Interview Hindi Marathi

Vasant Desai and his enduring music – Birth anniversary special

On the renowned music composer’s 105th birth anniversary, his nephew, filmmaker Vikas Desai, speaks about Vasant Desai's humble roots and his quest to give back to the people.

Courtesy: Vikas Desai

Sonal Pandya

Walking through the hallway of Rajkamal Kalamandir studio, founded by the great filmmaker V Shantaram, one gets a sense of the history of the place and its ties to Indian cinema. Vasant Desai got his official start as a music composer here with Wadia Movietone’s Shobha (1942), but of course he famously got his film training under Shantaram at Prabhat Film Company. spoke to Vasant Desai’s nephew, Vikas Desai, a filmmaker, who observed and learnt from his kaka (paternal uncle, in Marathi) from an early age.

In an extensive interview in his office (formerly the office of filmmaker Yash Chopra), with Jagjit Singh's songs playing in the background, Vikas Desai told us how a young Vasant Desai got his musical training, what motivated him to give back to the people, and why he never composed any song with the popular radio countdown show Binaca Geetmala in mind.

Vasant Desai lived with Vikas Desai and his family from 1956 at their bungalow at Peddar Road. He had a place at Shivaji Park as well. Vikas recalled, “From the age of five, I went for recordings. I’m more at home in a recording studio than in a film studio.”

The uncle and nephew shared a close bond and after Vikas graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune with a gold medal in direction, Vasant Desai scored the background music and songs for his first film, Shaque (1976), co-directed with Vikas's then wife Arunaraje Patil.

With Asha Bhosle for the recording for Shaque (1976)
(Courtesy: Vikas Desai)

Vikas said, "Kaka didn’t come into cinema. He emerged from cinema, which is very important. At the age of 16, he wanted to be an actor, so he came to Kolhapur and one of his kakas took him to Shantaram at Prabhat."

Shantaram must have seen some potential in the lad because he kept him on as office boy. Young Vasant's job was to take chits in for Shantaram. For about eight months, he worked without pay. Slowly but surely, however, he began to get involved in all aspects of filmmaking. Later, he even became a part of the acting department at the legendary studio which made several acclaimed Marathi and Hindi films in its heyday.

Vasant Desai’s entry into classical music was just as fortuitous. Kolhapur in the late 1920s, Vikas Desai explained, was the hub of kala, or art – music, dance, drama. "[Shahu Maharaj] used to call people to stay and flourish there. He was a very enlightened ruler. [Vasant Desai] used to walk to [Prabhat] and [go by] the Deval club. [When the music programmes were held] in Kolhapur, their adda was the Deval club. So they used to do their riyaz [practice] there.”

The young Vasant stopped by and listened to these musical gatherings on his way home. Then one day, he was invited in. Slowly, he was given a tanpura and taught how to play it. Over the days, his lessons grew and he began formally learning music.

Additionally, Vasant Desai packed on more duties to his already packed schedule by joining a bodybuilding class. "There was a man called Mane Pehelwan and Kolhapur was a centre of kushti [traditional mud wrestling]. He used to do exercises in the morning. Annasaheb [Shantaram] was very clear: before 9 am, you [can do anything], at 9 am, I want you on duty,” he recounted. "He was a strict disciplinarian. So Kaka joined. Why? Because all those boys used to get one glass of milk. So that became part of his life.”

When Indian cinema shifted from the silent era to the talkie age, Vasant Desai was present as part of the first Marathi talkie, Ayodhyecha Raja (1932), in the song ‘Jai Jai Rajadhiraj’. In the film it was sung by Master Vinayak, but on the record that was released it was Vasant’s voice.

Vasant Desai even took bit roles in Prabhat's films. “Kaka, in the morning, he was a Mughal, after lunch, a Maratha, any role that came his way. Mr Shantaram had his eye on him. Why else would he take anyone on his edit, which is a very private thing? He saw something [in him],” Vikas said.

Finally, Vasant Desai was chosen to be the hero in Prabhat’s Manoos (1939, Marathi; Aadmi in Hindi) and for two months was part of the rehearsals for the film. Vikas said, “At the last minute, they changed the heroine. The new heroine [Shanta Hublikar] was taller than him. So they shifted him out and Shahu Modak got in. Modak once quipped, ‘I became the hero, that’s why he became a music director’."

Shahu Modak through the eyes of his spiritual partner and wife Pratibha Modak

In Sant Gyaneshwar (1940, Hindi; Sant Dnyaneshwar in Marathi), he had a small part in the film as a man who ferries Gyaneshwar, played by Modak, to and fro on a bullock cart. Keshavrao Bhole, the music composer of the film, had to create an outdoor song with the sounds of nature and birds and was unsure how to do it. Vasant Desai took on the challenge and executed it successfully. “He made the song, sang it and then it was picturized on him as he was a character in the film. Even today Marathi people remember the song," Vikas said.

Vasant Desai never took credit for the song, though his family knew the truth. But Vikas said, “Around 30 years ago, Keshavrao Bhole wrote a book on his music and the Prabhat era. And he said this was this boy who was Prabhat’s everything and this song he composed from beginning to end. I didn’t even know anything about the song.”

Vikas Desai said his uncle was a completely spiritual person and a brahmachari (celibate). He attributes this to his upbringing in the Konkan region where “he grew up in the vicinity of early bhajans and late-night kirtans. His mother used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and sing bhajans with an ektari [a single-stringed instrument].”

His guru was always V Shantaram and even after they separated after Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957), Vasant Desai continued to hold Shantaram in high regard. “Whenever he started any work, he would close his eyes for that one minute, say pranaam to him,” Vikas recalled.

According to Vikas, bhakti (devotion) was very important to Vasant Desai. He had a strong sense of belief in his work and was totally secure about his position in life. Vikas gave an example of the time when a Vasant Desai number entered the Binaca Geetmala countdown at number 14 (out of 16). Vikas teased his uncle about its lowly position and, surprisingly, Vasant’s reaction was the opposite.

Vasant Desai, with Sunil Dutt, composing music for Yaadein (1964)

Vikas recalled what his uncle told him: “I don’t care. I don’t make songs for Binaca Geetmala [or] for sales or popularity. I make it for my character and that particular situation in my film as conceived by my director. If I’ve done it right, even 25 years after my death, people will remember my song, because it will become part of their life."

That’s why his compositions, like ‘Ghanshyam Sundara’ from Amar Bhoopali (1951), have a special place in Marathi culture. The film won a prestigious grand prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1952 for its music, before Indian cinema aspired to send films to the festival.

One aspect of Vasant Desai's life that many people are not aware of was his commitment to his country and he gave back in times of crisis with his music to bring people together. Vikas Desai said, “Once [prime minister Jawaharlal] Nehru told him, ‘Hamare desh mein dus log bhi ‘Jana Gana Mana’ nahin gaa sakte [In our country, 10 people can't get together to sing the national anthem]’. It got [to] him. On Dussehra 1952, at Shivaji Park, [after training] for six months, one lakh schoolchildren sang ‘Jana Gana Mana’.” It was a record, but today no one knows about it.

Vasant Desai conducting song sessions across the country.
(Courtesy: Vikas Desai)

With GD Madgulkar's lyrics, he composed the Chhota Jawan song (‘Jinku Kinva Maru’) after the Sino-Indian war of 1962. “That song bound entire Maharashtra together," said Vikas. "He composed it in five notes so that even a layperson can sing. Then he went from school to school, mill to mill, and taught this song. As a result of which [around 5,000] people used to stand together and sing. [He even used to gather] brass bands and teach them and then 500-600 brass bands were tuned together.”

Besides music, Vasant Desai was a fan of cricket and never missed a Test match in Bombay. "He and I were always together at Bombay Gymkhana," said Vikas. "And he never missed a badminton match. He was the chief guest perennial for all kabaddi matches in Tardeo.” Vasant Desai was also fond of cars and driving [across the country]. Vikas called him 'Fatfati mama', fatfati being the colloquial term for a motorbike.

Vikas Desai also shared the advice his uncle once gave him, which he, in turn, passes on to his students. “He told me, ‘Look, you are not a genius. Your creativity will come out of your sweat. Sweat for your creativity’,” said Vikas.

The ever humble music composer felt it was his duty to give back to the people and that is where he concentrated all his efforts. Which is why, many years later, his songs like ‘Aye Malik Tere Bande Hum’ and ‘Hum Ko Mann Ki Shakti Dena’ still resonate, no matter the generation.