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Cawas Lord : The Story of the Lords of Music

It was the early 1930s, when Indians crafted their first-ever motion picture with a synchronised sound that marked the end of a long era of silent movies in the industry. The movie titled Alam Ara presented sequences that not only had actual voices but also introduced an ingredient that continues to run in the DNA of Indian movies to this date. 

Cawas Lord
Cawas Lord (Left)

Unlike the rest of the world, the music industry in India isn’t independent but flavouring on top of the servings of its film industry. It’s almost as if there exists a cultural norm of discovering new music solely from movies, which subsequently takes away the recognition from the creators at the back end of music production. While songs with background music and dance sequences became a staple in Indian movies, music directors and producers were continually overshadowed. One such family of luminaries who lent immeasurable contribution, right from the beginning of India’s first sound film, was the Parsi family of musicians – the Lords.

Indian Music old

The family’s patriarch, Cawas Lord, was a multi-instrumentalist from Pune who moved to the up-and-coming city of dreams – Bombay in late 1920s, in pursuit of music. As a ground-breaking percussionist, it took no time for Cawas to find himself a spot as a drummer and bagpiper in the touring party of British troops. After being back from the road, he joined the band of late Jazz musician Antonio Xavier Vaz (popularly known as Chic Chocolate) and was doing several gigs around Bombay in addition to being a regular at The Taj Mahal Hotel. It was here that Lord caught the eye of veteran music composer C. Ramchandra who routed him to the recording studios of the Indian film industry. However, in the late 1930s, Bombay had enacted an alcohol prohibition law, which led to the closing down of several bars and clubs around the city. In a struggle to earn his daily bread, Cawas joined the Hindi film industry full-time as a music arranger.

Until the 1970s, the nascent Indian music industry lacked the privilege of recording studios and as a result, artists used to record songs in an open space, sometimes even under a tree. Without a closed studio, and only a single microphone for an entire orchestra of musicians, it was a challenge for the music producer to pull out the right sounds.

However, the producer’s distress was Cawas’s area of expertise. A master of instruments, Cawas’s knowledge of arranging and managing an orchestra was pioneering for producers of the time. Not only was his presence ubiquitous in almost all songs recorded during the 1940s and 50s, he also brought with him a range of musical instruments like bongo, congo, cobache, castanet, reso-reso, and triangle, into the fabric of Indian music.

Cawas Lord and instruments
Image Credits : Swar Aalap

Busy in crafting timeless music for classics like Kati Patang and Parichay, Cawas’s musical trajectory was a direct influence on his children. Always listening to the contemporary music played around the house, Cawas’s older son Kersi started learning piano and drums from a young age and quickly became a specialist. Accompanying his father to work and home, it wasn’t long before Kersi’s talent and skill were discovered by his father’s colleague and veteran music composer Naushad Ali. Seeing the young Kersi play around with the instruments, Ali popped an opportunity for the boy to create a musical piece for a scene in the 1967 hit drama Ram Aur Shyam and the rest they say, is history. Kersi was instantly hired by Ali for his next musical venture – the 1968 film Saathi, which was regarded as a welcomed variation from the composer’s usual works and beginning of a long series of collaborations between the two musicians.

Cawas Lord and Kishore Kumar

While he followed his father’s footsteps to join the Indian film industry as a full-time arranger and instrumentalist, Kersi was innately an eccentric musician. Up until the late 1980s, the end credits of the movies never specifically recognised the efforts of arrangers and used to attribute their work under ‘musical assistants’. Kersi, however, emphasised on the contribution of arrangers and demanded a separate line of credits for their endeavours. The cherry on top was his demand for a title card for himself  – ‘Music Arranged and Conducted by Kersi Lord’, which the music producers gratefully gifted him. 

Before his death in the year 2016, almost every seasoned composer from the ‘40s to the late ‘90s had worked with Kersi at least once on a project and owed several of their musical innovations to the master instrumentalist. He is also regarded highly for introducing the first programmable keyboard into the film line, notably from the 1988 feature film Soorma Bhopali. Around the same, he imported instruments like glockenspiel, electric organs, MOOG synthesizers and promoted the use of electronic guitar gadgets including wah-wah pedal, phasers, LFOs, flangers, SFX units, tape echoes into Hindi songs which changed the face of Indian music. Despite retiring in the late 2000s, Kersi returned to the studios one last time, after accepting the proposal of filmmakers Chris Smith and composers Didier Laplae and Joe Wong, to arrange the background score for an independent American film The Pool.

Kersi’s younger brother Burjor (fondly called as Bujji) recollects the time when his brother had become a regular at recording studios. It was one such day when Bujji received a call from Kersi requesting him to fill in for a song since he was unwell. And from here began Bujji’s musical journey. Inheriting his father’s talent for percussion, Bujji played multiple instruments of all kinds including xylophones, vibraphone, bongos, castanets, maracas, tambourine, wood block and his favourite, the drums. 

His artistic style and knowledge landed him a permanent spot on the tour groups of many renowned singers including Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, C. Ramchandra. Some stories of his calibre go as far as audiences coming over to check his hands out of amazement over his incredible playing. Before retiring from the industry due to ‘film politics’, he’s estimated to have worked in over 18,000 songs. He currently lives in Gujarat and has no plans of returning to the industry. However, Bujji’s drumming prowess can still be heard on songs like Dum Maro Dum, Chura Liya Hai, Gulabi Aankhen and Raat Akeli Hai and many more. 

Alongside Kersi and Burjor, Cawas also had a daughter named Hilla. While little is known about Hilla’s career and subsequent life, Kersi described her as a talented pianist and a constant inspiration. 

The significance of the Lord family’s contribution to Indian cinema and music go farther than just composition and arrangements. Initiating the regular infusion of sounds from a variety of instruments into the then-nascent music industry, the trio transformed the face of Indian music. Their extensive additions to the development of the Indian music, which have largely been uncredited and under-noticed, were paid tribute by independent filmmaker Rudradeep Bhattacharjee in a 2013 documentary titled ‘The Human Factor’. The towering work of the Lord family is still held in high regards by many musicians of today and is a reminder that most of the magic often happens behind the screen.

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