Tulsidas wrote Hanuman Chalisa, but do you know who composed its popular music?

Today is the full-moon day of Chaitra, the first month of the Hindu calendar. Today is Hanuman Jayanti, or the appearance day of Hanuman, as per the Skanda Purana and Ananda Ramayana. Hanuman is the quintessential character without whom the Ramayana is incomplete. He figures prominently in all major versions of Ramayana, starting from the original Ramayana by Valmiki, where he is described as the knower of the three Veda-s and the nine grammars, to the Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas, where he is remembered as the ‘kapishvara’ along with the ‘kavishvara’ Valmiki in the epic’s very fourth verse.

Apart from popularizing the Ramayana in the vernacular Awadhi, Tulsidas is also credited with popularizing the independent worship of Hanuman in northern parts of India. He is traditionally believed to be the founder of the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple in Varanasi and the author of the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’, the celebrated prayer to Hanuman.

The Hanuman Chalisa is written in Awadhi, a language spoken in central Uttar Pradesh by just around three percent of India’s population. And yet, its popularity in India transcends all conceivable boundaries of language and geography. In November 2015, I compiled a mix of forty different renditions of the Chalisa in one video. The performers in the compilation included native speakers of as many as 16 Indian languages and speakers of even Guyanese Creole, Ga/Akan, and English:

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While there are many musical renditions of the Chalisa, arguably the most popular one is by the late Hari Om Sharan (1932–2007), fondly known as ‘Dadaji’ to his fans. The ‘original’ rendition by Hari Om Sharan was released in 1974 as an LP recording on vinyl discs by The Gramophone Company of India Ltd (popularly known as HMV, which was later rebranded as Saregama).

This LP had only three songs — the Hanuman Chalisa, the Hanuman-Ashtak (also attributed to Tulsidas), and the Hanuman Aarti. For the Hanuman Chalisa track, the two introductory doha-s and all the forty chaupai-s were sung solo by Hari Om Sharan, while the concluding ‘doha’ was sung by Pradeep Chaterjee, Surinder Kohli, and Amber Kumar. These are the images of this legendary LP release:

Since 1974, this rendition by Hari Om Sharan has been played in millions of homes and thousands of temples from vinyl discs, audio cassettes, CDs, mp3s, and streaming websites. It became the target of countless imitations over the years. It made Hari Om Sharan a ‘rockstar’ wherever he went. I was told by his wife, the Guyana-born Ms Nandini Sharan, that during his tours to the Caribbean in the 1970s and 1980s, stadia would be filled with people of Indian descent cheering Hari Om Sharan and shouting “We want Hanuman Chalisa.”

In 2015, when I was working on the annotated and expanded English translation of the ‘Mahaviri’ commentary by Swami Rambhadracharya on the Hanuman Chalisa, I wanted to include an appendix on musical notation. Going by its popularity, I decided on the version by Hari Om Sharan for engraving using the Western staff notation. Since music as well as any form of graphical musical notation, whether recorded or not, are both copyrighted under the Indian Copyright Act, I had to take the permission of the copyright holder before I could include the notation in my book.

While searching for who owns the copyright, I realized that in addition to the countless imitation releases by street artistes, recordings with the same musical tunes (except for a few changes in a note or two here and there) as the 1974 Hari Om Sharan version were released by major record labels. As an example, although the music composer is credited differently, the music of the following three releases is almost entirely the same:

1) The ‘original’ Hari Om Sharan version: The 1974 LP by The Gramophone Company of India credits the music to Murli Manohar Swaroop, who composed the score for the abridged Ramcharitmanas sung by the Bollywood singer Mukesh. The version can be heard online here (track number 6).

2) The Hariharan version: The 1992 music video featuring Gulshan Kumar was released by Super Cassettes Industries Limited and credited Chander and Lalit Sen as the music composers. The official YouTube video of this version has had more than 37 million views as of today.

3) The ‘new’ Hari Om Sharan version: The 1995 audio CD release by Super Cassettes Industries Limited credited Hari Om Sharan himself as the music composer. Hari Om Sharan later also acted in a music video for the recording. The official YouTube video has had less than half a million views, but an unofficial YouTube upload has amassed more than 2 million views.

To complicate the matters further, I was told by Ms. Nandini Sharan that it was Hari Om Sharan himself who came up with the tunes for the 1974 release, while Murli Manohar Swaroop ‘arranged’ the music and got credited as the composer.

I contacted one of the record labels on the copyrights for the notation, explaining that I needed to include the notation in a book and needed their permission. The officials were reluctant to say anything on the record on the matter. I first got responses like “We have never seen such a request earlier” and “We do not have the notation, there is no practice of recording it”.

When I made further requests over several weeks, I was told off the record by the officials that most likely the tunes are traditional, and since several record labels have released recordings with the same music, they are themselves not sure who owns the copyright.

While it cannot be confirmed, it is likely that the 1974 Hari Om Sharan rendition was based on traditional tunes. I do not know much about Murli Manohar Swaroop’s influences, but Hari Om Sharan was inspired by folk music. Ms. Nandini Sharan once narrated to me that her Lahore-born late husband was separated from his family during the cross-border migration in 1947 and spent several years wandering as a vagabond in the Himalayas, learning music from bards and picking up tunes from folk musicians.

My search for the owner of the copyright had hit a dead end. I finally wrote the 12-page musical notation myself. stating that it was “based on traditional melodies which have been used in three popular renditions.” Rohit Sinha in Mumbai and Chandramouli Rotti in Gandhinagar were kind enough to proofread the notation and suggest some edits. The musical notation can be downloaded from here.

(Nityanand Misra is an IIM-Bangalore graduate who works in the investment banking industry. He has edited six books in Hindi and Sanskrit, and has authored the English book ‘Mahaviri: Hanuman-Chalisa Demystified’, which is an expanded and annotated translation of the Mahaviri commentary on the Hanuman Chalisa. The English version of the book is available here, and the original one in Hindi here.)

IIM Bangalore grad. Banking professional. Interests include Statistics, Finance, Linguistics, Literature, Indology, Sanskrit, Music, etc.

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