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Nostalgia musicals: Those old familiar tunes

Copyright tangles and changing audience tastes are just some of the challenges facing nostalgia musical stage shows

How well the songs are presented and placed is crucial in attracting audiences. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
How well the songs are presented and placed is crucial in attracting audiences. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

In the mid-1990s, a new cultural movement began to brew in Mumbai: “nostalgia musicals" that celebrated Hindi film songs from the late 1950s and 1960s. In an attempt to recreate the mood such songs evoked, event organizers in the city began to piece together ensembles of artists for the local stage: a small orchestra comprising a keyboard and tabla player, a compere to host the show, and a singer or two whose voices presumably came closest to the original. They covered a range of tracks from the “golden era" of Hindi film song: from the husky intensity of Noor Jehan’s Awaaz De Kahan Hai to the teasing sweetness of Shamshad Begum’s Boojh Mera Kya Naam Re or Lata Mangeshkar’s Aayega Aanewala; from romantic duets like Mohammed Rafi and Geeta Dutt’s Hum Aap Ki Ankhon Mein to solo numbers by Hemant Kumar.

The early performances held in auditoriums like Gokuldas Tejpal on Grant Road, Mumbai, drew middle-class families, mostly from south Mumbai, and made marginal profits. But these renditions of Bollywood classics also drew condescension. What meaning could the live performance of an old Hindi song hold for the MTV generation, or the more “cultivated" listener who preferred Carnatic and Western classical music? There were those who didn’t see any aesthetic value in these small-scale mimetic performances.

Still, nostalgia shows marked an uncannily postmodern space for Bollywood songs. By the early 2000s, they had become increasingly popular. “Back in 1994, when I began my shows, I was laughed at, but today, because of my work, there is so much more awareness about these songs," says event organizer Ashok Hande.

Artists like Kavita Murti and Anand Palwankar wooed crowds in packed auditoriums. Their popularity grew in tandem with the rise of private shows funded by corporate houses. By the late aughts, the pay rates of popular singers had spiked by 25%, and by 2016, singers had begun demanding anything from Rs5,000-50,000 for a single show.

The Copyright Fiasco

Then, in the early 2010s, event organizers faced another challenge: The Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS) began raising concerns about song copyright and royalty. According to the copyright law, event managers who reuse film songs for public performances must pay a licensing fee to the IPRS, which is then distributed to the original artists and songwriters.

However, legal ambiguities persist, and there is no official indication of how much an event manager must pay, and how much each artist, songwriter or composer should be given after the deduction of IPRS’ own administrative fees.

The absurdly high licensing costs imposed by the IPRS on event organizers have become a severe deterrent. While auditoriums like Tejpal Hall near August Kranti Marg, have temporarily put nostalgia musicals on hold, others, like lawyer and event organiser Kaushik Kothari, are fighting the fee by taking the matter to court. “Live shows must not be taxed as they entail performing a new version of the old song, which humanly can’t be identical to the original. Moreover, IPRS has reportedly not even been paying the original artists their royalties properly," says Kothari.

Hema Khanna, another organizer, who has been in the industry for over a decade, says the IPRS row has forced her to reduce the number of public shows from six-seven a year to one-two. Her event company, Siddhi Musical Melodies, now mostly does private shows.

“It is no longer possible to financially sustain oneself on ticket sales alone," says singer Rahul Joshi, who has been performing in Mumbai since 2001. “Funding from corporates and institutions, as well as individual patrons, is now more crucial for these shows to survive."

Curating the show

The other challenge for organizers is changing audience preferences. “In order to cope with changing age groups in the audience, organizers are under pressure to feature newer songs like Nimbooda Nimbooda, Tere Mast Mast Do Nain or Kajra Re," says Joshi. “What was earlier a quiet stage performance is now an event where people want to drink, dance and make merry, adding a touch of party culture to it." Joshi points out that while old-world songs by R.D. and S.D. Burman are great levellers, appealing to people across diverse age groups, the same is not true of other songs from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. Alifia Shetty, who has been in the industry since 2008 and performs songs sung by Noor Jehan and Suraiya, says “concept shows" that focus on niche songs are actually becoming more and more popular. “I find specialized shows organized around a specific theme to be very satisfying," says Shetty, who began her career with remixed playbacks. “I am no longer inspired by a random mix of music that has no cohesive research behind it. I feel there is a need to specialize—whether in an era or a decade, the songs of one single artist, or a particular theme."

“Today, the singers in demand are the ones who provide an accurate imitation of artists like Suraiya or Rafi," Shetty says. “This requires expertise, and makes event management and performance a science. It is no longer mere entertainment, but an imparting of knowledge."

That’s what event managers like Khanna attempt to do. “My shows are generally organized around a theme—like romantic songs, festival songs or comedy songs," she says. “This provides me with variety in terms of the directors, artists and periods I can include."

Organizers have to be in sync with the pulse of their audience. To have old or rare songs that appeal to large crowds, particularly young audiences, requires skilful packaging. How well the songs are presented and placed, and how a variety of audience interests are addressed—be it through folk music or classical, the popular or the unknown—are crucial aspects in eventually attracting loyal audiences and steady corporate funding. Khanna believes the trend of specialized concept shows is picking up. Retro music organized around the theme of romance or festivals is able to provide both depth and variety to an event manager’s repertoire of songs.

The IPRS controversy

The IPRS (Indian Performing Rights Society), a representative body set up in 1969, comprises music owners—composers, lyricists, authors and publishers. It is the sole body authorized to issue licences to users of music in India against a royalty charge which it is in turn supposed to distribute to the original artists.

Currently, organizers are divided on the way in which the IPRS should operate, with the market down owing to legal ambiguities and a reduction in the number of events and shows. While some argue against any kind of licensing, others believe it should be regulated. Yet others—active IPRS members and administrators—believe that the body is in a transition phase, and some of the problems pertaining to its mismanagement, like the issue of artists who have not received their royalties, will be resolved in times to come.

“We face several logistical problems, given the number of shows taking place across the city and our limited manpower. There are difficulties in physically monitoring every single event and the exact list of songs being performed. It is therefore difficult to precisely know whether an author was paid royalty or not," says IPRS official J.D. Oza. In the end, the IPRS remains a crucial tool to moderate the copyright of works of art, and must be managed properly.

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