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Kishore Kumar: A Versatile Maverick

Kishore Kumar is synonymous to India’s Golden Age of music. Decades after his demise, his tunes continue to haunt the ordinary music lover, who is swayed by the rhythms created by this artist par excellence, writes Sharad Dutt.

The legendary artist Kundan Lal Saigal belonged to the first generation of singers. Saigal had the largest fan following across the country and one such ardent fan was a young lad in Khandwa, a small town of Madhya Pradesh. He would buy Saigal's records and started singing Saigal songs at the tender age of five. He was none other than the irrepressible Kishore Kumar.


Abhas Kumar Ganguly was born on August 4, 1929, to Kunj Lal Ganguly and Gauri Devi. Youngest among his siblings – Ashok Kumar, Sati Devi and Anup Kumar – his name Abhas was changed to Kishore Kumar at the advice of an astrologer. In the words of Ashok Kumar, "As a child, Kishore's voice was shrill. At the age of ten, came a turning point. Once, when his mother was chopping vegetables, he rushed into the kitchen and hurt his foot resulting in a finger falling apart. Kishore suffered immensely and would cry the whole day and night for a month. It was a blessing in disguise as the constant crying metamorphosed his shrill voice and it became melodious. I myself joined Bombay Talkies as an actor-singer. Whenever I came to Khandwa, he would sing Saigal songs at my request. He charged others four annas but surprisingly he charged me one anna for my songs." Kishore's love for singing affected his studies. After passing his Intermediate, he left for Bombay to meet his hero KL Saigal, but Saigal passed away on January 18, 1947.

Ashok Kumar set up Filmistan with his brother-in-law Sashdhar Mukherjee and Rai Bahadur Chunni Lal. In 1949, Bombay Talkies announced its film Ziddi starring Dev Anand and Kamini Kaushal. Ashok Kumar introduced his younger brother to Khemchand Prakash, the famous composer who was to compose for Ziddi. He liked Kishore's singing and recorded his solo song, Marne ki duayaien, picturised on Dev Anand in Saigal style. He also sang a duet with Lata, Ye kaun aaya re.
After Ziddi, Kishore struck a fine rapport with Dev Anand and often discussed with him the sequence and mannerism of onscreen performance. But it was truly SD Burman who made Kishore Kumar Dev Anand's voice. SD Burman overheard Kishore singing and impressed by his open-throated voice he signed him for Baazi (1951), Mere labon pe dekho. Later in Munimji (1955), with solo, Jeevan ke safar mein rahi, Kishore proved his mettle.
In the early fifties, Kishore developed his craft with variety and depth. He also mastered yodelling after listening to Jimmy Rogers. Later, it became his signature. Ashok Kumar always coaxed him to take to acting but Kishore was hesitant. His argument was, "Acting is not real but singing comes from the heart." He acted in Mukaddar in 1950 and Phani Majumdar signed him for Andolan in 1951. Both Majumdar and Ashok Kumar were pleased with Kishore's performance. Reluctantly, Kishore Kumar did some more films. Thereafter, he was signed by some south Indian producers. Songs of these films, kismat ki baat malik ke haath, Ina Mina Dika and Gana na aaya bajana na aaya became chartbusters.
Kishore had arrived, well received by the audience. In Indian films, comedy is rather viewed as a filler or relief from the main plot. Kishore Kumar made comedy his USP, becoming the first complete comic hero. All his unconventional acts of dancing, playing pranks and style of laughing became his forte. Even in the movies where he was the second lead, he added a spark. Padosan was one such sterling example!
Kishore was the first Indian comic hero who added a new dimension to comedy. No wonder, Kishore was a great admirer of Charlie Chaplin and Chaim Topol and their impact could be amply seen in his acting. He had worked with all the major directors of his time ranging from Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Phani Majumdar, Satyan Bose, Shakti Samantha to HS Ravel, and celebrated several hits. He sang under the baton of Anil Biswas, C Ramchandra, Shankar Jaikishan, OP Nayyar, Madan Mohan, Hemant Kumar, and also worked with next generation composers like Kalyanji Anandji, Laxmikant Pyarelal, RD Burman and Rajesh Roshan.


Kishore also aspired to make films of his own choice and became a producer with the Bangla superhit film, Luko Churi (1958). His most memorable Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi became India's cult comedy film with all the three brothers acting together for the first time. Kishore caricatured his own uncle in the film Padosan and produced Jhumroo in 1961, turning a composer with this film also penning two lyrics. The music was great and its songs, Thandhi hawa, Jhum jhum Jhumroo and Koi humdum na raha remain evergreen.
Through Kishore's first wife Ruma, Satyajit Ray's niece, he got to know Ray closely. While shooting Pather Panchali Ray ran short of funds and Kishore lent him five thousand rupees. When asked to playback for a song in Charulata and later for four songs in Ghaire Baire, Kishore declined any fee with a precondition that the songs would be recorded in Bombay. Ray conceded.
Kishore saw Pather Panchali much later and it inspired him to direct a film. With Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein he slipped into the director's chair. Though the film received a lukewarm response initially, it gradually picked up to houseful shows, and ran for twenty-three weeks. Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein was his last film as a director that was released posthumously in 1989.
Cinema was changing very fast. His demand as an actor was diminishing, so he returned to his first love, singing. So far, Kishore was giving his own playback and for Dev Anand. But with Kala Pani, in 1958, Burman da switched over to Mohammad Rafi as playback for Dev Anand. All the same, Kishore was back in Guide and sang only one duet, Gaata rahe mera dil, with Lata.
It is quite interesting to note that in his forty-year career as an actor-singer, in twenty years he sang nearly 300 songs, and in the next twenty years till his death he sang nearly 2,600 songs. Kishore worked with various composers and sang unforgettable solos and duets among which Wo meri taraf in Kafila was with the first composer-duo Husanlal Bhagat Ram; Mere dukh sach ka sansar and Aa mohabbat ki basti basayeinge with Lata; Chhota sa ghar in film Naukari; Dil dil se milaker dekho in Memsaheb; Nakhre wali in New Delhi; Meri neendon mein tum with Shamshad Begum; CAT, cat maine billi in Dilli Ka Thug; and Mere mehboob qayamat hogi in Mr X are deeply memorable.
The year 1969 was a watershed in the history of Indian film music, as Kishore took over from Mohammad Rafi when Rajesh Khanna became the superstar of Bollywood. Kishore became Rajesh Khanna's voice with Aradhana. Songs like Mere sapno ki rani, Roop tera mastana, and Kora kagaz with Lata were chartbusters. Kishore sang for every star of those days as the first choice of every music director. The RD Burman, Rajesh Khanna and Kishore Kumar trio became a rage. Kishore did playback for Amitabh Bachchan later with My name is Anthony Gonsalves, Khaiye ke paan Banaraswala, Rimjhim girey sawan, Pag ghunghroo baandh, among others; for Dharmendra, Dream girl, Pal pal dil ke paas; for Sanjeev Kumar Meri bheegi bheegi si; for Shashi Kapoor O meri sharmilee, Tera mera hai sadiyon ka wada; for Jitendra, Musafir hoon yaaro and O maajhi re; for Rishi Kapoor, Sagar kinare, O meri hansini and Om Shanti Om were super hits.
Kishore was at his peak, recording relentlessly. Singing was his innate passion; music and Kishore were made for each other. Kishore acted in 102 films, 98 in Hindi and four in Bangla. He produced 14 films under his own banner, directed 12 films, and wrote 15 films but only nine of those were released.
Although an introvert, Kishore married four times and they all happened to be his leading ladies – Ruma Guha Thakurta, Madhubala, Yogita Bali and Leena Chandavarker. He had two sons, Amit Kumar and Sumit Kumar. Fond of eating and travelling, he was a loner, far removed from all vices – no smoking, no drinking and no socialising. In his leisure hours, he would write his own compositions, surrounded by life-size portraits of his icons, KL Saigal, Charlie Chaplin, Chaim Topol and Marlon Brando on the walls of his drawing room.
It was quite ironic that Kishore had a massive heart attack in the afternoon of October 13, 1987, the birthday of his brother Ashok Kumar. Kishore had requested his elder brother to come to his place in the evening. That evening became a sad evening as Kishore passed away at 5 pm and shocked the entire nation. As desired by him, his body was taken to his native place Khandwa, where he was cremated and a memorial was built at this site.
The winner of the Filmfare Award eight times over, seven times winner of Bengal Film Journalist Award, honoured by the Lion club fourteen times—in 1979, the EMI in Los Angles also presented Kishore a special Golden Disc for his outstanding contribution to music. With the demise of Kishore Kumar, the Golden Era of melodies may have come to an end, but his melodious voice would continue to resonate in his renditions.

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