[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was his second heart attack, and he couldn’t survive it, Kishore Kumar’s fourth wife Leena Chandavarkar informed the Press after the legendary singer was no more. From his close friends, we came to know he was superstitious about the 39th, 49th, 59th, 69th… years of one’s life and believed he would die one of these years of his life before it ended. He indeed passed away in the 59th year of his life.
The audience of his songs for Hindi films, Kishore’s biggest claim to fame, perhaps did not get an inkling of the imminent sad news, but the baritone of Indian playback singing was dropping enough hints through the Bengali numbers rendered in his last few years. While the season of Durga Puja is an occasion to rejoice for Bengalis, when the electronic and print media alike come up with sharodiya (autumn) specials, the cassettes of Kishore Kumar released throughout his 50s on this occasion were sad; some were clearly about death! From Ami nei (I am no more) to Ei amar shesh gaan (this is my last song), he sounded hurt and morose. The deep throat had gone deeper.
And depth — low frequency of the sound wave in the language of physics — is typical of the Bengali gharana (school of music), if there were one. This is what made his Tum bin jaaoon kahaan endear to the people while the version sung by the great Muhammad Rafi is almost forgotten. One may check out the difference again in Bane chahe dushman zamana hamara, a duet by the two. Compare the delivery of tha bachpan bada aashiqana hamara by Rafi to nahin aur koi thikana hamara by Kishore. The dominance of the untrained but gifted singer is all the more evident when after two stanzas by the mellifluous Lata Mangeshkar in Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa nahin, Kishore enters the fray with tum jo kah do to aaj ki raat chaand doobega nahin.
It’s kinda unfair, of course. It takes immense penance in music to be a Rafi, Lata, Asha Bhosle or Manna Dey. And here comes a God’s gift who does not give two hoots to training, and just mesmerises the audience with a unique timber, rare texture, modulation like an actor and variation like a mimic. This carefree attitude of Kishore did take a toll, though. The greats of Indian playback singing still recall his antics in and out of the studio and those on stage more than his ability to move the listener. They forget, whenever a character in a movie died, if he had lip-synced to Rafi as well as Kishore till he was alive, the score that played in the background when he died was a slow version of Kishore’s track. This was the best way to underline the pathos of the situation, the directors thought, no matter what the composers said about Kishore in interviews.
To be objective, Kishore wasn’t always so touching. In the most maudlin of his songs that he sang for Dev Anand — Dukhi man mere, sun mera kahna, for instance — he sounded sad enough, but fell short of sweeping you off your feet. It couldn’t be because he was just a 27-year-old in 1956 when Funtoosh was released. Men acquire a permanency in their voice in the late teens or early adulthood and do not lose it till their 60s. Trying to emulate KL Sahgal, Kishore had sounded much older in his debut song Marne ki duayen kyon mangoon in the 1949 film Ziddi. The lowering and raising of the pitch perhaps depended on his mood, given the temperamental personality he was. While he had matured enough during the shooting of Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire, Kishore’s Bidhir bandhon katbe tumi (you will defy your destiny) was no way as deep as Kishore was capable of making it. But baritone was precisely the reason the pioneer of parallel cinema in India had hired him for.
Maybe when a singer or an actor is told he is being taken for a certain feature in his performance, he gets too conscious of it to be delivered at the right moment. This was the second time such a thing had happened to Ray. He had earlier signed Amitabh Bachchan for the background commentary in Shatranj ke Khiladi. The voice of Big B we heard in that film was no way close to what it became in Shahenshah or Agnipath (which aren’t good cinema otherwise). It cannot be attributed to the better acoustic equipment of the late 1980s; he had sounded better in 1970s’ Kabhie Kabhie where he recited Sahir Ludhianvi and Muqaddar ka Sikandar where he delivered a long monologue without moving on the stage for a charity show, before lip-syncing to Kishore’s O saathi re, tere bina bhi kya jeena.
To a singer, especially one who can readily mimic, mood is primary. Then comes the music director who asks for a particular style of rendition. Much before he turned sullen in the last decade of his life, which must have turned him bass, Kalyanji-Anandji got Jeevan se bhari teri aankhen and Zindagi ka safar out of him in 1970. While RD Burman’s compositions produced the best range of the singer (as well as of Asha) — from a frolicking Yeh jawani hai diwani to a profound O majhi re — a rarely remembered Rajesh Roshan gave us the typical Kishore on numerous occasions from Kunwara Baap (1974) to Kabzaa (1988). And then Laxmikant Pyarelal brought out Is se pahle ke yaad tu aaye! Who else have you heard who sounds so deep in such high notes? Hemanta Kumar Mukhopadhyay or Hemant Kumar’s humming is believed to be the boldest, but he never hit such high a note while maintaining that low pitch.
But why is this tribute to Kishore Kumar so full of his ‘depth’? Because my all-time favourite singer left the world this day. At least on this day, I should not recall what everybody does: his yodelling, his prancing on stage or his tax evasion. Besides, I’d like to believe the worldly affairs were too contemptible for him to take a serious note of, and so he laughed it off. And left fans like me mourning to this day!
That Kishore’s date of birth was 4 August 1929 is something the media told me. The day he left us, 13 October 1987, is etched in the memory of my teens. I was glum during the recesses in school on the 14th. When the batch mates asked, I shared the sad news of the previous night. Not everybody followed radio or the tedious Doordarshan news bulletins in that era. “Oh!” was the exclamation I got from them in return, with no further poignant note.
That evening, however, was different. Coincidentally, the youth of the neighbourhood, elder to us by about a decade, had planned the screening of Aradhana featuring Kishore’s Mere sapnon ki rani that night in a park of the locality. In an entertainment-starved small town of south Bihar, where movie theatres were situated far away, such screenings were a big affair. A few thousand people from all over the place used to converge on these occasions. But it was a Wednesday — time for Doordarshan’s Bollywood music programme “Chitrahaar”.
The organisers, unlike my friends in the eleventh grade, not only knew of Kishore’s demise, they were wholly shaken by it. And they knew every song in the Chitrahaar of that evening would be a gem from their beloved singer. As though on a telepathic cue, cinema enthusiasts of Bokaro did not turn up at the venue at 8 PM, the scheduled time for Aradhana’s screening. With moist-laden eyes, they were all ears for the six odd songs their respective television sets delivered to them till 8:30. At the park, Aradhana began at 9. Mere sapnon ki rani happens early in that film. The Kishore-crazy section of the crowd dispersed after the song. They still halt all work on earth when the deepest hum reaches them from a distant loudspeaker.