Hum jab na honge to ro ro ke duniya dhoondegi mere nishan – so sang Kishore Kumar in the timeless number, Dil aaj shaayar hai, gham aaj naghma hai. Nothing could have been more prophetic. Even after 22 years of his untimely demise on October 13, 1987 at the age of 58, the legend of Kishore Kumar endures, with millions of his fans searching for him, rediscovering him in his magical numbers. His golden voice continues to haunt listeners – young and old alike – and will do so for all time to come. The legend who enthralled generations of listeners for over four decades will live forever in the hearts of millions. And we do not have to look far to unravel the secret of his undying appeal. His unique style of singing, matched by a voice – with its astounding clarity and mind-boggling range -- put him in a league of his own. He was uniquely different from his contemporaries, his predecessors, as well as his successors. From Marne ki duaen kyon mango (Ziddi, 1948, music-Khemchand Prakash) to Man kaare yaad woh din (Ankhri Badla, 1987, music-Sail Choudhury), his ability to modulate his voice to suit the personality of the hero he sang for and the ethos of the situation, made him truly great.
Born at Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh on August 4, 1929, Abhas Kumar Ganguly (Kishore’s original name) was an ardent admirer of the great KL Saigal, and young Kishore nurtured an ambition to follow in the footsteps of his idol. As a child, he had this unique capacity to mimic anything and everything, and was particularly fond of imitating Saigal. He would often sing Saigal’s songs at home, for which used to charge four annas a song from his father.
Even a singer of his calibre, who held sway as the most popular, versatile and prolific artiste in the music industry from the late 1960s till the late 1980s, did not have a smooth sailing in the early part of his career. He first entered the film industry as a singer-actor, and used to sing only for himself and the evergreen Dev Anand, who was a close friend. Kishore, in fact, had recorded his first song Marne ki duaen kyon mango for Dev Anand. Kishore always remembered the veteran composer, Khemchand Prakash’s contributions in moulding his singing career, and used to call him Guruji. After listening to Kishore sing for the first time, Khemchand Prakash realised his immense potential and told Ashok Kumar, Kishore’s elder brother: “Kishore is a jewel and he will dominate the music industry for a very long time.” Incidentally, several well-known music directors did not find Kishore’s voice appealing in the early 1950s and were quick to write him off – only to eat their words later.
Although Kishore rendered many of his unforgettable numbers such as Jivan ke safar mein rahi (Munimji, 1955), Dukhi maan mere (Shreeman Funtoosh, 1956), Ina Meena Dika (Aasha, 1957), Koi humdum na raha (Jhoomroo, 1961), Ek ladki bheegi bhagee si (Chalti Ka Naam Gadi, 1958), Hum maatwale naujawan (Shararat, 1959), Mere mehboob qayamat hogi (Mr X in Bombay, 1964), etc., in the 1950s and 1960s, he was yet to scale the dizzy heights of glory that awaited him. Md Rafi was the dominant singer during that period, with Mukesh a close second. Kishore’s golden days started with the release of the Dev Anand-starrer Guide in 1965, where he sang the unforgettable duet Gaata rahe mera dil with Lata Mangeshkar. Then came Aradhana (1969), featuring three timeless numbers of Kishore – Mere sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu, Roop tera mastana, and Kora kagaz tha ye maan mera (with Lata). This proved to be a raging hit, which took the country by storm. There was no looking back for Kishore since then, and he reigned supreme as the most popular singer of the Hindi film industry till his death. The music director who can take much of the credit for Kishore reaching the top is Sachin Dev Buman, who composed the music for both Guide and Aradhana. Incidentally, Aradhana also gave the film industry its first superstar, Rajesh Khanna. The Kishore Kumar-Rajesh Khanna combination worked miracles and it was almost impossible to see them as separate identities. This became the most popular singer-actor duo and together they gave innumerable hits like Yeh sham mastani (Kati Patang, 1970), Zindegi ek safar hai suhana (Andaz, 1971), Chingari koi bhadke (Amar Prem, 1971), Zindegi ka safar (Safar, 1971), Mere dil mein aaj kya hai (Daag, 1972), Aap ke anurodh pe (Anurodh, 1976), Mere naina sawan bhadon (Mehbooba, 1976), Humen tumse pyar kitna (Kudrat, 1980), Humen aur jeene ki chahat na hoti (Agar Tum Na Hote, 1983), etc.
In his illustrious career spanning over four decades, Kishore Kumar worked with almost all the music directors – big and small – in the industry. He worked with stalwarts like Khemchand Prakash, SD Burman, Salil Chaudhury, Husanlal Bhagatram, OP Nayyar, Shankar Jaikishan, Madan Mohan, Ravi, Roshan, Jaidev, RD Burman, Kalayanji Anandji, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Rajesh Roshan and Bappi Lahiri. He rendered a majority of his enduring numbers under SD Burman, RD Burman, Shankar Jaikishan, Kalyanji Anandji, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Rajesh Roshan and Bappi Lahiri. Kishore was always unstinting in crediting his popularity to the Burmans – father SD and son RD. The Kishore Kumar-SD Burman-Dev Anand combination gave some of the most memorable songs to the film industry. The list includes Mana janab ne pukara nahi (Paying Guest, 1957), Jeevan ke safar mein rahi (Munimji, 1955), Ye dil na hota bechara (Jewel Thief, 1967), Phoolon ke rang se (Prem Pujari, 1970), Phoolon ka taron ka (Hare Rama Hare Krishna, 1970), Pal bhar ke liya koi humein pyaar kar le (Johnny Mera Naam, 1970), etc. Kishore’s voice remained perennially young, and remained the most sought-after for every hero from the 1970s to the 1980s – from Dev Anand, Dharmendra and Shashi Kapoor to Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor to Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol and Govinda.
As a singer, Kishore Kumar easily stood apart from the rest – both his contemporaries, as well as those who came later. His mellifluous and powerful voice set a style which was probably the most expressive in Hindi playback singing. Kishore Valicha, while paying tribute to Kishore Kumar in his biography of the singer, writes: “Kishore Kumar went beyond those who had preceded him, for he cultivated a style that was possibly the most expressive seen or heard in this country. He produced an integration of words, the melody, the tune, the rhymes with his voice – an integration so flawless, so exquisite and so uncommon that it appeared to be something of a phenomenon. Kishore Kumar marked the end of an era of great film music.”
Some unkind critics try to dismiss Kishore Kumar’s greatness on the plea that he did not know the ABC of classical music. But then, Kishore was a genius so exceptionally gifted, that he did not really require classical training. Asha Bhonsle says: “Kishore Kumar was an impossible exception, truly God-gifted. He was one such singer who was taught by God Himself and the lack of classical training never came in the way of his singing. He also had the tremendous capacity to improvise at the time of recording, and I was always afraid to sing with him as he used to catch me off-guard…Just as there can be only one Lata Mangeshkar, there can only be one Kishore Kumar.” Agrees Lata Mangeshkar: “A genius, Kishore Kumar could sing songs with such spontaneity and effortlessness, which we, the trained singers, sometimes found difficult to sing.” Music director, late RD Burman once remarked: “He would hear Pandit Bhimsen Joshi sing and at once catch the tune. Then he would hum it a couple of times and by evening, he could be doing a perfect replay.”
Kishore Kumar was a multi-faceted genius. He was a successful actor, director, music director, producer, lyricist and script-writer. In the 1950s and 1960s, he acted in about 66 Hindi films, mostly comedies, some of which met with great box-office success. New Delhi (1956), Aasha (1957), Chalti Ka Naam Gadi (1958), Jhoomroo (1961), Half Ticket (1962), Shreeman Funtoosh (1956), Padosan (1968), etc., are some of his blockbusters. He gave a fresh lease of life to comedy in Hindi films, turning comic acting into an evolved art, which was earlier used as a filler or diversion from the main plot to provide comic relief to the spectators.