Aapki awaaz lecture ke liye bahut adapted hai “which, roughly translated, would mean that your voice is eminently suited to song reading. We hear this statement from time to time, especially in the ever popular reality shows where famous judges pontificate against the background of the starry-eyed competitors.

What are the characteristics of voice and musical sensitivity that make a playback singer successful? Have they remained unchanged during the decades in which film music dominated the musical tastes of the masses? I guess the answer to this question should come from the music pundits of the film industry, but I’m trying to present the humble observations of an outsider.

While the history of playback singing in Indian films is still a few decades before it reaches the 100-year mark, we have a record of approximately 82 years of film music to study and analyze.

The archetype of the playback voice to which our judges refer today has nothing to do with the voices of singers in the early days of talking cinema. Judging by the repertoire presented by contestants in most television shows, few mimic the singing styles of the legendary Kundan Lal Saigal, or Khurshid and Suraiya. It can be said that the benchmark for vocal playback is firmly rooted in the era that saw the rise of big playback stars like Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Asha bhosle, Mukesh, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar, among others. In a sense, it was the voices that set the standards and parameters used today to assess whether or not a singer’s voice is suitable for reproduction.

What are these parameters?

The only quality common to all these voices is their ability to assume the identity of different actors staging various situations in the story of the same film. They are therefore voices that express and represent a myriad of emotions and responses. An actor in an Indian film sings and dances in every conceivable situation – in joy, in sorrow, in the throes of love, lust, on the streets, on the rooftops, just about anywhere . And the off-screen sung voice of the playback singer becomes for the duration of the pieces the sung voice on the actor’s screen. Lata Mangeshkar’s voice, while retaining her unique identity, becomes the voice of Waheeda Rehman as she sings Rangeela Re in Prem Pujari, or Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamanna Hai in Guide. And the same voice becomes the voice of a pious Meena Kumari when she sings Lau Lagaati Geet Gaati in Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan. This ability to subsume one’s own identity into that of the actor is an essential quality to make a good playback singer.

Most of the female singers in the Indian film industry have light, high-pitched voices. The throaty, heavier female voices have, for the most part, not found success in the past five-six decades of film music. The reasons for this could be multiple. The standards set by Lata Mangeshkar and her brilliant star sister Asha Bhosle, both gifted with high, expressive vocals of enormous reach and the ability to negotiate the most complex melodies, shapes and styles effortlessly, have influenced so much the following generations of playback singers. that they consciously modeled their voices on the Mangeshkar siblings. The inclusion of singer-songwriter duets also required voices comfortable singing in tones that allowed the singer’s voice to appear more delicate and feminine in contrast. You couldn’t have a Big Mama voice in a duet, reducing the male singer’s voice to a puny shadow.

In addition, the orchestration of movie songs often used instruments that sounded best in the higher tones. It could, of course, be argued that an accomplished composer could create a duet for a heavy, husky female voice and a regular male voice, and that an imaginative arranger could score the instrumentation accordingly, but that’s a challenge. that composers of film music have to address. refused to take. The archetype of the girlish voice is so deeply ingrained in film music that even when actors like Tanuja, with her husky, smoky voice, Rani Mukerji, with her sandpaper stamp, or the surly Hema Malini sing to the screen, reading to them is still in the clear, ringing voice that has come to represent aural femininity. The good girls of Indian cinema could only be endowed with clear and pure voices. It was only the vigorous vampire whose voice could thicken with vice.

But times are changing and so are perceptions. The scorching number is no longer just for the siren or the trail. Today’s successful actresses in leading roles have to pack an item number, and as a result, successful playback singers have to dub a generous portion of steamy item numbers. The voices are still high-pitched, but more feminine. Instead, they practice ooh and aah, in a cheeky or seductive way.

Comments on the male of the species are reserved for my next column.

This is the second in a series of Shubha Mudgal chronicles on Hindi film music.

Read also | The previous columns of Shubha’s living room

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