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HomeOpinionK.L. Saigal to Ilaiyaraaja—Nalin Shah knew them all. He was Hindi music's...

K.L. Saigal to Ilaiyaraaja—Nalin Shah knew them all. He was Hindi music’s master chronicler

Nalin Shah was Hindi film music industry's 'fact-checker'. His fortnightly column in Mid-Day changed how India saw the subject.

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Nalin Shah, an eminent film music historian, record collector, and presenter of in-depth yet entertaining programmes on old Hindi film music passed away on 21 July 2022 in Mumbai. At a time when films and film music were considered frivolous subjects full of gossip and anecdotal half-truths, Shah relentlessly dug up pieces of Hindi film music history by meeting the artistes and writing insightful articles with authentic information on the subject.

He developed close contact with many stalwarts of Hindi film music: music directors such as Naushad Ali, Anil Biswas, C. Ramchandra, O.P. Nayyar, S.N. Tripathi, singers Talat Mahmood, G.M. Durrani, Rajkumari Dubey, Zohrabai Ambalewali, and lyricists Pradeep and Qamar Jalalabadi to name a few. Many of them visited his place for chitchat or a gathering of old pals. But he never allowed the closeness to blur his loyalty to facts. In that sense, he was a fact-checker of sorts before the word came into currency.

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Fact-checker bar none

One of the popular stories of Nalin Shah’s devotion to accuracy is to do with music director Naushad Ali. Naushad claimed his composition Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya from the film Shahjehan (1946) was played at the funeral procession of the legendary singer K.L. Saigal ‘as per his wish’. This claim took a life of its own and became folklore because no one could challenge a composer of Naushad’s stature. Shah, despite having a close relationship with the music director, wasn’t convinced. He talked to Chaman Puri, the eldest of the famous Puri brothers Madan and Amrish. Puri was related to Saigal and was present at the funeral. He didn’t remember any song played during or after the procession.

Shah had the guile and finesse to correct the claims of great artistes time and again without offending or disrespecting them. I had the privilege of being around during his visit to Naushad’s bungalow a couple of times in the early 1990s when I was just a music lover from a small town in Gujarat. When I asked why he posed some questions repeatedly, he flatly said that many artistes don’t lie intentionally but rely on a fabricated memory. ‘One should always check their version from different angles, asking the same questions differently. Else there is a chance of mixing myths with facts,’ he told me.

Nalin Shah with music director Naushad. | Photo credit: Special arrangement
Nalin Shah with music director Naushad. | Photo credit: Special arrangement

When music retail company HMV accused Gulshan Kumar of T-Series fame of piracy, Shah wrote in his column about HMV’s attempts at piracy in the 1930s to compete with nationalist record label Young India. He intended to set history right by establishing that the practice of a version song, recording a famous song of a rival company in another singer’s voice, was started by HMV itself. Delighted by the article, Gulshan Kumar summoned a press conference in Noida and distributed copies of Shah’s article.

In one of our chats at his Santacruz West flat, I enquired if the music directors Shaukat Dehalvi ‘Nashad’ and Shaukat Haidari were the same. He was not sure either. He immediately lifted the receiver to call singer Mubarak Begum, who sang for both the composers. She confirmed they were the same. This was his usual practice. No bluffing and verification from the original source as much as possible.

He was also a fair man who wasn’t afraid to speak up. Once I went along with Shah to see the poet Pradeep. I had kept a cover of Kismat & Bandhan LP to get his autograph, but when the poet couldn’t locate his name on it (HMV, for some reason, had not credited him) he flatly refused to sign on it. Being the person he was, Shah mildly scolded him: ‘What can this chap do? Has he made the cover? You must give him an autograph.’ And Pradeep quietly obliged.

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LIC officer to Mid-Day columnist

Born in a small village Chinchani in Western Maharashtra in 1934, Nalin Shah was a development officer at LIC and a leader of West Zone’s Development Officers’ Union. He started writing about film music in English in 1971 and wrote in major film magazines and some newspapers. He wrote a series on great yet forgotten composers in Filmfare. His fortnightly column in Mumbai’s Mid-Day was quite popular.

He wasn’t afraid of tongue-in-cheek humour in his writing either. Once, when the Lata Mangeshkar award was announced to a senior music composer who helped shape Lata’s career in her early years, I casually remarked: It was like giving Morarji Desai award to Mahatma Gandhi. Shah liked it so much that he mentioned it in his column.

He was also close to classical masters like Pandit Ramnarayan and Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. When Hemraj Betai, the erstwhile owner of the Young India record company, thought of launching a new record company Jyoti, a friend persuaded Nalin Shah to join it as a PR person. His job was to use his goodwill among the artistes and convince them to perform for the new, unknown company. True to his reputation, Shah brought his close friend, Sitar maestro Ustad Jaffer Khan to cut a record. However, the owner decided he wanted to stir the market with a longer duration of a long play record than normal. Shah told him that it was not possible. He was right. The company didn’t take off and he continued with LIC.

Nalin Shah with O P Nayyar. | Photo credit: Special arrangement
Nalin Shah with O P Nayyar. | Photo credit: Special arrangement

During one of his visits to Chennai in the 1990s, he met Ilaiyaraaja, who was so captivated by Shah’s insights into the history of Hindi film music, compositions of New Theatre’s films with a fusion of Indian and Western instruments and Punjabi influence in the early 1940s that Ilaiyaraaja presented him with one of his scores.

I also remember the time we met veteran singer Rajkumari at Shah’s place. She wanted the lyrics of a few songs she had to perform. Shah played records at slow speed, while I noted the wordings. That’s how we transcribed songs in that era before the Internet.

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Kashmiri cap, Pathani jacket on stage

Nalin Shah also revolutionised the format of stage programmes based on old Hindi songs. Attired in his trademark Kashmiri cap and Pathani dress with jacket, and impressive Urdu, he mixed nuggets of film history with memories of forgotten artistes along with the presentation of old songs. He hosted memorable programmes for the Gramophone Club of Ahmedabad. Many from the Gujarati audience mistook him for a Kashmiri Shah rather than a Gujarati Shah due to his attire and Urdu. He amassed a huge and wide-ranging fan following, thanks to his stage programmes. His expertise on legendary singer Saigal was unparalleled. The music historian met some of his family members, and even his driver Paul.

Shah presented many programmes on Doordarshan and Vividh Bharati and wrote the script for Siddharth Kak’s series Gata Jaye Banjara. But it’s a shame that he was so unenthusiastic about writing a book. On our untiring insistence, he edited some of his Mid-Day articles and published them as Melodies, Movies & Memories in 2016—his first and only book—with many rare and unpublished photos. Unfortunately, many more hidden gems of Hindi film music stories have departed forever with him.

Urvish Kothari is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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