Kishore Kumar was not just part of my adolescence, he was my adolescence. He was omnipresent. His songs would play on the radio at home, at the neighbour’s, or at the paan shop, at friendly gatherings, or sung by a rickshaw puller returning home. In the middle or lack of any activity, a Kishore song would seize your tongue and you would hum it aloud or silently, to yourself. The tongue became a Kishore Kumar archive.
Baba, with a limited and conservative taste in music, was unimpressed. He would say, “Kishore Kumar has ruined the taste and brains of the youth.” It confirmed Kishore was us: We broke old rules in the family. Kishore brought a new idiom in singing.
Our generation made a virtue of disobedience. Kishore echoed that disobedient spirit. We reaped the benefits of working parents who strived hard to make ends meet in the Nehruvian era. The stable household economy they created ensured their children the luxury of their moods. The mood for leisure entered middle class lives after two decades of postcolonial blues.
And so did the mood for Kishore Kumar. He had singularly become the voice that tapped the mood of my generation.
Mood defined the generation gap. Kishore was the singer of a generation’s mood. He was the singer of the Mood Generation.
Erik Ringmar distinguishes mood from emotions and feelings. He argues mood is not a mental attribute we possess but pass through, where we “find ourselves in”. We often passed through, or found ourselves in, the mood called Kishore Kumar. Ringmar also relates mood to “attunement” of instruments and voice. A rāga is defined as colour or passion. The “mood” of a rāga, in Hindustani or Western music, is embellished by individual performers. Mood defines the interpretation and atmosphere of a rāga.
This is precisely what Kishore, in the popular genre of Indian music, had an innate mastery at. He would smear the colour, the passion of his mood, so strongly that he would often outshine his cosigner and put his dominant stamp on a song. Javed Akhtar makes the point, “I say it hesitatingly, but will say it nevertheless… whenever Kishore Kumar sang with a male or female singer… your attention would be focused on Kishore. If there are two versions of a song, it is Kishore’s which clicked.”
In R.D. Burman’s ‘Tum Bin Jaun Kahan’ (Pyar Ka Mausam 1969), Kishore’s version scores over Mohammed Rafi, not in terms of melody, but mood. Kishore’s deeper vocal quality allows him to pour a good dose of angst in the song.
In R.D.’s ‘Mere Naina Sawan Bhadon’ (Mehbooba, 1976), Lata Mangeshkar’s steady rendering pales before Kishore’s, who brings in an emotional urgency into the song. The balance tilts again in Kishore’s favour in R.D.’s ‘Rim Jhim Gire Sawan’ (Manzil, 1979), where his gentle poise scores over Lata’s breezy and high-pitched version.
Kishore scored over Asha Bhonsle’s version in Madan Mohan’s ‘Dil Dil Se Milakar’ (Mem Sahib, 1956). Madan uncharacteristically copied an English song, ‘Isle of Capri’, where Kishore does a Frank Sinatra.
Again, in Shankar-Jaikishen’s ‘Zindagi Ek Safar’ (Andaz, 1971), Kishore yodelling and overall energy overtook Asha’s efforts. In R.D.’s ‘Mausam Pyar Ka’ (Sitamgarh, 1985), Kishore’s intonations dictate the mood. But Asha matches Kishore in R.D.’s ‘Kitne Bhi Tu Karle Sitam’ (Sanam Teri Kasam, 1982) in her ‘version’, sprinkling the song with fine coquettish charm.
In S.D. Burman’s ‘Khilte Hain Gul Yahan’ (Sharmeelee, 1971), Kishore would go full throated on the opening lines of the stanza, dip his voice on the third line and give the words an emotive effect. Lata’s version lacks these manoeuvres, though she may have rendered the Bhimpalasi rāga a touch more perfectly. Kishore sang with his usual elan in RD’s ‘Hume Tumse Pyar Kitna’, from Chetan Anand’s Kudrat (1981), written by Majrooh Sultanpuri. Parveen Sulltana’s version of the song, took the Bhairavi rāga to an epitome of skill and grace. It won her the Filmfare Award in 1982.
Kishore lacked musical training. This enabled him to experiment with the art of singing as a freewheeling spirit. It helped Kishore learn that the secret grammar of film music was to improvise and emote according to the mood of the song. Kishore was not the perfect singer for the purist, but he earned the highest respect from his trained contemporaries.
For both, Asha and Lata, Kishore was their favourite singer. It might partly mean Kishore’s entertaining quality, but he was also challenging. He would often dictate the ambiance of a song, using various techniques. Sometimes he would sing in whispers. You can trace the emotion of angst, or romance, through his voice. That is how he would create the mood of the song, and dictate its ambiance.
For a flavour of Kishore-Asha duets, there’s S.D’s ‘Wo Dekhe To Unki Inayat’ (Funtoosh, 1956) and ‘O Nigahe Mastana’ (Paying Guest, 1957), and Ravi’s ‘Ye Raatein Ye Mausam’ (Dilli Ka Thug, 1958). The later duets include: R.D.’s ‘Hum Tum Gum Sum’ (Humshakal, 1974), R.D’s ‘Aap Sa Koi Haseen’ (Chandi Sona, 1977), Rajesh Roshan’s ‘Suniye Kahiye’(Baaton Baaton Mein, 1979), forgotten beauties like R.D.’s ‘Kabhi Kabhi Sapna Lagta Hai’, (Gulzar’s Ratnadeep (1979), and the exquisite ‘Bahon Ke Ghere Mein’ by the obscure Hemant Bhosle (Nazrana Pyar Ka, 1980).
And rescued from oblivion: in fond memory of Radio Kathmandu that featured it frequently in its Hindi film song programme between 10.15-10.45 pm every night in medium wave: Bappi Lahiri’s ‘Roshan Roshan’ (Hum Rahe Na Hum, 1984), by Kaifi Azmi.
For a small bouquet of Kishore-Lata duets, we have: Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s ‘Dil Ki Baatein’ (Roop Tera Mastana, 1972), RD’s ‘Bohot Door Mujhe’ (Heera Panna, 1973), RD’s ‘Is Mod Se’ (Aandhi, 1973), Bhupen Hazarika’s ‘Naino Mein Darpan Hai’ (Aarop, 1974), Rajesh Roshan’s ‘Chal Kahin Door’(Doosra Aadmi, 1977) where Rafi makes a memorably special appearance, Khayyam’s ‘Hazar Rahein’ (Thodisi Bewafai, 1980), again Khayyam’s ‘Chandni Raat Mein’ (Dil-e-Nadan, 1982), and Lakshmi-Pyare’s ‘Sarakti Jaye’ (Deedar-e-Yaar , 1982), written by Ameer Minai (1829-1900).
During R.D.’s ‘Ek Chatur Naar’ (Rajendra Krishan’s lyrics on a north-south musical duel having racist overtones) in Padosan (1968), Manna Dey candidly recounted, he wanted to “teach Kishore a lesson”, but realised, Kishore had “caught the spirit of the song. I was thinking in terms of singing, but Kishore… he got the situation.”
In his autobiography, Memories Come Alive, Manna acknowledged, Kishore “had a unique and unaffected style of singing which tended to eclipse the subtleties of classical music and place his singing partner … at a disadvantage”. He admitted Kishore had stolen the impact from him in Lakshmi-Pyare’s ‘Tu Mere Pyale Mein’ (Amir Gharib, 1974).
Manna’s larger point is: Kishore’s virtuoso lay in his improvisational techniques, and his grip on the mood of the song.
Salil Chowdhury was blunt. A music lover translating from a blog, Salil’s remarks in a Bengali film magazine in 1987, quotes him saying, “There is no doubt that Kishore possessed an exceptional voice. But voice alone is not everything. I have to say that if Kishore had classical training he would have been a different Kishore.”
Salil’s compositions for Bimal Roy’s classics in the era of socialist realism, his blending of Indian folk and western classical, and his subtle simplicity in scores like Anand (1971), Rajnigandha (1974) and Choti Si Baat (1976), are legendary. Salil gave Kishore two musically tough solos, ‘Koi Hota Jisko Apna’, from Gulzar’s first film, Mere Apne (1971), and ‘Guzar Jaye Din’ (Annadata, 1972).
But Salil missed the point about Kishore. Why should Kishore try and be another singer? Why should anyone be someone else? Salil contradicts himself when he explains, “Mukesh was my favourite… his octave range was limited, but he could sing with a mood and pathos that was unique.” Kishore had better range and variation than Mukesh, and his sense of mood and pathos were impeccable. The point is not that Kishore is better than the others. Lata, Rafi and Manna sang more intricate compositions. The point is how Kishore’s Midas touch cast a spell when he sang.
We must also remember Kishore’s fine contribution as a music director. He had sung a few great solos in his own composition, but the duet with Sulakshana Pandit, ‘Bekarar Dil’ from Door Ka Rahi (1971) will suffice. Kishore could also play the piano, even though he did not formally learn to play the instrument. He clearly loved being the untrained genius.
Salil’s question must be posed in reverse: How could Kishore, with his lack of training, match, and often better, the trained singers of his time? What did Kishore possess those singers lacked? It was, as I argue, a dedication towards mood-singing.
R.D., whose music had a moody, urban flavour, first recognised it. Kishore modulated his voice to exude a variety of intensities for occasions and personalities: Eros (Bappi Lahiri’s ‘Muskurata Hua’ (Lahu Ke Do Rang, 1997), flamboyance (L.P.’s ‘Main Aya Hoon’, Amir Gharib, 1974), acrimony (R.D.’s ‘Khafa Hoon’, Bemisal, 1982), pathos (S.D.’s ‘Badi Sooni Sooni Hai’, Mili, 1975), duʿāʾ/invocation (R.D.’s ‘Ae Khuda Har Faisla’, Abdullah, 1980), frolic (Salil’s ‘Chandni Raat Tum Ho Saath’, Half-Ticket, 1962), longing (R.D.’s ‘Jaane Kya Sochkar’, Kinara, 1977), hope (Rajesh Roshan’s ‘Kahan Tak Ye Man Ko’, Baton Baton Mein, 1979), the thoughtful truck driver (R.D.’s ‘Raah Pe Rehte Hain’, Namkeen, 1982), and the intimate postman, (L.P.’s ‘Dakiya Daak Laya’, written by Gulzar, Palkonb Ki Chaon Mein, 1977).
Kishore’s singing epitomised the mood of a generation that wanted to express itself confidently and freely. Like all generations, its dilemmas were paradoxical: newness and alienation, urban dreams and homelessness, love and despair. Kishore could have a cathartic effect on a group of listeners in a room. And yet, as R.D. said, “Kishore makes it sound as if he’s singing Chingaree for you, and you alone”.
Kishore was sometimes everyman, but often the lone man. Journalist Praveen Donthi emphatically believes, “Kishore saved lives”. It isn’t hyperbole. Kishore is therapeutic. Experiencing his songs is akin to transference, where the singer is a mediator of emotions. His songs were the beauty and sadness of adolescence and early adulthood.
The masculine self-fashioning in Kishore is also generational. It suffers from self-pity, indulges in pestering, and exhibits dollops of machismo. In its best moments, like in Rajesh Roshan’s ‘Main Akela Apni’ (Man Pasand, 1980), it exudes romantic charm and vulnerability. The paradoxes of urbanity will persist: The traveller in SD’s ‘Hum Hai Rahi Pyar Ke’ (Nau Do Gyarah, 1957), became the brooding urban doctor in RD’s ‘O Manjhi Re’ (Khushboo, 1975), looking for his roots in the water.
Note: After I finished writing this, I came across an article Kishore Kumar had written in the Filmfare magazine on January 4, 1957, titled, “Mood”. It had nothing to do with singing. In his characteristic style, Kishore derided how for actors and actresses mood “is a sacred word, used with effect by the highbrow votary of the histrionic art”.
With exasperation, he went on to define mood as “that nebulous thing… too ethereal for comprehensive definition”, and used the wonderful simile of “breeze”. It is ironical, the word that irritated him so much in relation to the industry, came to define his singing in decades to come.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet and the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018). He tweets at @manasharya.