With its roots in Indian films of the 1950s and '60s, Indian film music is the sound of playback singers (something akin to voiceover artists) reinforcing pivotal scenes and revealing hidden emotions and future plot developments. The tradition is based in classical and folk performance wherein theater, dance and song coexist seamlessly, but for the last several decades, Bollywood soundtracks have also contributed heavily to India's pop music culture, spawning big stars and hit songs. Film music, in other words, is a vital part of daily life in India and a powerful vehicle for cultural expression. But especially in today's Bollywood, where composers and singers create music under intense time pressure, creating a flurry of pop tunes that come and go within a matter of weeks, Indian film music can be overwhelming. So we assembled this brief introduction to the vast, varied and exciting world of Bollywood, breaking down the industry's biggest stars and hottest composers in both the classic (1930s-1960s) and contemporary era in this handy-dandy extensive (yet still drop-in-the-bucket) annotated SoundTreks: Bollywood, A Playlist Guide.
Lata Mangeshkar. The grand diva of Bollywood, Mangeshkar has the most-recorded singing voice in history, providing the soundtrack for at least two generations of Indians. If you've heard any Bollywood music at all, you've likely heard Lata.
Asha Bhosle. And if you haven't heard Lata, you've likely heard her sister Asha Bhosle, a phenomenally versatile and successful singer in her own right. Bhosle has sung everything from light devotional songs to Hindi film hits to collaborations with Western pop musicians.
Geeta Dutt. This beloved playback singer held her own (as much as anyone could) against the unstoppable Lata Mangeshkar in the 1950s.
Kishore Kumar. A natural comedian who craved romantic leads and an actor who may have found his greatest success as a singer, Kishore Kumar is one of India's best-known voices. He performed an estimated 112 songs in S.D. Burman's films alone and had his songs banned for refusing to sing in a propaganda appearance for Indira Gandhi.
Mukesh. A singer renowned for his sweet, almost otherworldly timbre, Mukesh is one of the greats of the classic Bollywood period, getting his start in the late 1940s and establishing himself as the voice of actor Raj Kapoor until well into the 1970s. He became known as the "tragedy king" for his nuanced portrayal of heavy emotion.
Mohammed Rafi. A Punjabi singer with training in Hindustani classical music, Mohammed Rafi is estimated to have sung upwards of 26,000 songs.
Noor Jehan. Born in Punjab in 1926, the classically trained Noor Jehan became a singing star in the Bombay film industry in the 1940s, only to return to Pakistan after partition and stay there for decades (until her triumphant return to Bombay for a film celebration in 1982).
A.R. Rahman. A.R. Rahman has been a leading Bollywood composer since the 1990s, when his pan-culturalism revolutionized film music. He was also the chief composer for the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.
Kalyanji Anandji. These two universally respected brothers were top composers in the 1960s and '70s.
R.D. Burman. Though he trained under Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and later worked with his father, the film composer S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman was a product of the swinging '60s and his music reflected it, bringing a swinging rock 'n' roll spirit into Hindi films.
S.D. Burman. A very successful composer and father of composer R.D. Burman, S.D. Burman started out as a singer in Calcutta in the 1930s.
Anu Malik. A controversial figure and one of India's top film composers, Malik is also a judge on Indian Idol.
Salil Chowdhury. Chowdhury was a prodigiously talented Bengali composer who successfully made the leap to Bollywood in the 1950s. His ethics and his compositions remained deeply rooted in his experiences as a Bengali growing up under the often-oppressive British colonial rule.
Shankar Jaikishan. One of the great composing duos who rarely composed together in actuality Shankar Jaikishan set the standard for Indian film music in the 1950s and '60s and won awards well into the 1970s. The American film Darjeeling Limited used a good deal of their music.
The New Guard
Kavita Krishnamurthy. Krishnamurthy sang her first film song in 1971 (a duet with Lata Mangeshkar) but struggled to find fame until 1985's chart-busting "Tumse Milkar Na Jaane Kyon" (from Pyar Jhukta Nahin). R.D. Burman took a risk and made her the only female vocalist for the 1994 film 1942 - A Love Story and it paid off, winning them both multiple awards.
Sukhwinder Singh. An unassuming man with a torrential voice, Singh is acclaimed in India for work including A.R. Rahman's award-winning soundtrack to the 1998 film Dil Se. He's also known internationally for performing songs on Deepa Mehta's 1947 Earth and singing "Jai Ho" on the Slumdog soundtrack.
Alka Yagnik. This multiple Filmfare (Bollywood's Oscars) award-winner took up the throne from Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bohsle as they were starting to wind down in the 1980s, becoming one of India's leading playback singers.
Kumar Sanu. Kumar Sanu's voice dominated 1990s Bollywood, which is no surprise considering his numerous comparisons to Kishore Kumar.
K K. Born Krishnakumar Kunnath, K K got his start singing advertising jingles before becoming one of contemporary Bollywood's leading singers.
Alisha Chinai. One of India's top next-generation playback singers, Alisha Chinai also has a career as a pop recording artist.
Lucky Ali. This popster-turned-playback-singer (who thought about being an actor and is rumored to be a composer) is a bit of a Bollywood bad boy who won every award in 2000 for the song "Na Tum Jaano Na" from Kaho Na Pyar Hai.
Udit Narayan. One of the premier voices of new Bollywood, Narayan began his musical career singing folk music in Nepal. His Bollywood career took off with the award-winning "Papa Kehte" from 1988's Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.
Shreya Ghoshal. The astonishingly young Shreya Goshal is an up-and-coming talent who's enjoyed success for her singing in 2002's Devdas and 2003's Jism. She's also sung in Tamil, Telegu and Bengali films, and has even been known to compose on occasion.
Shaan. This cutie is a Filmfare award-winning playback singer and a TV host.
Atif Aslam. This Pakistani pop singer also has a healthy Bollywood playback career.
Sunidhi Chauhan. Credited with over 2000 songs (including three Filmfare award-winners), this leading contemporary singer has also sung in Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, Assamese and Gujarati films.