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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Brown and (Usually) Blue: Sounds for the soul

This week’s column is a brief overview of the story of jazz and its legacy in Hindi films.


The post-independence era saw a short slump in the popularity of jazz, until tours sponsored by the U.S. Department of State led to a partial revival in the genre.

In honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d dive (or rather, dip my toes) into jazz’s journey to Bombay for this week’s edition.

Jazz became popular in India in the early 1930s, when renowned jazz musicians such as Teddy Weatherford and Leon Abbey (who brought the first eight-piece band to Bombay) began touring the country. However, it remained restricted to elite circles of society — British expats, members of Indian royal families, any wealthy businessmen who could afford to come to five-star hotels. These artists eventually began to collaborate with Anglo-Indian and Goan performers, ushering in the golden age of jazz in India. In 1941, when the U.S. called its musicians back in the midst of World War II, two artists stayed on: Weatherford and Roy Butler. It was this period that saw the rise of some of India’s greatest jazz musicians, most notably Chic Chocolate, whose artistic contributions to Bollywood (the Hindi film industry) laid the foundation for a new wave of film music.

Famous Hindi film composers of the 1960s and ’70s such as Shankar-Jaikishan, R.D. Burman and Kalyanji-Anandji incorporated jazz into their compositions, resulting in some of the most iconic Hindi film songs in Bollywood history. A notable example is the 1965 hit “Jaan Pehechan Ho”, in English “If I Knew Who You Were”, which was featured in the movie “Ghost World” (2001) and used in a 2011 Heineken advertisement. Another hit is “Yeh Mera Dil,” meaning “This Heart of Mine,” which was featured in the classic film “Don” (1978) and sampled by the Black Eyed Peas in Don’t Phunk with my Heart” (2005). The increasing use of jazz was coterminous with the onset of the popular cabaret sequences, which became a staple of the new wave of Bollywood films in the late 1960s–80s. This legacy has been carried on by generations of composers in the film industry; ask your Indian friends if they recognize any of these popular songs — “Hawa Hawaii” (1987), “Kaisi Paheli Zindgani” (2005), which translates to “What A Puzzle Life Is,” or “Girls Like to Swing” (2015).  

The post-independence era saw a short slump in the popularity of jazz, until tours sponsored by the U.S. Department of State led to a partial revival in the genre. At this time, artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington traveled across Indian cities, and their legacy manifested itself in the fusion form of Indo-jazz. This new phenomenon inspired impresario Niranjan Jhaveri to establish the Jazz Yatra in Bombay in 1978, a music festival that celebrated cultural fusion and experimentation and enshrined the legacy of jazz for future generations of listeners.

Jazz is still alive and kicking today. It lives on in the famous Indian singer Asha Bhosle’s iconic ’70s numbers, in the twists and turns of the eternal Anglo-Indian dancer Helen and in the compositions of Bollywood’s music directors playing out on the silver screen. It lives on in performances in Bombay’s famous Prithvi Theatre and in the shared nostalgia of nightclub evenings. Thank you Teddy Weatherford, and thank you Roy Butler — thank you for sharing your music with us.