Kishore Kumar’s songs brim over with an energy and freshness that is hard to imitate. It’s the great singer’s 25th death anniversary
In a recent interview Lata Mangeshkar pointed out the virility in Kishore’s voice as a distinctive factor in his singing. I have been an ardent Kishore fan since childhood and I remember that’s the first thing that struck me though the word that jumped to my mind at that age was ‘manly’. Out of fierce, puerile loyalty I even felt Rafi’s voice didn’t measure up. That impression changed swiftly as I realised that you don’t have to dislike one to like the other. I can explain why I admire a particular actor or cricketer more than the others but can never pinpoint why I like Kishore more than Rafi. It’s just that I prefer Kishore.
Singers are mortal. Their songs eternal. It’s 25 years since Kishore passed away, ironically on his elder brother, Ashok Kumar’s birthday, but there’s not a moment when someone, somewhere is not listening to his voice. He was a force of nature. Like every impressionable youngster he started out by trying to mimic his idol, the great K.L. Saigal (“Marneki dhuaen kyun mangun”). The redoubtable Salil Choudary refused to even try his voice simply because he was classically untrained. He lamented this in the later years. “Full credit to S.D. Burman for spotting the spark. I had totally underestimated his abilities,” confessed Salil later. It was to be a couple of decades later when Kishore sang the ‘Mere Apne’ number ‘Koi Hota Jisko Apna’ that Salil realised the depth and dimension in his voice.
It was S.D. Burman who nurtured and made him realise his true potential. Ashok Kumar, more a father figure because of the vast age difference, wanted Kishore to face the camera simply because it was more lucrative than playback singing, but Kishore was a reluctant actor. Ironically, I feel its Kishore’s stint as an actor that helped him ‘feel’ songs. Initially dismissed as a mere yoddler, S.D. Burman with songs like ‘Dhuki man mere’ in ‘Funtoosh’ established Kishore’s virtuosity, eventually proving the singer could bring out pain, pleasure and pure fun in his rendering with effortless ease. Burmanda also quietly made him the voice of the reigning romantic star, Dev Anand.
Kishore was classically untrained but his tonal strength was impeccable. He did sing a few semi-classical numbers which topped the charts beating the same numbers sung by female counterparts. The classic examples are ‘Mere Naina Sawan Bhadon’ and ‘Hume Tumse Pyar Kitna’. R.D. Burman had an interesting anecdote to narrate about the former in a recording. R.D. told Kishore that he had to sing a song based on the raga Shivaranjani and Lata would also render the same. With a mischievous gleam in his eyes, Kishore confessed he had no clue about the raga but insisted RD record Lata’s version first. He listened to the recording for a few days, arrived at the studio and sang his version. It was simple, yet stunning, traversing the octaves effortlessly. His version topped the charts. He injected energy into numbers like ‘Eena Meena Deeka, however, the soothing tone he used for numbers like ‘Ye Jeevan Hai’, ‘Hum Bewafa’ and ‘Suniye, Kahiye’. There were no unnecessary embellishments unless the song demanded it. The closest anyone has got to Kishore in tonal strength, I think is Hariharan. , but listen to him singing ‘o hansini’(Dil Vil Pyar Vyar) and you’ll realize what I’m talking about. Singers have succeeded in imitating other top notch musicians, but it’s when someone tries to render a Kishore Kumar number that you realize his uniqueness. Kishore was multi-faceted. He wrote, composed, sang, acted and even directed a few films. After he gently nudged Rafi from the top spot he was the chosen voice for superstars be it Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna or Amitabh. Star thrones were usurped, but the singing voice remained the same. If the Burmans brought out the best in him, he also sang achingly beautiful numbers for Laxmikanth Pyarelal, Kalyanji Anandji, Rajesh Roshan and even Bappi Lahiri. There’s a timelessness to his voice that makes it attractive even to today’s youngsters.
R.D. Burman in one of his interviews compares Kishore to the maverick tennis star, John Mc Enroe. “Like Mc Enroe he was immensely talented with a virtuoso touch. He would always add a unique touch to enrich the music director’s work,” said RD about his favourite singer. Well a lot has been written about their eccentricities, but with geniuses you always accept the sublime and the ridiculous. If you want to enjoy the former you have to endure the latter. Kishore died prematurely. His loss was irreparable to his music directors and innumerable fans. He died at a time when music was turning into noise. Had he lived on, he’d have made the noise bearable.