Composer par excellence - Vasant Desai
A seamless composer who was gifted with the ability to pivot vagaries of life around his simple and classy tunes – Desai was a man of great musical insight
After serving Doordarshan (DD) for little more than four decades, I produced over a hundred documentaries on the Armed Forces, literature and Bollywood. I must confess that DD helped me immensely in knowing the film industry. It was a practice to telecast classic films of great masters from the north, south and also Bengal in periodic intervals.
V Shantaram's classics fascinated me from an early age. To name a few: Shakuntla, Doctor Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, Dahej and Do Ankhein Barah Haath. The highlight of these films was the music composed by Vasant Desai.
Vasant was born to Krishna Desai and Muktabai on June 9, 1912, in Sonawade village in the Sindhudurg district of coastal Maharashtra. When he was eight, he lost his father. He was brought up by his mother, who was the daughter of the famous kirtankar Baba Bhaskar Parulekar. She helped Vasant's musical sensibilities with her bhajans. Seeing his deep interest in music, his mother sent him to his great-grand-uncle, Raghunath Desai, to pursue his studies. But he dropped out after the fourth standard from school. Vasant was interested in singing and acting, and hence, he joined a local folk theatre group. This helped him later in his career. Vasant started doing small roles in Marathi stage plays. But he didn't leave the practice of singing. Later, Vasant shifted to Kolhapur, where he received good training in classical singing.
Kolhapur was one of the leading cultural centers of Maharashtra in those days. Several artists were pursuing their career while staying there. One of his cousins, Ghanshyam Desai, had seen Vasant's interest in music and acting. He introduced him to V Shantaram in 1929.
At that time, Prabhat Film Company was about to start. They were recruiting young talented actors. Vasant had a great fascination with stunt films and he used to enjoy films of Master Vitthal and E Billimoria. Seeing his interest in films, Shantaram sent him to the acting department of Prabhat Film Company. As an apprentice, he appeared in a small role in the silent movie, Khooni Khanjar (1930).
Vasant Desai divided time between his duel interests in singing and acting. He sang and acted in early films of Prabhat: Maya Machchhindra (1932), Amrit Manthan (1934), Dharmatma (1935) in Hindi, and Sant Dnyaneshwar (1940), Sant Tukaram (1936), Kunkoo (1937), Mazha Mulga (1938), Maanoos (1939)and Shejaree (1941) in Marathi. It is interesting to recall the sudden transition of Vasant Desai from acting to singing in his own words, "Once I was called by my mentor V Santaram. He said that he had decided to cast me in his next film Maanoos against Santa Apte. I even cleared the camera test. I was happy that this film will launch my career as a hero, but this remained short-lived. After two days, he called me again and asked me to be ready for a shock. He told me that because of some internal pressure, he had to change the actors. I lost my position to Shahu Modak and Shanta Apte to Shanta Hublikar. That night, I decided I will quit film acting and devote myself entirely to music."
He kept on acting in Marathi stage plays and also continued his career as a singer. His kajari in Amrit Manthan, Barsan lagi became a countrywide hit. Similarly, his songs in Amar Jyoti and Wahaan earned him fat royalty from a gramophone company. Vasant Desai started regular training in classical music under Ustad Alam Khan and Ustad Iyanat Khan from Dagar Brothers. He learned Dhrupad Dhamar from the Dagars. Besides singing for All India Radio, he also participated in various prestigious conferences across the country.
In 1940, Shantaram moved to Bombay and got involved in government assignments, relating to the war efforts. After Shantaram left, Prabhat Film Company got disintegrated and Vasant Desai moved to Bombay in 1943, in search of work and started composing music independently. In 1936, Vasant gave independent music in Vinayak's Chhaya but he didn't get credit for this, as he was under a contract with Prabhat. In Bombay, he joined Wadia brothers (Homi and J B H) and worked on two films for them: Aankh ki Shram and Mauj.
In 1942, Shantaram bought Wadia studios and launched his banner, Rajkamal Kala Mandir. In 1943, he announced his maiden film Shakuntla based on Kalidas's Sanskrit drama starring Jayshree and Chandra Mohan. He invited Vasant Desai to take charge of its music. Desai made great compositions i.e., Kamal hi mere samne, Jeevan ki naav na dole (Jayshree), Chand sa nanha aaya (Jayshree/Zohra/Chorus) and Chali chali ashram se Shakuntla in his own voice. The film was a grand success and ran for 104 weeks in Swastik Cinema.
V Shantaram had a long association with Vasant Desai since Prabhat's days. They worked together in eleven Hindi films and one Marathi film (1943 to 1966). In Parbat Pe Apna Dera (1944), Desai used echo effect in his music: Preshaan hu ki kyun meri (Amirbai Karnatki), Sapno me aane wale (Khan Mastana) and Jo dard banke (Zohrabai).
Doctor Kotnis Ki Amar Khani (1946) was Shantaram's landmark classic. It was based on KA Abbas' English story and on the life of Doctor Dwarkanath Kotnis who was sent to China on a special medical mission. Vasant Desai, for the first time, adopted the Chinese musical expression and made a composition based on the Chinese war song, Chilai, in a song Chal aa ghulami nahi (Jayshree).
In the 1950s, Vasant Desai gave music in Shantaram's Dahej: a film on anti-dowry. It had melodious numbers – Ambua ki dari se (Jayshree), Choodi dhere pahna and Ae kale badal bol (Shamshad). His other musical hit was Sohrab Modi's super hit
emotional drama, Sheesh Mahal (1950). Desai created Shamshad's foot-tapping numbers: Husn walon ki galiyon se, Taqdeer banana wale ne (Puspa Hans) and Jise dhoondhti rahti hai (Rafi/Geeta) were chartbusters.
Vasant Desai signed two films for SM Yousuf: Hyderabad Ki Nazneen (1942) and Anand Bhawan (1953). The same year, in Jhansi Ki Rani, Desai gave outstanding music but unfortunately, the film flopped at the box office.
Next year, Desai gave commendable music in Toofaan Aur Diya (1956). The Shantaram-Desai combo gave another super hit classic in Do Aankhe Barah Haath (1957). Desai scored Bhairavi-based prayer, Ae malik tere bande hum and a razing hit, Saiyan jhoothon ka bada sartaz nikla (Lata). The film won National Awards and a silver bear at the Berlin Film Festival. In this film, differences cropped up between Shantaram and Desai and they didn't work for a decade.
Vani Jairam was Desai's find and sang her cult number in the film Guddi (1971). Vasant Desai won the Sur Sringar Sansad Award for Bol re papihara. It also had a prayer number – Hamko man ki sakti dena (Vani Jairam/Chorus). He also gave music in Ghrahan, Achanak (1973), Rani Aur Lalpari (1975).
Vasant Desai had a 33-year-long career in films. He did 54 Hindi films, 20 in Marathi, one each in Bangla and Gujarati, and four in English. He gave 14 Marathi musical stage plays as well as four dance ballets. He gave music in 12 documentaries and recorded 108 independent songs. The Government of
India honoured him with the Padma Shree in 1967. Vasant Desai was active till he breathed his last, when met with an accident in his building lift
and died on December 22, 1975. He was only 63.