The valuation of the devotional extends to Baiju Bawra, but the set of problems which it throws up are distinct. Let me first point to the fact that Baiju has the dubious distinction of his songs sung by two artists, Mohammad Rafi for the ‘non-classical’ items and Pandit D V Paluskar for his climactic performance in the court. One notes the wide difference in the swar and andaaz of the two artists. Nothing could better reveal the fragmented and paradoxical domain of classical music where questions of musical identity and value have to be continually reformulated and expressed through a host of distinctions and exceptions than the fact that Bharat Bhushan’s wildly popular songs in the film are written by Shakeel Badayuni, the music composed by Naushad, and sung by Rafi, whereas in the court scene there is an unmistakeable foregrounding of a conflict between Hindu and Muslim musical identities which is partially at least expressed in the choice of Paluskar for Baiju and Amir Khan for Tansen.
Musical histories are replete with dramatic anecdotes of musical encounters, legendary and historical. In such accounts too they serve an important ideological value. That many of them are wildly improbable is hardly the point. The encounter between Tansen and Baiju also postulates a distinction of styles, but the options are more tightly restricted than in the earlier example. Whereas the difference between Tuka and Salo’s singing constitutes the point of cinematic representation, Baiju and Tansen are joined in close formal relationship. Improbably enough, the form is khayal; but the decorum of khayal gayaki precludes any major difference in the structure and content of the music. Both demonstrate skill in the elements of khayal gayaki represented in the encounter, starting with a few iterations of the vilambit mukhda, but going on soon enough to a drut khayal in Desi. A brief sargam is followed by brilliantly executed taan patterns by both artists.
I would like to emphasize the fact that however purists may shudder at the thought of such anachronisms, the film generates an image of the classical that is wholly appropriate to the immediate cinematic context. Baiju and Tansen actually sing the same song in the manner of jugalbandi, and there is more than a suggestion of the sawaal-jawaab (question-answer) technique in the taan-palta portion (in fact when one hears the song on gramophone record that is the impression one gets, apart from mystifying clangs at the end). Even though Baiju is victorious at the end, the result is unsupported by the musical content of the episode. The triumph of Baiju is an integral part of the film’s narrative itself and therefore inevitable. Given the high standing of both artists in the music world, any violent or even obvious differentiation on the basis of musical worth would have been extremely difficult to make. In fact for many listeners Amir Khan’s singing is superior.
The visual markers are also understated, but we note how the shabby clothes of Baiju are contrasted with the fine robes of the court musician. Baiju is unshaven, wholly absorbed in his music, while Tansen has the regal bearing of the wealthy and successful artist. But Baiju unmistakably subsumes the force of the devotional, which is underscored by the prayer that prefaces his song.
The choice of Paluskar for Baiju here is clearly no accident: immensely popular as a khayal singer, he enjoyed an even larger following for his bhajans (devotional Hindu songs). Son and inheritor of the mantle of Vishnu Digambar, musical reformer and notable Hindu-izer of music, D V Paluskar (who actually learnt little directly from his father) brought to the performance arena in the early years of independence a distinct musical sound that proved to be highly influential. It is reported that Amir Khan chose him for the role of his victorious opponent because of “prasadik” voice. So even if the distinction of musical values is metatextual, residing in projection of distinct musical identities, the separation of musical values from those of narrative does not constitute any impediment to interpretation.
—Amlan Dasgupta Musical Contests: Reflections on Musical Values in Popular Film