The singing style of Kishore Kumar cannot be described in words. This is just an inadequate but sincere and humble tribute to his singing. The most distinguished character of his tonal quality was the depth of his voice, which kept increasing during his lifetime. This can be described in Bengali as ভরা গলা (a booming voice, to be close). Related to this is another important trait of his voice that can only be expressed in Bengali. শুধু ভরা নয়, অত্যন্ত “কড়া”! (not just booming but also strong; again a loose translation). কোন কণ্ঠ কিশোরের মতো “কড়া” হতে পারে না (there can be no voice stronger than Kishore Kumar’s). I have never listened to such a strong voice. (Probably the nearest translation would be a deep and beautifully crispy voice.) Perhaps he was absolutely aware of the quality of his voice and that assisted and showed in his application of it across a range of notes. For instance, his higher notes never thinned or became blunt or lost the crispy and resonant nature. In “कोई होता जिसको अपना”, he touched the shuddha gandhar (mi in Western classical) of taar saptak (third octave).
In “शीशे की उम्र” (Sheeshe ki umr), he stood for a while on shuddha gandhar of taar saptak and eventually hit its shuddha madhyam. In the popular Bengali track, “কি আশায় বাঁধি খেলাঘর” (Ki aashaay baandhi khelaaghar), he was found hitting the pancham of taar saptak with uncanny ease.
While singing high in these and many other songs, the depth of his voice was never compromised. On the contrary, he applied this depth and crispy quality for better projection and delivery in higher notes.
It is worth mentioning here that “शीशे की उम्र” was rendered after he had already suffered two heart attacks and was in his 50s. It was sheer unreal that he was regularly singing at such high notes in that period of his life without ever resorting to nasalisation or falsetto.
His singing can, therefore, be described as roaring unlike mooing or squeaking what is employed by modern-day singers. Besides, Kishore was a master of modulation. His soft voice was sharply distinct from his hard voice evident from and again brilliantly applied by the singing maestro in songs like “सा रे गा मा” (Sa re ga ma), “प्यार के इस खेल में” (Pyaar ke is khel men), “सपनों के शहर” (Sapnon ke shahar) and many more.
In the famous Rabindra Sangeet, “পুরানো সেই দিনের কথা” (Puraano sei diner kathaa), he softened his voice while performing “আয় আর একটিবার আয় রে সখা” (… aay aarekti baar aay re sakhaa) the first first time and instantly thereafter, when it came to repeating the line, he lent his hardened voice that suggested that while the former was a request, the latter was a demand. Modulation was his weapon that helped him impart his subtle interpretation to the song. He was a crafty singer.
Every time Kishore Kumar sang a song, others rendering the same song failed to match his singing and invariably it would be Kishore’s version that stayed more popular because, put in simple terms, he sang those songs far better than his counterparts. For instance, only a few souls would be aware of the fact that Parveen Sultana had sung “हमें तुम से प्यार कितना” (Hamen tumse pyaar kitnaa) albeit using nasalisation that rendered her version all the duller to ears. Kishore hit the higher notes in “मेरे नैना सावन भादों” (Mere nainaa saawan bhaado) distinctly better than Lata with her high-pitched soprano. Likewise, his “रिम-झिम गिरे सावन” (Rimjhim gire saawan) was far more soothing than Lata’s. “तुम बिन जाऊं कहाँ” (Tum bin jaaoon kahaan) was indubitably sung better by Kishore Kumar than the classic Rafi. Such sensational was his rendition that a Bengali track “এক দিন পাখি উড়ে” (Ek din paakhi ude) was eventually composed in the same tune and of course rendered by Kishore Kumar; the yodelling in the song is just spellbinding!
Although untrained, Kishore had an innate sense of technicalities. With his very unique vocal tone and perfect pitch, he always sounded breathtaking whatever song he lent his voice to. He was absolutely aware of his singing voice its style and volume and this helped him in hitting the right notes and matching the right pitch. His grasp of taal (rhythm) can be easily ascertained from his rendition of “বিধির বাঁধন কাটবে তুমি” (Bidhir baandhan katbe tumi), sung without the accompaniment of any musical instrument. Kishore’s murki (inverted mordent) is beautifully well blended. He applied it, as one out of many instances, in the other version of “आ चल के तुझे” (Aa chal ke tujhe) probably singing on stage. In the sthayis of “ओ मेरे दिल के चैन” (O mere dil ke chain) and “आने वाला पल, जाने वाला है” (Aane waalaa pal jaane waalaa hai), the clear murkis are a treat to the ears of music aficionados.
Besides, it goes without saying that nobody has yodelled as immaculately perfect as Kishore Kumar smoothest transition from chest/mixed voice to falsetto; yodelling by others were either partial or at times entirely falsetto.
What set him apart from other singers was his innate ability to live the emotions in a song, Be it romance, passion, pathos, hope, mourning (but never lamenting), condemning fate or unrequited love, Kishore Kumar had the capacity to literally bring them out with unparalleled excellence. They emerged straight from his heart and lodged for eternity in the hearts of the listeners. In the process, he eventually came to sing only for the masses. There was an element of typical Kishore-madness in his songs. Manna Dey, one of his heavyweight contemporaries, acknowledged Kishore’s astounding mad antics in the rendition of “एक चतुर नार”.
Manna Dey in an interview honestly admitted that he found it challenging to measure up to Kishore’s madly energetic performance. Little wonder that this ‘mad’ singer would sing both the male and female vocals in Salil Chowdhury’s composition, “आके सीधी लगी दिल पे” (Aake seedhi lagi dil pe) to fill in for Lata who was probably away and failed to turn up for the recording. Salil, during his initial days, had been hesitant in reposing his faith in Kishore, but destiny had already planned a different course. Salil would have Kishore sing “गुज़र जाए दिन” (Guzar jaaye din). He later felt only Kishore could do justice to the melody of the composition. Kishore’s dedication needs mentioning here; he took 18 takes to get it right. He had initially refused to sing this complicated semi-classical composition of the legendary music composer.
This is something very strange. He would at first refuse to sing a difficult, semi-classical composition but once he sang it, it would turn out to be a mind-blowing, indomitable performance. Even his own compositions were strikingly melancholic, bordering on the same semi-classical he used to dread. Who else than Kishore would do an ‘aisi-ki-taisi‘ of Shivranjani (in “मेरे नैना सावन भादों”)?
Kishore’s “रूप तेरा मस्ताना” that bagged him the Filmfare Award was sung in an intensely erotic voice. The Bengali version “এতো কাছে দুজনে” was rendered even more erotically by this wizard of a singer; perhaps the more sensuality-laden Bengali lyrics warranted such sublime intonation. Put simply, this is difficult singing and only Kishore Kumar could execute it in such fluent fashion. (I never liked listening to Kishore’s songs sung by latter-day singers. Abhijeet Bhattacharya, in this regard, is an exception. He sang them brilliantly well with an entirely different texture of voice and way better than others who attempted doing the same, some in their natural while others with dummy voices. Having said that, even the classically trained Abhijeet would, with all his heart, admit that his idol easily beats him almost always and at times by a notch or two, if not by a big margin.)
All his renditions of Rabindrasangeet were purely about delivery and modulations and the underlying bhava that he had easy and effortless access to. Kishore had a unique ability to live singing and songs to the fullest. He did not follow the established notations infusing his own style of singing into his performances. Only Kishore could pull them off in this fashion and render them eternally endearing to the listeners.
I usually do not approve of alterations in notations made by modern-day Rabindrasangeet singers in their renditions. I, therefore, prefer to follow Hemanta, George da, Shraboni Sen, Indrani Sen, Indranil Sen, Shrikanto Acharya and the like. But Tagore songs sung by Kishore Kumar sound ineffably captivating. The mysticism and devotion of the lyrics come into the fullest blossom in Kishore’s crispy deep voice. Nobody can repeat his way of singing them. To do so, one has to be equipped with that unique voice of his. If you don’t wish to follow standard notations, you will have to be a Kishore Kumar. And you can’t just become a Kishore Kumar. You are just born a Kishore Kumar. It is often said, “Kishore Kumar comes once in an era.” Wrong! He comes just once. My sincerest pranama to Kishore Kumar on his birth anniversary!
PS: I will repeat what I said a couple of years ago. I consider myself blessed to have been born the incapacity to go beyond Kishore’s singing. Kishore Kumar is transcendence, the highest god in the world of singing, invincible to time’s cruel, overwhelming onslaughts.