The Arabic Origin Of An Iconic Song In Raj Kapoor’s Awara

In the series Carbon Copy, we give you trivia on the connecting dots between many countries’ music. This week, we look at how composers Shankar-Jaikishan lifted an Egyptian song for the 1951 classic
The Arabic Origin Of An Iconic Song In Raj Kapoor’s Awara

By the mid-1920s, Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (her name is also written as Om Kultum, Oum Kalsoum, Umm Kaltum or Um Kultum) was among the most sought-after singers in Egypt. One of the ways she learned music is through 78 rpm gramophone records that circulated all over Egypt in that time period.

Umm Kulthum made her acting debut in 1936, with the film Widad (also written as Wedad). Umm Kulthum plays the title role in Widad (her character is named Widad), a loyal concubine (slave) of a wealthy merchant Bahir. When Bahir goes bankrupt, Widad convinces her master to sell her to raise funds and get himself out of bankruptcy. She is sold to an older man who is very sick and she nurses him like a daughter. When he dies, she returns to her former master and, obviously, all's well that ends well. If the plot sounds bizarre and you are wondering why Widad simply didn't leave the second master and go her own way, remember it is from the mid-1930s.

The reason for this story is that when Widad returns to her master, her travel includes a journey in a boat. The boatman and the other passengers sing a song when she is traveling. The song goes, in line with the scene centered around Widad,

"Take me to the country of my beloved
My passion has increased and the separation is burning me
Oh my beloved, my heart is with you…"

The Arabic song was titled, 'Ala Baladi al Mahbub'. The film's music composer, Riyad al-Sunbati, had composed it as the boatman's song in the film. But Umm Kulthum liked it so much that when the film's recordings were released as 78 rpm records, Umm Kulthum sang the song herself.

Now, consider the English meaning of the following Hindi song…

"My wanderer has returned home from distant lands
Quenching the thirst of my eyes
You are my heart's pearl…"

Sounds like the Egyptian song written from another perspective, of that of the merchant, singing to Widad once she is back?

The song is, of course, 'Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi', part of the medley song (that starts with 'Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni' in Awara) composed by Shankar-Jaikishan in 1951.

The background music (the Oud-ish instrument, in particular) and the main melody itself is very similar to Umm Kulthum's 'Ala Baladi al Mahbub'. Shankar-Jaikishan significantly spruce up the original's speed, and the mandolin-ish musical phrase that replaces the one in the original. The speed of the tune is in line with Bollywoodising the original's Arabic melody that usually sounds complex and alien to Indian ears.

Sreenivas Paruchuri, one of the more active members of the usenet group (or RMIM) mentioned back in 1995 (when it was a usenet group, long before Google took over it and converted into Google Groups) that it was singer Suraiya who had lent Umm Kulthum's 78rpm record to Jaikishan. See how the Arabic song found its way into the Indian consciousness!

It is also ironic that Awara was a hugely successful film outside India, in the former Soviet Union, East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The film was dubbed in Persian, Turkish and Arabic, and was, in the context of this post, very successful in Egypt too!

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