Naushad Ali, or just Naushad as he was usually known, was one of the great Bollywood composers. He wrote the soundtrack to over 65 films from the beginning of his career in the silent era to his final score for Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story in 2005.
Born in Lucknow in 1919, Naushad grew up in a strict Muslim family that shunned music within the household. However he discovered an early obsession with the cinema and the sounds he heard around the city, including traditional and classical music. His career started as a boy, playing in the small group of musicians that would provide live accompaniment at the cinema.
In 1937 the conflict between his choice of career and his family’s religious stance resulted in him leaving home and heading to Bombay (now Mumbai) to pursue a musical career. He initially lived on the streets until he secured a position as assistant to musical director, Ustad Jhande Khan.
In 1940, Naushad earned his first official composition credit in Mohan Dayaram Bhavnani’s Prem Nagar. Set in Kutch in the western state of Gujarat, he conducted extensive research into the folk music of the region to inform the soundtrack. He had an early dedication to developing comprehensive understandings of the places and eras in which films were set. His life-long commitment to musical exploration, from South Asian traditional music to Western orchestral styles, distinguished his compositions from his contemporaries.
Baiju Bawra – Incorporating the Indian Classical Tradition
Naushad won his one and only Best Music Director at the inaugural Filmfare Awards in 1954 for his work on 1952 historical drama, Baiju Bawra. The film tells the story of the musical rivalry between Tansen, the greatest classical singer at the court of Emperor Akbar and a young unknown, folk musician, Baiju Bawra. Director, Vijay Bhatt was advised that a film about classical music was unlikely to attract box office success but he put his trust in Naushad to create a soundtrack both true to the subject matter and with contemporary appeal. Naushad brought on board Urdu poet, Shakeel Badayuni as lyricist. Together they created one of the most poetic and memorable scores in Hindi cinema.
Alongside star playback singers, Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, Baiju Bawra’s soundtrack features renowned classical vocalists, Ustad Amir Khan and D. V. Paluskar.
Through Baiji Bawra, I tried to bring our classical singers like Pandit Paluskar and Ustad Amir Khan to film music and this was acceptable to film-maker Vijay Bhatt. I assured the great singers that millions would listen to the songs sung by them in one night, as against their normal audience of 200-300 people. I based every song of Baiju Bawra on some light classical raga – be it folk, thumri or dadra. For the climax competition playback by Pandit Paluskar and Ustad Amir Khan, I used heavy raga. Thus Baiju Bawra was a classical score and people loved it. Naushad, 1992
Baiju Bawra became one the top-grossing films of the era and received extraordinary critical and public praise. Naushad proved that a soundtrack based around classical music could have mainstream appeal, reinvigorating interest in more ‘high-brow’ musical traditions. He continued to use traditional ragas as the basis of much of his music.
Defining the Sound of the Golden Age of Hindi Cinema
Naushad’s reputation as the preeminent composer of Hindi cinema was cemented by the 1950s. In 1952 his soundtrack to Mehboob Khan’s Aan used a 100-piece orchestra and the score was the first to be published in Western notation in London. Aan was one of the first Bollywood films to receive widespread international acclaim, and the first Indian film to be released in Technicolor.
He scored Mother India (1957), one of the most iconic films in all of Bollywood history. Again Naushad used a Hollywood-style orchestral score to subtly underpin the action in a way that was totally new to Indian audiences.
As well as writing for the epic films, Naushad also composed some of the best-loved popular songs of the era. Madhuban Mein Radhika Nache Re performed by Mohammed Rafi for the rather light-weight 1960 film, Kohinoor is a classic of its time and has retained its popularity to this day. Naushad’s ability to balance a rigorous appreciation of classical and folk traditions with a flare for the popular hit, defined his career and set a high benchmark for composers to follow.
Combining Influences of Indian and Western Classical Music
Mughal-E-Azam (1960), the epic story of Emperor Akbar and his dramatic domestic woes, provided Naushad with an opportunity to develop further his adoption of Indian classical music into cinema scores. The film was released in Technicolor in 1960 and there are certainly comparisons to be made with Hollywood epics of the time including Ben Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960). It is perhaps less surprising then, that Naushad decided to include a 100 piece symphony orchestra and vast chorus to the soundtrack. The incorporation of western symphonic styles was very unusual and Naushad is generally hailed at the first musical director to introduce orchestral elements to Bollywood music.
Mughal-e-Azam held the record for the highest-grossing Indian film for 15 years after its release. The soundtrack is regularly cited as one of the greatest of all time and its impact has certainly endured into the twenty-first century.
Naushad’s popularity declined by the 1970s and although he continued to work, he was rarely involved in the biggest box office hits. As Bollywood moved towards more Western-inspired musical themes, introducing rock and disco signatures, the nuanced beauty of Naushad’s compositions were considered old fashioned. This led to the majority of his work in later years being for historical dramas. His final soundtrack was written for the 2005 film, Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story directed by Akbar Khan. Khan said of the score;
“My film’s music needed either a Tansen, a Beethoven or a Naushad…I was only left with the last choice! With the power of his spell bounding music, Naushad has managed to recreate the magic of the bygone era, perfectly complementing the mood of the film. The music does not touch the eardrum & bounces back, but penetrates and lives in the soul of people.”
The soundtrack was highly acclaimed and provided a fitting finale to a career that spanned 7 decades. Naushad Ali died in Mumbai on 5th May 2006, aged 86.
Naushad’s Legacy on the Bollywood Soundtrack
Naushad brought a distinctive musical sophistication to the Bollywood soundtrack. Although working on the great blockbusters of the golden era, he pushed a complexity and musical richness to his scores and drove innovation in mainstream cinema. His embrace of different cultures, styles and genres seem natural in Hindi cinema now but Naushad was absolutely pivotal in expanding the horizons of film scores, songs and Indian popular music culture more generally.
Naushad could produce masterpieces be it a ghazal or romantic song, a bhajan or Hindu devotional number, a qawwali sung by Sufis at a Muslim shrine or a dance number for a nautch girl. His songs were truly Indian in essence. Lalit Mohan Joshi, 2006
Naushad Ali Obituary – The Guardian
Nostalgic about Naushad – The Hindu