Ravi Shankar Sharma is a music director for all seasons and every occasion. This low-profile, soft-spoken man who was honoured with the Padmashri in 1971, is still composing beautiful tunes when so many of his colleagues have faded away. This year Ravi completed 50 glorious years in the Hindi film industry. As a tribute to the versatile genius, Zee presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Award. In the course of this interview the legendary composer traces his journey, from rags to riches.
Were you always interested in music?
I remember, way back in 1935, when I was a nine-year-old boy, I used to listen to old Hindi film songs and sing along with them. I particularly loved singing this popular bhajan from the film Pukar,Tum bin hamari kaun khabar le govardhan giridhari. One day my father insisted that I accompany him to the satsang and sing the bhajan there. I did and the applause and extra prasad I received from people made me feel very special. Soon, I became very popular at bhajan mandlis till I failed my matriculation exam in 1942.
For a while everybody ignored my talent for singing and told me to concentrate on my studies. I was ashamed of myself and depressed for having failed my exams, willing to do anything to please my parents. I didn’t protest when my father sent me to a workshop to train in electronics. A year later I joined a big factory in Delhi as a trainee, earning a salary of Rs.15. Later, I joined a British cantonment factory near Palam airport and my salary jumped to Rs.196. But the long hours were a strain and my mother forced me to quit. In 1945, I joined the Post &Telegraph office and was an electrician with the Telephone Exchange for five years. Around this time I got married and began to take my singing more seriously.
Were you trained in classical music?
No, but I sang regularly at private gatherings and joined All India Radio. My friends insisted my voice resembled Mohd.Rafi's. When the World Trade Fair came to Delhi I got a the chance to record my voice on a Wire Recorder. I sang an old Rafi song, Tere kooche mein armanon ki duniya and realized that my friends weren't off the mark. After Independence, the P&T department sent me to Punjab to set up a new telephone exchange. Before taking up my new post I was granted 20 days leave and I decided to visit Mumbai. I went there to try my luck as a singer but Mumbai was a sea of strangers. I extended my leave by another 10 days but in that month only C. Ramchandra agreed to try me out as a lead singer. The other music directors I approached wanted me to join the chorus. When I applied for further extension of my leave, the P&T Dept. got tough. I turned to my father and he agreed to finance me during my struggle in Mumbai, so I quit my job. For two years I struggled to live out my dream. My father sent me Rs. 40-60 every month. I managed by skipping lunch and having only a late dinner at the guest house on Kalbadevi Road where I used to stay. Everyday I trekked to the studios in search of work. By '52 I was getting desperate. My family was beginning to worry and my wife was getting lonely. I was all set to return home when I got an offer to sing in a chorus for Hemant Kumar. The song was Vande mataram from the film Anandmath.
How long did your association with Hemantda last?
I was with him through Shart, Samrat, Nagin, Champakali, Jagruti and Durgesh Nandini which were made by Filmistan Studio. We worked for some outside banners too. I helped him with his Urdu.
Around this time my wife and kids joined me. I was living in the verandah of a house in Malad those days. My wife and kid stayed in a dharamshala for a while. Later I rented a go-down in Kandivali for Rs 30 and we all moved in there. The go-downs were filled on either side with cement and chilli powder and since the three go-downs shared a common roof we lived with cement dust and the overpowering smell of mirchi for a while, till Devendra Goel's Vachan came along. Goel had heard the songs I had written during my long walks, Chandamama door ke and Ek paisa dede babu and liked them. He signed me to compose the music of Vachan. The film was a hit and my struggle came to an end.
How did Hemantda react to your success?
After Nagin, Hemantda had signed a dozen projects and he'd pay me Rs.200 for every film. I was earning Rs.2,400 a month. After the success of Vachan Hemantda suggested that then on I should work independently and concentrate on the assignments I got. I was very upset because leaving Hemantda meant that I wouldn't get the Rs. 2,400 I had been getting every month.
Were you really ready for an independent career then?
No, it was a risk. But fortunately, after leaving Hemantda, Nadiadwala signed me for Mehendi and Ghar Sansar and S.D. Narang gave me Dilli Ka Thug which had hit songs like C.a.t cat...cat mane billi, Yeh raaten yeh mausam and Hum to mohabbat karega. Guru Dutt liked the songs of Mehendi and offered me Chaudvin Ka Chand which turned out to be a mega hit. After that there was no dearth of offers.
Gemini Films from Madras offered me many films including Ghunghat (Mori chamcham baje payaliya),Gharana (Husnewale tera jawab nahin and Dadi amma dadi amma maan jao), Grahasti, Aurat, Samaj Ko Badal Dalo (Amma ek roti de) and Paisa Ya Pyar.
And that made life easier?
Well, I could rent the cement go-down now as well! (Laughs).Yeah, life did become easier but we still did not have drinking water and every morning I had to walk a long way to fetch water. We lived like this for nine years. By then we had saved enough to buy our own car- till then we were driving the old car which had been gifted to me by Hemantda.
In 1961, I started looking for a house of my own. Nadiadwala offered to sell me a plot in Santa Cruz. I built my own house there. I remember when the house was being constructed I would sit on the first floor and write and compose songs. Since the doors and windows hadn't been fixed, I'd carry my telephone to the house with me every morning and take it back in the evening. Shakeel Badayuni would often join me here to work on new songs. This is my lucky house because ever since I moved in here, I
have had an uninterrupted run of success.
Films like Bharosa (Is bhari duniya mein, Aaj ki mulaqat bas itni, Woh dil kahan se laaoon), Khandan, Do Kaliyan (Tumhari nazar kyon khafa), Meherban, Nazrana, Gauri and Raakhi did very well. I also composed the music for two Gujarati films, Gher Gher Matina Choolah and Verni Vasulat for Gemini which won me the Gujarat State Award. I was doing so many films in Madras that I was called the King of Madras. I suppose it was fate that all the films for which I did the music were superhits. Jab chali thandi hawa, Raha gardishon mein, Naseeb mein jisko jo likha tha and Lo aagayi unki yaad, from Do Badan and Baar baar dekho from China Town topped the charts.
How did you become a part of BR Chopra's team?
I started working with BR Chopra during Gumrah and went on to do Waqt, Humraaz, Aadmi Insaan, Dhund, Nikaah,Tawaif, Aaj Ki Awaaz, Dahleez and Awaam with him. Almost all the songs I composed for him were big hits. I wanted Rafi to sing the Gumrah songs. But Choprasaab had had some misunderstanding with Rafi and told me he wanted Mahendra Kapoor. After Gumrah we continued with Mahendra even though it meant adjusting to his vocal limitations. It is unfortunate that Mahendra has never acknowledged my contribution to his success even though most of the songs he sings -In hawaon mein, Yeh hawa yeh fiza and Chalo ek baar phir se (Gumraah), Aye neele gagan ke tale, Kissi pathar ki murat se and Na muh chupake jiyo aur na sar(Humraaz) - are my compositions.
Why didn't you do more films with Guru Dutt after Chaudvin Ka Chand?
Chaudvin ka Chand, everyone said, would be my acid test. Even S.D. Burman had reportedly had a tough time working with Guru Dutt. But with me Guru Dutt was surprisingly gentle. Though, at one point I did feel that he might not use my music at all.
However, after Chaudvin Ka Chand he offered me Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam. I heard the script and suggested that he take Hemantda because the film was set in Bengal. Guru Dutt reluctantly took Hemantda and the rest is history. After that Guru Dutt respected me even more. He had even chosen a few of my compositions for a film he was planning. The film was never made because death snatched him away. I remember, after Chaudvin Ka Chand's success I had jokingly asked him for my reward."What do you want?" he asked. "Give me those tablets," I answered. Guru Dutt was addicted to sedatives. Instead he could have a drink, I suggested, and even offered to join him. To my surprise, he agreed. He landed up at my residence a few days later and reprimanded me for not keeping my promise of joining him for a drink.
Who were the singers you were in tune with?
Mohd Rafi was the best. He gave life to so many of my songs like Sau baar janam lenge, Is bhari duniya mein koi bhi hamara na raha, Babul ki duayen leti jaa, Mili khakh mein mohabbat, Choo lene do nazuk hoton se and Yeh zulf agar khulke. Of course, if the hero of the film was Raj Kapoor, the voice had to be Mukesh's. Mukesh had a melodious voice. The songs he sang became very popular because the common man could sing them. Like Mukesh's, Kishore's voice too was very melodious,but he had more range. He could grasp the beat in minutes and adapt it to his natural style. In Ek
Mahal Ho Sapnon Ka he surprised me with the depth he gave to Dekha hai zindagi ko kuch itna kareeb se. He was equally brilliant in Yeh raaten yeh mausam nadee ka kinara (Dilli Ka Thug). Like me he had had no formal training in music and yet was so brilliant. Manna Dey has also sung so many hit numbers of mine, the most memorable being Aai meri zohra zabeen from Waqt. Unfortunately, his voice suited only certain situations or characters which is why his talent was never really exploited. Similarly, Talat Mehmood had a soft and distinctive voice which suited ghazals. However, every song of his is a gem.
Asha Bhosle has sung more songs for you than Lata Mangeshkar. Any particular reason?
Lata was magical. Her Milti hai zindagi mein mohabbat (Ankhen), Woh dil kahan se laaon (Bharosa), Aye mere dil-e-nadaan (Tower House) are popular even today. But often, because of her tight schedules, I had to opt for Asha.
Asha sang some outstanding numbers like Jab chali thandi hawa, Lo aagayi unki yaad, Aage bhi jaane na tu and Tora man darpan kahalaye.
Have you been influenced by the West?
This question reminds me of the Raj Kapoor's number, Mera joota hai japani. You can use any instrument- western, oriental, African, Arabian - but the soul of your music should be Indian. I have composed tunes like Baar baar dekho whose beat may have been western but whose soul is very Hindustani. I have never lifted someone else's tune. Rather my tunes Baar baar dekho and O neele gagan ke tale were copied by western musicians, and for years I kept getting royalty!
In the '80s your career slumped and you moved to composing music for Malayalam films. What went wrong?
Some of my regular producers died and others dropped out. Then, one day, a Malayalam film director, Hariharan, came and requested me to compose the music for his film Nakhakhshathangal.
I was hesitant since I didn't know the language. He told me that the lyricist, O.N.V. Kurup, would read out the lyrics and I could write them out in Hindi and then compose the tune. They liked my tunes so much that they got Chitra to sing the songs. The song, Manjal prasadavum became a rage and won Chitra the National Award for Best Female Singer in 1986. I was doing another film Panchagni at the time and a song from that film, Sagarangale sung by Yesudas along with the Nakhakhshathangal song fetched me the Kerala State Award. After that a long list of Malayalam films followed. Films like Vaishali, Theertham, Vidyarambham, Gazal, Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha, Padheyam and Sargam. I won the National Award for the Best Music Director for Parinayam and Sukhrutham in 1994.
After spending almost 25 years in the industry do you have any regrets?
I don't think I got the kind of recognition I deserved because I kept a low profile. Years ago, I thought I would win an award for my score in Chaudvin Ka Chand but I didn't, though Mohammed Rafi and Shakeel Badayuni won awards for best singer and best lyricist. It happened again with Gumrah. Mahendra Kapoor was adjudged the best singer and Sahir Ludhianvi the best lyricist but I was ignored. It happened a third time when Salma Agha (best singer) and Hasan Kamal (best lyricist) won awards for Nikaah, but the music director went unnoticed. Perhaps it was plain bad luck! Anyway, the recognition I received from colleagues more than compensated for my not winning awards.
When you look back, do you ever wonder what would have happened if you had returned to Delhi?
Yes, and I dread the thought. I might have still been an electrician!