Kishore Kumar’s songs of love, loss and hope

Maverick of many shades: Kishore Kumar
Ganesh Anantharaman 21 October 2021 16:38 IST
Updated: 21 October 2021 16:38 IST

Even 34 years after his death, Kishore Kumar’s voice captures the popular imagination like no other

His demise on October 13, 1987 was as sudden as his ascent to superstardom in 1969, the year he staged a melodious coup with the songs of Aradhana and emerged a formidable competitor to Mohammed Rafi. Overnight, Kishore, who had been ignored for long, became a favourite of an entire generation of music-lovers. For the next 18 years of his life and all 34 years since his death, Kishore has remained not just popular, but also the most emulated male playback voice.

What is it about Kishore’s voice or singing that contributes to his everlasting appeal? The question defies an easy answer. To millennials, it may never make sense that he had to wait 21 years to be considered good enough to sing for the top heroes of his time; that from 1948 to 1969, he sang playback only for himself in the movies he acted in, or intermittently for Dev Anand at the insistence of his mentor, S.D. Burman. Other top composers of the 1950s and 1960s — Naushad, O.P. Nayyar, Shankar -Jaikishan — rejected his voice as non-musical. Last week, October 13, was Kishore’s 34th death anniversary and a good way to remember him would be by delving deeper into the songs that are milestones in his musical trajectory.

As a composer and lyricist

We start with his own composition, ‘Aa chal ke tujhe’ from Door Gagan Ki Chaon Mein (1964), for which he also wrote the lyrics. The song talks of a world where only love reigns. Even today, the song beckons us, asking us to interrogate the choices we make and the price we sometimes pay in the process.


In Aradhana, his velvety vocals enhance Rajesh Khanna’s youthful charm while in the other Rajesh -starrer Khamoshi, his sublime rendition leaves us spellbound. What he brings to the Aradhana songs is a quality of buoyancy and audacity of first love, laced with desire. In sharp contrast, ‘Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi’ from Khamoshi puts us in touch with the precarious hope that love brings, where joy is never too far from the anxiety of loss. The song helps articulate feelings that we grapple with all too often, but find no words for.

Among the many hits that Bollywood’s most enduring musical partnership — the trio of S.D. Burman-Kishore Kumar-Dev Anand — produced, the one song where Kishore best captures the joie de vivre that permeated all Navketan films would be ‘Phoolon ke rang se’ in Prem Pujari (1970). S.D. with his emphasis on simple and hummable tunes, and Kishore with his penchant for infusing a layer of emotion beyond what the lyrics imply, together convert this song into an eternal tribute to the joy of making music. It is not without reason that even today there is virtually no mehfil of music-lovers where this song doesn’t feature.

By the time Gulzar’s Ghar (1978) hit the theatres, Kishore’s voice had surpassed the hero it was filmed on and stood on its own. That same year, he sang for many Amitabh Bachchan blockbusters, but it’s in the offbeat Phir wohi raat hain that he brings to bear all his musical sensitivity. Gulzar’s lyrics are an ode to hope amidst despair. R.D. Burman’s chords-based tune and Kishore’s compassionate rendering make it unforgettable, like many of the singer’s songs.

The Chennai-based writer is the author of Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song.

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