the famous Laxmikant-Pyarelal composing duo, came from a different background. Unlike his Goan colleagues in the Hindi film industry he did not play in the dance bands. He played the violin very well, could compose and arrange with great skill.

His passion was Western classical music. He became indispensable to Naushad, the great adherent of traditional music, but who needed a serious-sounding orchestra to go with his songs. Gonsalves had very engaging sessions with the marvellous Hindustani flautist Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, tabla virtuoso Ustad Inam Ali Khan and sarangi maestro Pandit Ram Narayan. Gonsalves even composed pieces for voice and orchestra based on Hindustani ragas.

Chic Chocolate, a superb Jazz trumpeter and arranger, and Sebastian, played a vital role in the major hit songs of OP Nayyar. Their presence in the recordings of Nayyar’s hits based on snatches of Latin American melodies is palpable. Sebastian’s contribution in the Tango-like opening of “Dekh Ke Teri Nazar” can be felt in the counter-melody played on the accordion by Goody Servai. Take a song like Nayyar’s, “Deewana Hua Badal” from Kashmir Ki Kali, which, according to saxophonist Manohari Singh, has echoes of Raga Hem Kalyan. The combination of sitar (possibly Ustad Rais Khan) and castanets—they may be two pieces of small stone of complimentary pitch—in the instrumental backing can be traced to Sebastian. The grooming of Babu Singh and Dheeraj Kumar as successful arrangers can also be traced back to him.

The songs of highly talented but conservative musicians like Anil Biswas, Roshan and Hemant Kumar definitely benefited from the contribution of Frank Fernand as arranger.

These instrumentalists and arrangers, mainly Goan, could give any film song, raga or folk based, or in a delectable khichdi mix as in early Nayyar or C Ramchandra, a lift and sparkle that survives to this day.

Many a masterpiece of the golden age of the Hindi film song was the result of this chance meeting between these itinerant Goans and composers from northern and eastern India.