A Meteoric Talent: Unravelling the Tonal Brilliance of Geeta Dutt
Hum along to the melodies of the inimitable Geeta Dutt.
“If it were not for music, one could forget one’s life and be born anew, washed of memories. If it were not for music one could walk through the markets of Guatemala, through the snows of Tibet, up the steps of Hindu temples, one could change costumes, shed possessions, retain nothing of the past. But music pursues one with some familiar air and no longer does the heart beat in an anonymous forest of heartbeats, no longer is it a temple, a market, a street like a stage set, but now it is the scene of a human crisis reenacted inexorably in all its details, as if the music had been the score of the drama itself and not its accompaniment.”Anaïs Nin, The Four-Chambered Heart
When I came back home after watching Tanu Weds Manu Returns, the only song I found myself humming was Ja Ja Ja Bewafa. Springing a beautiful surprise, director Aanand L Rai brought back one of the forgotten melodies of the past into our mint fresh present. Like Nin’s curation of music in her prose, Geeta Dutt had the voice that can still pursue us through heaps of time.
In the history of Hindi film music, we all are aware of the Mangeshkar sisters’ influence on India’s collective consciousness. They are still at it, alive and kicking. Geeta Dutt, on the other hand, was a meteor, who could last only half a life, but in that span, she created an oeuvre of distinct sound and elegance.
Dutt, like millions of Bengali migrants who shifted their base from East Bengal, found herself at an apartment in Dadar, five years before India became independent. Interestingly, both Lata and Geeta had almost similar fates at the beginning of their careers. It is widely known how Ghulam Haider spotted Lata singing, and took her under his wings, and made the singer flourish like a dreamy narrative.
For Geeta, it was another passerby, Hanuman Prasad, who heard her singing in the balcony of her Dadar flat. Enchanted, he became her godfather, and helped in launching her career.
At the beginning of her career, Geeta could hardly withstand the storm created by singers like Noor Jehan, Suraiya and others. Lata was facing rejection and hadn’t arrived in the scene yet. Geeta had the advantage of being associated with SD Burman, and Do Bhai, with its hit songs, kickstarted her career.
Remarkably, she didn’t try to adapt her style to the nasal singing sensations of her time, and her original, distinctive and apt-to-be-talked-about voice was a hit.
From 1947-1949, she was the numero uno in playback singing. Then Lata arrived and changed the rules of the game. Geeta, on the other side, became well-known for her renditions of bhajans and songs that delved into melancholy.
It was Navketan Films’ Baazi that became a milestone in her career. SD Burman revealed a new facet of Geeta in this crime thriller, where the bhajan expert became the sensuous voice of a club singer, an absolute shift in tonal brilliance.
Baazi was also the film that brought her face to face with Guru Dutt. Love blossomed in no time and they got married.
While she sang some of her finest songs for her husband’s poetic takes on life and fate, she also found herself in the whirlwind of a troubled marriage. Soon, alcohol came to her rescue, and music directors couldn’t master the patience to make her bloom in the mud of a failed marriage.
When Guru Dutt passed away, she was in a personal as well as financial mess. She tried her best to resurrect her career, but by then, her health had reached a point of no return. And then death became her at a very young age.
More than 40 years later, Geeta Dutt, who could sing from the vamp to the saint, we cannot help but wonder what could have happened had she lived to tell her tale through more songs.
In Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav, her final album, we can get glimpses of the grand possibility of her talent. Our life with all its details, in one voice.
(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter and content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)
(This piece is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 23 November 2015, It is now being republished to mark the death anniversary of the legendary playback singer, Geeta Dutt.)
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