Pankaj Mullick: Pioneer of Indian film music

How historical forces come together in the life of an individual can be a fascinating story. And how, in turn, these individuals shape history, can be equally intriguing. The life journey of Pankaj Mullick — the pioneer of Indian film music — is an extraordinary one.

He was born in 1905 into a middle-class family. He underwent training in dhrupad, khayal and tappa forms of Hindustani music. This period in his life was like anyone else’s who lived under those circumstances and in that time.

Then, Mullick came to meet Dinendranath Tagore, nephew of poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was also the arranger of his songs. This association turned Mullick towards Rabindra Sangeet, and it became a lifelong passion. He not only gained expertise in this form, which blends classical and folk, but also brought it to the public realm. Tagore was so impressed by Mullick’s ability to compose and sing that he summoned the young boy and expressed his admiration. In fact, Mullick was the first to introduce tabla accompaniment for Rabindra Sangeet.

Weekly AIR classes

When radio came to India, Mullick seized the opportunity and worked for India Broadcasting Corporation. For almost 45 years, he hosted a weekly music teaching programme on AIR. It was in his voice that Rabindra Sangeet reached the masses. In a Films Division documentary, he speaks of a major turning point in his career: “It was perhaps in the year 1931 that a young Punjabi gentleman came to the Kolkata radio station to meet the director, Jitendranath Majumdar. The director told me to audition his voice.” Of course, he passed the audition. The young man was none other than K.L. Saigal, a singer with whom Mullick had a lifelong bond. The two worked together and created some of the most memorable songs.

K.L. Saigal in the film President, for which Pankaj Mullick had composed music
| Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In a later Doordarshan interview, Mullick recalled what had seemed like a strange proposition in 1931. He and master-composer R.C. Boral were invited to play live mood music for two silent films. They executed the work successfully and the very next year, B.N. Sircar of New Theatres asked them to compose music for the first Bengali talkie, Dena Paona. From this beginning, Mullick, along with Boral, went on to change the course of Indian cinema by introducing the idea of playback singing.

In his study of Pankaj Mullick’s work, Monish K. Das writes: “While shooting a group dance for the Bengali film Bhagyachakra and its Hindi remake Dhoop Chhaon (1935), the performers were so exhausted after the rehearsals that during the actual shoot their singing went haywire. To find a solution to this problem, filmmakers Nitin Bose and Madhu Bose, sound recordists Pankaj babu and Boral, with the help of Mr. Demming, a visiting audio-engineer from Hollywood, came up with an innovation. They recorded the song beforehand and asked the performers to lip-sync during the real shoot. Thus history was made.” With the film Mukti (1937) Pankaj Mullick not only launched himself as an independent music director but also became an actor-singer. In fact, that was the first time that a Tagore poem was used in a movie.

Early innovations

There are many more firsts to Pankaj Mullick’s credit. He introduced elements of Western music by using the piano when harmonium dominated. According to the great composer Naushad, Mullick used the concepts of counter melody, harmony, chords, interludes, double bass and introduced the English flute and accordion in film music orchestra. Without his early innovations, Indian film music would not have had such elaborate orchestral arrangements. His grandson Rajib Gupta, speaking at Mullick’s 115th birth anniversary celebrations recently, said that his grandfather discovered the horse-beat rhythm and the train rhythm. “You know A.R. Rahman’s ‘Chhaiyaan chhaiyaan’? Dadu was the first to use that train rhythm in the film, Doctor.”

O.P. Nayyar said, “I neither had any exposure to music nor did my family have any musicians. As a six-year-old, I listened to Pankaj Mullick’s singing and was hugely inspired. I became a musician because of him.”

Each of his songs offered a unique experience — the breezy and beautiful ‘Aayi bahaar’ with the chugging train sound; the melodious and understated ‘Ye raatein ye mausam’; the breathtaking orchestration of ‘Hum chale watan’; the lilting ‘Mein in phool sang’; the sonorous ‘So ja rajkumari’; the energetic ‘Mein kya janoo’; the spiritual ‘Tere mandir ka hoon deepak’- each song is a study in itself.

Driven by his passion and the ability to innovate, Pankaj Mullick assimilated the forces of his time and sought the future. It is to his genius that we must credit all the major shifts that have taken place over the later years.

The Bengaluru-based journalist

writes on art and culture.

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