Folk music is generally traced by sociologists and folklorists to the beginning of civilisation. It developed over centuries from a strong and vibrant aural tradition, handed down by one generation to another. It is characterised by melody and simple forms, such as lullabies, nuptial songs, love ballads, festival numbers, dances, et al.

It is said that the best way to learn about the cultural life of a people is to listen to their folk songs. These faithfully mirror their social customs, their beliefs, the heroes they worship, the festivals they celebrate, and so on. And such, indeed, is the abiding charm of folk music that our film music directors have not remained uninspired by it.

Right from the advent of the talkies in India, they have composed innumerable songs based on folk tunes. As early as in 1939, Sohrab Modi made a film titled Pukar, in which there were quite a few songs based on the folk tunes of Uttar Pradesh. One of them, Sheo Ram sheo Ram, Dhoey mohebe ghaat, oh dhobiya dhoye mohebe ghat… was filmed on washermen and washerwomen as they stood in knee-deep water in the Jamuna river washing their patrons’ clothes. The song, penned by Kamal Amrohi, was set to music by Mir Saheb and it depicted the joys and sorrows in the daily life of dhobis.

Anil Biswas was perhaps the first music director in our film industry who made extensive use of folk tunes. Though his forte was Bengali folk tunes, Anilda was equally at ease with the folk tunes of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. In Char Dil Char Rahen (1957), he composed a beautiful song, Kuchi hai umaria… mohe bhi rung deta ja more sajna, which was based on a folk tune. For the film Heer, starring Pradeep Kumar and Nutan, he composed some beautiful songs based on Punjabi folk tunes.

Music director Naushad has composed innumerable songs based on folk tunes, mostly of Uttar Pradesh. Since he came from Lucknow, he was well versed in the folk music of that state and his earliest experiment in using folk tunes began with Rattan (1944). The songs of this film, Akhiyan mila ke jiya bharma ke chale nahin jana, O jane wake balam wa lot ke aa and Pardesi balama badal aya… have not lost their appeal even today.

Naushad&’s supreme achievement in this field was the film Ganga Jamuna (1961), produced by Dilip Kumar and directed by Nitin Bose. The language of this film was Hindi as it is spoken in the rural areas of eastern Uttar Pradesh. All the songs were written in that dialect and all of them were based on the folk tunes of Uttar Pradesh. Each was a hit. The ones remembered even today are Nain lar gayee re manwama khatak hoi re, Dhoondo dhoondo re sajna more kaan ka bala and Do hanso ka joda bichhar gayo re.

A music director is naturally more familiar with the folk tunes of the region he hails from than with those of other regions. For instance, the ones like Khayyam, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Hansraj Behi and OP Nayyar came from Punjab. Therefore, in many of their songs one finds an unmistakable echo of Punjabi folk music.

In one of his early films, Khayyam used thinly disguised Punjabi folk tunes for composing songs. That film was Shola Aur Shabnam and a song from this film, Ladi ve ladi tujh se ankh jo ladi, was a complete adoption of a Punjabi folk tune, Adhi ve adhi, laggi saun di jhaddi, dudh pee le zalma..

Similarly, some songs of the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Kabhi Kabhi were based on Punjabi folk tunes. One of these, Tera phoolon jesa rung, nahin chodun tera sung … chahe chalen chhurian… was a rage with film music buffs.

SD Burman, Hemant Kumar and Salil Chowdhury have used Bengali folk tunes for film songs. Who can forget Burmanda&’s haunting melody, Sun mere bandu re, sun mere mitwa, sun mere saathi re…] that he composed for Sujata (1959)? It was based on a Bengali folk song sung by boatmen.

Music director Salil Chourhuri created unforgettable songs for Bimal Roy&’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Of the four songs in this film, three were based on folk tunes. And what wonderful songs! Haryala sawan dhol bajata aya…, Dharti kahe pukar ke beej bichcha le pyar ke… and Ajab tori duniya ho re Rama…] are supreme artistic achievements of Salilda.

Some songs of Madhumati (1958) were also based on folk tunes. But here Salilda used folk tunes of Uttar Pradesh because the story of the film is set somewhere in the hills of present-day Uttrakhand. So songs such as O lar gayo paapi bichhwa… and Zulmi sung ankh ladi… have an unmistakable ring of folk music.

A lyricist writes and a composer sets to music songs that suit the theme of a film. Some memorable songs based on folk tunes have been composed for films that dealt with rural life. For instance, Teesri Kasam had a storyline that dealt with the life of an itinerant nautanki dancer and a young bullock-cart driver from a village. Their love was destined to end in separation when the nautanki dancer moved to the next village on her itinerary. So in this film there was ample scope for songs based on the hoary folk tunes of Uttar Pradesh. Songs such as Paan khaye saiyan hamar… and Sajjan re jooth mat bolo, khuda ke paas jana hai… have folksy tunes.

Why is it there is an absence of folk tunes in our present-day films? Perhaps one of the reasons is that we no longer make films like Mother India, Do Bigha Zamin, Ganga Jamuna and Teesri Kasam. Most of the today&’s films revolve round the lives of people belonging to the upper crust of our urban life — people who speak a mixture of Hindi and English, eat pizzas and burgers and talk of mega corporate projects. In such films, folk-based songs would be as incongruous as the proverbial bull in a china shop.

However, once in a while we do get tohear songs based on folk tunes. For instance, some tunes of AR Rahman for Lagaan, like O, mitwa, o mitwa… had a sweet echo of folk music. Similarly, there were some songs in Omkara that had the whiff of folk tunes. Peepli (Live) too had some folk tunes. If more films based on the lives of rural people are made, music directors will definitely get opportunities to compose folk-based tunes.