[This post originally appeared here.]
The key feature of the Hindi film tonga song was a rhythm that evoked the clip-clop of a horse pulling a carriage. Although he didn’t invent the tonga rhythm, O.P. Nayyar was probably the most skilled at it. He dominated a crowd-sourced tonga song playlist I put together some time ago (the most comprehensive list I’ve seen), with 14 out of the total of 83 songs. Surprisingly, Naushad and Roshan also appear a lot in this list, with 10 and 6 songs respectively.
Most of these songs showed the hero and heroine romancing but there were some exceptions – one had sons singing to their mother – Usko Nahin Dekha Humne Kabhi (Daadi Maa, 1966) – and another dedicated to Kolkatta – Sunoji Yeh Kalkatta Hai (Howrah Bridge, 1958). Many of these song actually involved a tonga on-screen but some had a horse but no carriage – Mere Sang Sang Aaya (Rajput, 1982) and there were others that had no horse at all – Bach Gaye Hum Dono Phanste Phanste (Chacha Zindabad, 1959). It appears that the 1950s were the golden era of tonga songs. After a sputtering start in the 1940s (3 songs), we saw 38 tonga songs in the 1950s. Each subsequent decade saw progressively fewer tonga songs – 1960s – 24, 1970s – 12, 1980s – 6, 1990s – 2 and none since then. Art does imitate life.
In this post I pick 10 tonga songs, some because they are my favourites and others because they tell a story.
It can safely be said that the inventor of the tonga rhythm in Hindi films was Pankaj Mullick. The tonga beats were apparently created using coconut shells. Pankaj Mullick not only composed and sang this tonga song, he also played appeared onscreen riding the tonga – Doctor (1941) was one of the few films in which he acted. Incidentally, Doctor (1941) had another path-breaking use of rhythm – Aayi Bahaar Aaj – only this time it was Pankaj Mullick simulating the rhythm of a train.
This is my favorite tonga song by Naushad. There are two versions of the songs. The first one is sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Shamshad Begum and represents the love and hope of Dilip Kumar and Nargis’s characters in their childhood. The second is a Mohd. Rafi solo which represents the angst of unfulfilled love. I pick the Rafi solo because, leaving aside the excessive melodrama of the song’s climax, the Dilip Kumar and Nargis are a sight to behold.
This is O.P. Nayyar duet is one of my most favorite tonga songs and has some excellent yodeling by Kishore Kumar. I also love it for the story behind it and what it tells us about Kishore Kumar. In the second antara after Kishore Kumar’s line, Asha Bhosle started to sing out of turn and then stopped after she realized her mistake and Kishore Kumar carried on. Distressed by the mistake, Asha Bhosle wanted to redo the song but Kishore Kumar asked her not to worry. He said that he was the hero in the movie, and that he would cover on the heroine’s mouth when she sang out of turn to hide the blooper (at 1:49 in the video).
Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) was a big hit and its success – a big part of it attributable directly to O.P. Nayyar’s vibrant, youthful music – transformed two careers. Nasir Hussain struck gold in his debut as director and went on to enjoy a long, fruitful career as a producer, director. Shammi Kapoor, who got the role after Dev Anand rejected it, got his first hit film and became a star almost overnight. The film’s title song was the only song in film written by Sahir Ludhianvi, who walked out of the film after he developed differences with Nasir Hussain. It’s a wonder how the effervescence of O.P. Nayyar’s music in this tonga song contains and strengthens so many possible points of failure – a debutant director, a struggling actor and a mercurial lyricist who would walk out from the film.
While O.P. Nayyar did the heavy lifting in “Tumsa Nahin Dekha”, “Naya Daur” was a solid project with the competent B.R. Chopra at the helm, Dilip Kumar at his peak and some great writing. O.P. Nayyar’s music and Sahir’s lyrics were the delicious icing on the cake. “Maang Ke Saath Tumhara” is the quintessential tonga song, a light, frothy duet by Mohd. Rafi and Asha Bhosle that works specially well in the film because Dilip Kumar’s character is a tongawala.
There were two crucial enablers in Joy Mukherjee’s career. The first enabler was his father, producer S. Mukherjee, who launched him in “Love In Simla” (1960), under his banner, Filmalaya and produced many of his films. The second enabler was the fantastic music his films seemed to be blessed with. His debut film “Love In Simla” had some decent songs by Iqbal Qureshi but his career was elevated to a completely different level over his next two films – “Ek Musafir Ek Hasina” (1962) and “Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon” (1963) – thanks to O.P. Nayyar’s blockbuster music. “Banda Parwar…” might have been a standard O.P. Nayyar tonga song – upbeat and eminently hummable – but it has a an additional ingredient that puts it in a class of its own – the subtle strains of a sarangi.
This tonga song, featuring the unlikely pair of Manoj Kumar and Sharmila Tagore, appears on this list simply because I absolutely adore how Asha Bhosle sounds in it. O.P. Nayyar does that trick again where he contrasts an upbeat rhythm with a haunting violin solo to devastating effect.
This is an uncharacteristic tonga song – a male duet sung by Mahendra Kapoor and Manna Dey, a theme other than romance and one in which the element of melody is just as prominent as the rhythm. This is the only Roshan song in this list, but as I mentioned earlier, not the only tonga song he composed.
This crackling Kishore Kumar solo is R.D. Burman’s only entry in this list. Given how good he was with rhythm I wonder why he didn’t compose more tonga songs. What may be considered as a creepy, stalker song today was playfully charming when it came out. Mercifully, Veeru wins over Basanti’s affections by the end of the song. This is a rare tonga song in which we know the name of the horse mare – Dhanno. For a film that recently completed 40 years, it’s amazing how fresh Sholay is in the public mind.
“Andaz Apna Apna” had some decent retro music before it became cool to feature retro music in films. We don’t know if the film’s music was a result of director Raj Kumar Santoshi’s vision but we do know that the film’s music director, Tushar Bhatia, as an inveterate O.P. Nayyar fan. “Ello Ji Sanam….” was his tribute to O.P. Nayyar’s famed tonga music. Andaz Apna Apna went on to become a cult classic but it remained Tushar Bhatia’s only film as composer as he went on to pursue a career in media.
The era of tonga songs may have passed but they still serve as a reminder of a slower, gentler time.