top of page

This is a brief history of the use of Indian Classical Music in Hindi Films

Let us start with a bit of history of Hindi film music and its relationship with classical music. First a small caveat: This is intended to be a broad sweep of the history of Hindi film music through the decades and is not meant to be comprehensive in terms of the film music personalities referred to. I take responsibility for failing to talk about some names who made a significant impact on the Hindi film music. And by the way, we will be taking examples of mostly Hindi film songs, though there have always been extremely talented and prolific music directors, singers and musicians in other languages, notably Marathi, Bengali, and South Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, etc.

The history of Indian film music is richly documented in a number of books and articles available in the public domain, so we will not delve too deeply into it in this blog.

Our main focus will be on how composers and arrangers in the film industry adapted from Indian Classical Music for the melodies, and on Indian and Western Classical Music as well as other genres for the harmony, rhythm and so on.

It is interesting to note that most, though not all the composers had had formal training in Classical Music under Pandits and Ustads before they started composing for films. Indeed, a few Classical Musicians like Pt. Ravi Shankar and Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia (under the name Shiv-Hari) even composed music for a few films. There were a number of classical vocalists like Ustad Amir Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and D.V.Paluskar to name some, who lent their voices to films. Not many people may be aware that some of the greatest Classical musicians of today and the recent past, like Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, Pannalal Ghosh and Hariprasad Chaurasia in the initial years of their careers, were members of the orchestras of film music composers and played memorable pieces in film songs. And finally, there were playback singers like Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosale who had received formal training in Indian Classical Music, and there were others like the great Kishore Kumar who had no such formal training. Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosale were both daughters of the illustrious Pt. Deenanath Mangeshkar, one of the greatest classical and semi-classical singers of his time. Interestingly, Kishore Kumar, with no training in classical music was referred to as Pandit Kishore Kumar of Khandwa gharana (he was born and brought up in Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh) by some critics, because of his immense talent and perfectly sureela voice.

In this series of blog posts, we will take examples of the ethereal magic that the singers and composers and their orchestras created through the numerous songs that they gave to the film industry. It is fair to say that a large number of films became extremely popular not because of the plots or the acting takent of the actors in the films, but because of the songs they had. In fact it seems like some films had plot lines and actors merely as a canvas to embed the songs into.

The first Indian film ever to have sound was Alam Ara, made in 1931 by Ardeshir Irani. It can be said to have created a sort of a template for Indian films because in addition to dialogs, it had seven songs. Even today, almost all Hindi films have at least half a dozen songs in them, and films without songs are very rare exceptions. Unfortunately none of the original songs from Alam Ara are available today. The song, “De de khuda ke naam pe” sung by Wazir Mohammed Khan became extremely popular, and a recording created later in his voice is available ( By the way, although Wazir Mohammed Khan has a sort of a classical vocalist ustad ring to it, he was a stage actor from Bombay and was not a classical singer as such.

As a typical example of film songs from the 1930s, the film Street Singer made in 1938 had music by R.C. (Rai Chand) Boral, a composer trained in Indian Classical Music. His father Lal Chand Boral was an exponent of dhrupad, a genre of Indian classical music that has ancient roots going back over two thousand years. R.C. Boral was trained in classical music by stalwarts at the time like Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan of Rampur-Sahaswan gharana (Ustad Rashid Khan belongs to this gharana), Masit Khan (tabla player), and Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (sarod player and father and guru of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan). One of the songs from Street Singer, “Babul mora naihar chhuto hi jaye” based on a thumri in raga Bhairavi was sung by the iconic K.L. Saigal, considered to be one of the most talented singers ever to have sung for Indian films. Incidentally Saigal was not formally trained in Indian Classical Music, but was a role model for singers and was imitated by singers like Mukesh in their formative years.

Raga Bhairavi, which Babul Mora is based on, is by convention sung or played as the last piece in any classical music concert and in fact signals the end of a concert. Even in a music festival featuring multiple musicians in a session in the morning or evening, raga Bhairavi is performed only by the last performer as the last piece in his or her performance, never in between. It is interesting that this Bhiravi thumri, Babul Mora has been performed by many classical musicians including Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Begum Akhtar, arguably the greatest exponent of light classical music of all time. So it is a bit ironic that I am beginning this series of blog posts with raga Bhairavi, but I will end this piece with a recording of Babul Mora sung by Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, and then by K.L. Saigal’s Babul Mora from the file Street Singer.

Pt. Bhimsen Joshi - Babul Mora Thumri

K.L.Saigal - Babul Mora in film Street Singer

A bit about Raga Bhairavi. As mentioned above, it is performed only as the last piece of a classical music performance, never in between. It is generally performed in a light classical music genre like thumri, tappa, gazal, hori, etc., though it has been rendered in the khayal and dhrupad forms as well. It is made up of all komal or flat swaras (Sa, re, ga, ma, Pa, dha, ni) and I will delve deeper into the technicalities of Bhairavi, its many variations and film songs based in Bhairavi in later posts.

Hope you enjoyed reading this post just as I enjoyed writing it, and I do hope that I have enticed you to take a deeper dive into classical music in Hindi films, and into Classical Music in general.

148 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page