Hundred Years of Talat

Delhi’s Three Arts Club and Katyayani are staging a multimedia format reading performance on one of the greatest singers of the ’50s, Talat Mahmood, the man with the velvety voice, drawing from a book written by his grand-niece Sahar Zaman.
Delhi’s Three Arts Club hosted Talat Mahmood (second row, centre) in the 1950s
Delhi’s Three Arts Club hosted Talat Mahmood (second row, centre) in the 1950s

Among the bold baritone singers of the ’50s and the ’60s, the mellow and soft voice of Talat Mahmood stood apart. Kavita Seth’s popular rendition of ‘Dil-e-nadan tujhe hua kya hai’ for the Netflix series A Suitable Boy, originally sung by Talat in 1955 along with Suraiya for Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib, is a recent recall of the singer.

To celebrate the 100 years of the musical legacy of Talat while offering novel access to the artiste and his charming personality, Delhi’s Three Arts Club and Katyayani are staging a multimedia-format reading performance today.

Delhi’s Three Arts Club hosted Talat Mahmood (second row, centre) in the 1950s
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The reading performance, which will be staged as a documentary, has been adapted by writer Sahar Zaman from her book Talat Mahmood: A Definitive Biography, which was released this January. Zaman, Talat’s grand-niece, has been organising the Jashn-e-Talat festival since 2018, taking his ghazals and songs to a contemporary audience with a growing appetite for the old and the retro.

“When I took this festival to college campuses, youngsters got hooked to the calming quality of his voice. They sang his songs in college competitions and danced to his songs in a few flash mobs. I realised that Talat travels through all ages. You just need to listen to him once to be completely besotted.

As far as his life story is concerned, it is immensely inspiring. He was a pioneer in experimenting with ghazals with guitar and drums, and the first Indian singer to do world tours in 1956. On behalf of all singers, he started the demand for royalty when he headed the Playback Singers’ Association in the 1960s,” says Zaman.

Extension of fandom

Born in Lucknow in 1924, Talat grew up in a culturally rich atmosphere, attending baithaks of famous poets in the courtyard of his aunt’s house. As his love for music bloomed, he decided to graduate in music, which later took him to Calcutta to work in the commercial music industry despite a backlash from his family.

In the backdrop of various historical events across the nation and the music industry, the performance will weave anecdotes from Talat’s life with his musical productions. Sohaila Kapur, the director of the play, has called this experiment a staged documentary “We have sought to bring Talat alive by navigating his work across decades, the people he met during those times, their interactions and how they remember him. Talat has essayed diverse roles in his career, from being cast as an actor beside Shyama, Nutan, Suraiya and adapting his uniquely soft vibrato voice to changing tastes of the audience, to singing for Army troops in Ladakh and, later on, devoting himself to the genre of ghazal….” says Kapur at the rehearsal of the performance.

Delhi’s Three Arts Club hosted Talat Mahmood (second row, centre) in the 1950s
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Talat’s ghazals became immensely popular, earning him the title of Shehenshah-e-Ghazal. However, he did not get his full due despite his talent and craft because his voice was not considered a ‘fit’ for songs set to loud and rapid orchestration that soon became one of the templates of Bollywood music. Kapur says if he were born today, he would have been a raging success because of an increasing acceptance of a sound with “a Western quality” and the space for multiple genres of music to co-exist.

Celebrating Talat’s legacy is also about invoking the sensibilities of a syncretic culture lost in today’s communal climate. His story has moved parallel to the history of a country born out of a bloodied Partition. Partition is still an open wound. Many Muslim families, including Talat’s, believed in the secular fabric of India and stayed back. Oral histories and family archives, which have been made publicly accessible through Zaman’s book, and the performance allow for alternate historical narratives to emerge, narratives that are potent, personal and have the capacity to offer a glimpse into the world of Bombay cinema, its network and the life of an artist such as Talat.

Nidhikant Pandey, who is playing the singer and doing a cameo of Dev Anand, says that he had heard a few songs of Talat before, but it was not until this play that he realised the breadth of his work. “Stories of artistes who didn’t get their due need to be told again and again. For instance, maybe Mehdi Hassan is more popular than Talat Mahmood, but thanks to this play, we realised that Mehdi Hassan himself confessed to being a disciple of Talat,” he says.

Sahar Zaman, Talat Mahmood’s grand-niece (L), Nidhikant Pandey as Talat and Arti Nayar as Suraiyya during dress rehearsals (R)
Sahar Zaman, Talat Mahmood’s grand-niece (L), Nidhikant Pandey as Talat and Arti Nayar as Suraiyya during dress rehearsals (R)

The Delhi connection

In 1957, Talat was invited by Three Arts Club, an 81-year-old theatre club in Delhi, to perform at Sapru House. Anuradha Dhar, a member of the club and producer of the performance, says: “We hosted him back then and now in his centenary year, we host him again.” The performance is to be a mix of theatre, cinema projection, dance and narration with music as the main text bringing everything together.

A team of seven actors, a dancer, and a lighting designer will bring the romance and beauty of retro Bollywood to the Delhi stage. Through many such dramatised readings, Kapur and her team have experimented with theatrical form and introduced dramatic literature such as the works of Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, Mahasweta Devi and Manav Kaul to the Delhi audience.

As the stage lights dim and the first notes of Talat’s velvety voice fill the air, audiences will be transported back to a time when music was soulful and simple, and the voice throbbed with emotion. Gentle pauses in the form of song clips, interviews, narration and dance will create an aura of being part of an actual mehfil where new and old fans of Talat can engage with his timeless music through which the artiste will be reborn.

Jashn-e-Talat is on at The Theatre, IHC, Lodhi Road at 7 pm today. Entry free.

This article has been written by Prachi Satrawal

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