In the digital age, it may seem as if the romance of the written art is slowly disappearing. With the advent of instant messaging and emails, the chitthi letterhas become almost extinct, remembered only for its vintage appeal and the nonchalant way it can flood us with a sense of nostalgia. Though the practice of letter-writing may have become a symbol of days long-gone, its importance lives on not only in our memories, but canonized in Pankaj Udhas’ ‘Chitthi Aayi Hai’ from Mahesh Bhatt’s 1986 film ‘Naam.’
Therefore, it was an honour to travel down memory lane with one of India’s most revered artists in the music industry, Pankaj Udhas, as he discussed the conception of this beautiful song and described its intricacies. To the Padma Shri award-winner, a song is never simply a song; each piece has a rich and interesting history, and it was a true privilege to learn about the background of ‘Chitthi Aayi Hai’ with Udhas-ji. Moreover, although he may be a singer, he was keen on “trying something different” from singing and thus elaborated his path to musical fame with detail and deep sentiment.
Recalling a conversation with Rajendra Kumar, in which the “silver jubilee star” asked for Udhas-ji to feature in one of his movies, he recounted the feelings of nervousness and apprehension he experienced about acting. “After 10 years of struggle… and ages of popularity, why would I compromise my singing career with acting?” He questioned. After “thinking about it” for a long time and being confronted by his older brother, Udhas-ji called Kumar back with a polite thank you, stating that he did “not think he was interested.” Laughter ensued from the phone receiver, as Kumar replied, “I want you to appear as Pankaj Udhas!”
“And that was how the whole thing started,” explained Udhas-ji. Nonetheless, it was no easy task: “Making a song… is a very longdrawn process,” he pointed out, “as so many people have their input in it.” Of course, when surrounded by talented individuals such as Mahesh Bhatt, Salim Javed, and Laxmikant- Pyarelal, the brainstorming sessions would have without a doubt been a flurry of ideas and creativity. However, with “great difficulty, we all reached a consensus after 5 odd sittings to figure out the song,” he stated. Finally, the recording date was fixed to take place at Mehboob Studios right here in Mumbai.
During the final recording, Udhasji entered the singer’s booth in the studio and rehearsed the song a few times along with the orchestra. Once a few takes were completed, Pyarelal-ji noted that he was “singing well,” but that there was “something missing” in his rendition, and then asked Udhas-ji how he usually sang during a live concert. After explaining that he would “sit on the platform with his harmonium” in tow, Pyarelal-ji literally created a make shift set for him to continue recording. And it worked like a charm! One continuous recording later, the team had the final version of the song.
The song may seem like an evergreen hit to us today, but there was once a time when the creators were not so assured of its impact, as Udhas-ji narrates. He told us of a flight where he met the iconic Raj Kapoor who complimented him on the song’s immortality after hearing it during a “special screening” held for him by Rajendra Kumar. Another momentous milestone was when Udhas-ji performed for a crowd while touring in the USA.
Surrounded by 6,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York City as spring quietly bloomed around them in March of 1986, he bravely played ‘Chitthi Aayi Hai’ after meeting during the concert interval with a close cousin who had not visited India in 15 years, despite warning from Kumar-ji to not perform the song before the movie’s release. After the song ended and its echoes were heard drifting through the audience, a deadly silence plagued the area. Could it be that the song was a flop? Udhas-ji answered his own question, stating, “suddenly, 6,000 people were on their feet, clapping away.”
It was then “when he realized the potential of the song,” he said, fondly recalling the memory. Now, 30 years later, he still witnesses “misty eyes, or eyes rolling with tears” when a fan talks to him about it. Its true influence lives on, long after the song’s first recording. “Chitthi is chitthi,” he finished, “it has its own charisma, effect, and great impact.”
Furthermore, we also had the opportunity to learn more about the esteemed singer and his thoughts on music and the art of singing through a question and answer session. When asked about the way in which he “simplified the language of the ghazal,” he affirmed that he “wanted to create music more accessible to a layman” and “reach out to a larger audience worldwide.” But what was especially interesting was his opinion on contemporary Bollywood music, which he described with the articulation and sentiment of any artist: “It is unfortunate that there is no focus on poetry… as content is king, is prime” when it comes to the “longevity of a song.” He also noted that perhaps “someday, Bollywood will have to go back to poetry” in order to sustain its music industry.
Therefore, he may have just answered why his music still plays on in many of our homes today, and why our children will quite probably hear his songs ring through their bedrooms for generations to come. Much like that chitthi that we remember so fondly, Udhas-ji’s music is undoubtedly poetry, the kind that captures the essence of the soul and immortalises it in song.