Tribute

52 years, 5,000 songs: With musician Kersi Lord’s death, we have lost a vital part of film history

The percussionist, accordionist and arranger worked with every composer of note from the 1940s to the ’90s.

Sometime in the midst of the swinging sixties, the great Naushad Ali realised the urgent need to re-invent himself. The astute music director, famed for his classical scores, knew what he needed to do: hire a new arranger, someone who could give a more contemporary feel to his melodies. Luckily for him, he didn’t have to look too far.

The young man Naushad turned to was a Parsi named Kersi Lord. Naushad had first noticed Kersi when, as a child, the latter would accompany his father Cawas Lord – an ex-jazz drummer who became one of the most respected percussionists in the film line – to the recording studios. After recordings, Naushad would often send the boy in his car to the nearest railway station so that he could reach school on time. Even 50 years later, Kersi would recall this gesture with fondness – as also the name of the driver, the car’s make and number!

A young Kersi Lord.
A young Kersi Lord.

Kersi literally grew up in the studios. Among his mentors was the legendary arranger Anthony Gonsalves, a tough taskmaster. “I have often cried on his sets. He would write difficult parts and if you could not play, he would sarcastically say, ‘Can’t play, huh? Don’t practice, go and watch movies!’ That forced me to practice, na.”

All those hours of practice stood him in good stead. Kersi started off as a percussionist, playing a whole range of smaller Latin percussion instruments (many of them introduced by his father). Gradually, he started playing bongos and congas in recordings, and later a series of mallet instruments – the vibraphone, the xylophone and the glockenspiel. (The glock is used to great effect in the famous lighter tune that occurs as an aural leitmotif in Hum Dono). And if it wasn’t enough that he played a series of percussion instruments with a certain level of dexterity, he was an ace accordionist to boot.

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A sequence from Rudradeep Bhattacharjee’s documentary ‘The Human Factor’.

But it was one thing to be a first-rate instrumentalist. Could he also be a capable arranger to the formidable Naushad Ali? In an attempt to first assess the competence of the untested young man, he surprised Kersi by casually asking him to do the background score for a scene in Ram Aur Shyam (1967). The result seems to have pleased Naushad because Kersi was promptly hired to do his next film. Saathi (1968) stands out musically as a radical departure from Naushad’s earlier (substantial) oeuvre. In the film’s most famous song (see playlist below), Kersi channels his fondness for Carnatic percussion, especially the work of the great mridangam player Palghat Mani Iyer, to elevate what is essentially a very simple central melody.

Kersi’s career as an arranger, however, was short-lived. He had always asked for a separate credit line, something not always forthcoming. (Arrangers were conventionally credited as Music Assistants and their names clubbed with assistants from other departments). And when he did not get credited for arranging the background score for Kamal Amrohi’s epic Pakeezah (1972), he decided to work only as an instrumentalist. But not before giving us at least two more great tracks. The bluesy Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho is a classic and no case needs to be made for it. Not as well known is the scorching instrumental theme from Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma (1974). The track, which has been sampled a few times, is credited to composers Kalyanji-Anandji, but it was in fact composed, arranged and conducted by Kersi Lord.

Kersi Lord with RD Burman.
Kersi Lord with RD Burman.

While Kersi worked with almost every composer of any significance from the late ‘40s to the ‘90s, it was his work as an instrumentalist with RD Burman that has been often highlighted. Kersi was a critical cog in the Burman hit machine, someone who could be always called upon to go the extra mile to get the right sound. It was also Burman who got Kersi to make a comeback as an arranger for the background score of Shalimar (1978). Krishna Shah, the producer-director of the film, which boasted of international stars like Rex Harrison and John Saxon, was delighted with the eventual result and considered it at par with any international score.

In March 1968, Columbia Masterworks Records released an album titled Switched-On Bach by Walter Carlos (who later underwent a gender reassignment surgery to become Wendy Carlos). The album became a bestseller and played a massive role around the world in popularising “electronically rendered music in general, and the Moog synthesizer in particular.” Kersi Lord was one of those who was bowled over by the sounds of the Moog synthesizer. And when a more portable version of the instrument came out a few years later, he got himself one. While electronic keyboards of some sort had been in sporadic use since the early fifties in Hindi film music, the late seventies saw a quantum shift in their use. And Kersi was at the vanguard of this.

By the 1990s, the synthesizers had begun to replace the orchestra. He was often asked if he held himself responsible for what happened. His answer: “When I started using programming, it was only to improve the sound, to augment it. I never thought it could replace real instruments.”

Kersi Lord retired in 2000, still very much at the top of his game. In 2005, he was approached by filmmaker Chris Smith and composers Didier Laplae and Joe Wong to arrange the background music for an independent American production. The Pool – shot in Goa and featuring a brilliant performance by Nana Patekar – went on to win an Audience Award at the Sundance film festival. Its beautiful but understated music was recorded with live musicians playing under Kersi’s baton one last time at Mumbai’s last analogue studio.

Kersi with brother Burjor, a retired percussionist.
Kersi with brother Burjor, a retired percussionist.

Fifty two years. Upward of 5,000 songs. A staggering number of background scores. Unsurprisingly, Kersi would find himself inundated with queries about the making of some song or the other. Sometimes, in exasperation, he would claim to have “a delete button” in his head. “I would play something and then forget it. Otherwise you cannot do anything new. You cannot progress.”

The “delete button” was a survival tool in more ways than one. For someone who tasted heady professional success, he had also withstood a series of crushing personal blows. His first wife died only months into their marriage, after a seemingly harmless appendectomy went terribly wrong. A few years later, he lost his mother in a horrible road accident. And then, in 1990, his second wife Rose passed away, leaving Kersi in charge of three young daughters.

But that part of him always remained well hidden. What the world saw was an argumentative but genial old Parsi, sharing bawdy SMS jokes and guffawing at every opportunity. The only time he came close to breaking down was when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at a major music award function in 2009. As he walked on to the stage, everyone in the audience stood up to clap. For someone who had spent his entire life in the background, this was probably the ultimate validation of his work.

Talking about delete buttons, one should not forget that with the passing away of Kersi Lord we have, in one fall swoop, lost a remarkable and substantial chunk of our film history. Having started his career in the ’40s, he was our last link to that chain, the keeper of the flame. We couldn’t get in all our questions in time. In the end, that is what will always rankle. That it all came to an end so suddenly. That we couldn’t even say our goodbyes.

The essential Kersi Lord playlist:

Roop Tera Mastan (Aradhana, 1969) – accordion

Rut Jawan (Aakhri Khat, 1966) – accordion

Mera Pyar Bhi Tu Hai (Saathi, 1968) – arranger

Shalimar Opening Theme (Shalimar, 1978) – composer, arranger, conductor

Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho (Hanste Zakhm, 1973) - arranger

Dharmatma Sad Theme (Dharmatma, 1975) - composer, arranger, conductor

Kya Jaane (Toote Khilone, 1978) – vibraphone

Aane Kya Tune Kahi (Pyaasa, 1964) – Chinese temple blocks

Duniya Mein Logon Ko (Apan Desh, 1974) – electric organ

Main Zindagi Ka Saath (Hum Dono, 1965) – glockenspiel

Aaye Haaye Dilruba + dance competition (Dr. Vidya, 1962) – accordion + bongo

Pyar Mein Dil Pe (Mahaan, 1983) - synthesizer

Title Music (36 Chowringhee Lane, 1981) - conductor

Dil Lena Khel Hai (Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai, 1981) - synthesizer

Go the extra mile

Rudradeep Bhattacharjee is the director of the documentary The Human Factor, about orchestras in the Hindi film industry.

Correction and clarifications: This article has been re-edited to correct the number of songs Kersi Lord was involved in himself. While the Lord family recorded an estimated 15,000 tunes between them, Kersi Lord was probably associated with the creation of 5,000 songs.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.