Of Geeta Dutt & her immortal music

Geeta Dutt lent her voice to some of the choicest Hindi film melodies and made them immortal. Whether it was SD Burman or O P Nayyar, Dutt caste her magic spell over one and all.
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Published on Mar 25, 2003 08:46 PM IST
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PTI | By Arnab Banerjee

A soft dulcet voice serenades and fills the air with its pathos and sweetness. The voice soothes the mind and lulls the soul but it echoes with resonance and finds itself a place permanently in the listener’s heart. Who else, but the unmistakably melodious Geeta Dutt's renditions, could weave magic the way she did?

Geeta Dutt who began her career as Geeta Roy in Kolkata – where she had undergone training in classical music briefly, was perhaps one of the first singing stars on the Indian film firmament. Dutt had even toyed with the idea of acting in films, but melody won over celluloid fame and she stuck to what came naturally to her - singing for films and private albums in Kolkata.

Meanwhile, as she became better recognised as singer, she did shuttle between Mumbai and Kolkata, dividing her time between assignments but finally she chose Mumbai, because she got married to the actor-director Guru Dutt. However, she continued to record in Bengali also - but now on a more a select basis, and if the offer was truly irresistible.

Dutt's melodic songs are mostly in slow waltz. The foremost quality of this under-rated singer was her ability to touch low notes in the lower octave and yet impart emotive power to the compositions. She hit the low notes in a superb manner which is rather unheard of from Indian singers.

Even passages dominated by minor keys are sung with full richness. Later, some music directors from Bengal exposed a darker side of emotion in which she performs some of her masterpieces – specifically so, melodies by Kanu Ghosh for Salil Choudhury's lyrics. Since these songs were real challenges, few Indian playback artists attempted them, except perhaps Asha Bhosle, but that was later – for Bhosle considered Geeta Dutt an inspiration and one of her favourite singers. Bhosle of course, was to evolve a style of her own much later.

Dutt  blended her training in Classical Indian music with her imagination and contemporary thought. There are stories of her spending hours over a song with composer Sachin Dev Burman, just to get the right intonation and sometimes to 'feel' the song as much as she could – a quality she acquired from the one and only Burmanda.

In the early 50s when her voice was heard only for Kanu Ghosh's compositions, many producers in Mumbai wanted her and her alone for their films, though there were other established names including those of Lata Mangeshkar, Suraiyya, Shamshad Begum, Amir Bai Karnataki and Juthika Roy, in the fray.

What they insisted on was her 'soft renderings' rather than the 'deep-throated' bass voices of some of the better known singers, barring Mangeshkar. Though all the singers and particularly so the Mangeshkar sisters, were way ahead in classical training, Dutt’s sensitive interpretation of film songs stood out.

Since then, Dutt bagged at least one hit every year. In Bengal, Sudhin Dasgupta and Anal Chatterjee wrote a number of melodies especially to suit Dutt's voice. Around the same time, in Mumbai, Dutt's songs were composed by a number of notable Bengali music directors - Sachin Dev Burman and Hemanta Mukherjee to name only two. Mukherjee, in fact, composed for Dutt in Bangla as well. 

Her brother Mukul Roy, too wrote penned pleasant numbers – both in Hindi and Bangla. Kanu Roy wrote some quiet and intense melodies that are at the top of Dutt's hit list today. His Aaj ki kali ghata from the film Uski Roti (1966), penned by Kaifi Azmi remained one of Guru Dutt’s favourites.

To quote Raju Bharatan, music critic and author, "The first thing that strikes one when you hear Geeta Dutt sing was that she never sang. She just glided through a tune. Of all her contemporaries her musical training was perhaps the sketchiest but what she lacked in training and technique, she more than made up with her ability to breathe life and emotion into any song she was singing."

The era of naughty style with a deliberate twang or a joie di vivre that is the most difficult part to convey in a three minute rendition, had the stamp of Dutt's style in the original. It was Sachin Dev Burman who made the best use of this quality. Initially, a hesitant Dutt almost shied away from such numbers since she was a singer well-known for bhajans  and sad numbers. But Burmanda saw what no one else did. He created a style of his own and made her sing some of the specially composed tunes for her.

1951 saw the release of Baazi, with its the jazzy musical scored by Burmanda. And that added a new facet to Dutt's singing. The sex appeal in her voice and the ease with which she went western was marvellous. While every song in the film was a raging hit, one stood out for special appeal - Tadbir se bigdi hui taqdeer. From then on in the 1950s for a club dance or a seductive song, the first choice was Dutt. S.D. Burman was among the earliest to discover the magic in her voice with her breakthrough number Mera sunder sapna beet gaya from Do Bhai. He used the Bengali lilt in her voice effectively in numbers like Gori ho gayee saajan ki and Aan miloShyam sanware (in Devdas,  1955), and Hum aap ki aankhon mein (Pyaasa) and in Kaagaz Ke Phool which had some of the immortal melodies like Waqt ne kiya kya haseen situm.

The song gave her enough opportunities to stand out on her own before another great composer, O P Nayyar took over the responsibility of moulding her to the breezy, peppy beats inspired by western music. If Burman instilled a new hope in her, Nayyar helped blossom and explore newer horizons. Nayyar’s Aankhon hi aankhon mein ishara from the film CID, Babuji dheere Chalna and Yeh lo mein haari from Aarpar, Thandi hawa from Mr and Mrs 55 and Mera naam Chin Chin Choo from Howrah Bridge

After Guru Dutt died in 1964, Dutt cut down on her assignments, having been broken and shattered by the man she loved most. It was her husband’s ill-timed affair with his heroine Waheeda Rehman which first ruined her. But his suicide turned her a complete wreck for she continued to love him unconditionally. She also great suffered financial losses soon after.

Her health kept failing as she drank herself to a point of no return. But not before she once again showed that she still had it in her, were she given a mike to sing. The songs of Basu Bhattacharya's Anubhav were unmistakably rendered in Geeta Dutt style and were reminiscent of a time when she would just glide through an emotion filled song giving it her all. Mujhe jaan na kaho meri jaan, Koi chupke se aake and Mera dil jo mera hota are but mere representations of some of the finest work that Geeta Dutt ever did.

When she passed away in 1971 due to cirrhosis she left behind a legacy which has never been replicated by any other singer since. And it never will be. Geeta Dutt changed completely the face of Hindi film playback singing at a time when there was truly competition beyond compare.

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