Saturday, 3 November 2012

Following the path of a Genius- Exploring Kishore Kumar's Unfading Popularity

In the highly competitive arena of Hindi film music, to leave a mark of your own itself is such a huge task, leave apart becoming the Numero Uno. And to maintain the top position for years together is even tougher. With the industry studded with innumerable musical talents in the Golden Era of Film Music- from 50s to 70s- there had been a privileged few who, with the Good God’s Grace, were distinctly genius.  

Who can be called a Genius? Can we safely define him as a person who can perform a task to the perfection without ever learning the general and widely acknowledged process of performance and developing a new process of his own! So, if sending a cricket ball outside the boundary with a Willow Bat is a task, Sunil Gavaskar learnt the process of accomplishing that task traditionally by studying and practising, while Viv Richards developed a process of his own! And the path followed by the Genius is also very difficult to follow by others- resulting in limited number of genius and more number of traditional students, as a law of nature. Not that Sunny is lesser than Viv by any circumstances; we can still safely give the crown of a “Master” to the former and the crown of a “Genius” to the latter.
Never follow the path of a non-conformist- warn the traditionalists! You might mess it all up and end up at nowhere. And people to be on the safer side, follow that instruction also.
So, when Pandit Ajay Chakraborty of the Patiala gharana mentions in an interview that he was highly influenced by the singing style of Kishore Kumar and Manna De, you can't help getting stunned! As the latter can be safely called the Sunil Gavaskar or Rahul Dravid of Hindi playback singing, the former has always been a Viv Richards or Virendra Sehwag- people awed at him in appreciation sometimes and criticizing him outright some other times.
But the fact is what Ajay Chakraborty depicts indirectly- Kishore Kumar and his style of singing is present generation’s obsession. What do they follow about Kishore- a man who sang more than 3000 songs in a career of 40 years without having any formal musical training? What aspect of this amateur singer’s singing could have attracted people like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Ajay Chakraborty, Prince Rama Verma to Satyajit Ray, Lata Mangeshkar to an entire generation of young and aspiring singers? Even a trained Rabindrasangeet singer Suchitra Mitra, who had taken training under the Great Poet himself, sent a letter full of praises to this maverick singer after listening to his album of Rabindrasangeets?
National Award winning director Sandip Ray made a comprehensive documentory on Kishore Kumar
A mere mortal in front of such luminaries, the author as an ordinary music lover has tried to highlight 5 aspects of Kishore Kumar’s singing, which I think have been major factors of his eternal popularity both in mass and class:

1. Keep it simple:
Even when he sang a Bhairavi or Kalavati or Shivranjani, he “kept it simple”. Now, there is a difference between keeping things simple and keeping things straight. In terms of doing the second, you get flat at times. Kishore was not a flat singer, in fact his range in terms of hitting notes in different octaves, was as good as other top trained singers of those days and better than many.  But, he avoided unnecessary gimmicks in emoting a song and rather concentrated on getting into the pulse of the mood or situation and to portray the feelings clearly via the song. An example is his avoidance of sobbing in between lines while singing a sad song. Even Lata Mangeshkar had highlighted this feature of his singing when she wrote an obituary on Kishore in 1987. When sobbing was compulsory amongst male singers while singing sad songs, Kishore gave a deep, sad and dignified feel to sad song singing even in his earliest days of “Husn bhi hai udaas udaas”. Later on, that became the trend of sad song singing. Anyways, due to this simplistic approach of Kishore, people could connect with him better and this resulted in a big mass acceptance of the great singer.
2. Project your strength, hide your weakness:
It would be false to say that a singer is flawless. All the singers in those days were greats and all had their limitations. But yes, their strengths were too great to be bogged down by a few limitations and that is why they are legends today. Kishore also had his limitations but he knew how to hide them. Also, he knew exactly how to encash upon his strengths- some of which were unmatched in the industry. Even in his maximum successful days of playback singing, which ranged from the early 70s to late 80s, he did not venture into anything and everything that came across. He planned his career very cleverly, chose songs which enforced his career more and avoided genres which he consciously felt he could not do full justice. That also kept him fresh always and never made him monotonous. Even listening to the songs which he sang towards the end of his life, his voice used to get shaky and age was clearly catching up, but the attraction of listening to him never died down. That is a tough job to accomplish!
3. The Nada :
A super aspect of Kishore Kumar’s voice texture was although he was untrained in classical music, his voice had the resonance required absolutely by a classical singer. Many trained classical singers also fail to attract audience due to the lack of this voice characteristic which works like an attractive agent. Some of my musically trained friends gave me this as a good example to explain why the classical singers loved Kishore so much- it was as if they imagined themselves singing light filmy songs whenever they used to listen to Kishore. If any learned classical musician is reading this article of mine, would request him/her to further enlighten us on this viewpoint.
The “Gamakti Awaaz” of Kishore was his trademark. Laymen like me term this as “masculinity”, but “resonance” is the exact reason behind this vocal appeal. Listening to Kishore Kumar songs inside a closed room is surely going to give you Goosebumps!
4. Path breaker in many aspects:
He did many unconventional things, be it in singing or in performing. He was the first singer who had put aside his harmonium while giving a stage performance. He gave somersaults on stage, danced and jumped while singing, made funny voices- all without hitting a single wrong note anywhere!!  People loved this and love it even today. Watching a Kishore Kumar live show, even on youtube today, is Goosebumps! You cannot compare him with any other contemporary singer on this. Even present day singers take a lesson of how to perform live on stage from Kishore. Singers like Sonu Nigam or Shankar Mahadevan, who in singing might follow other Great singers and not Kishore, when they come for live performances; they clearly show their Kishore inspiration on this aspect.
Unconventional things are remembered more as they can be replicated less. Same goes for Kishore Kumar’s singing. So many strange things- right from yodelling to singing in multiple voices to gabbling in between lines (Bhadke bodhan chirwi chakan) to mimicking the actor on screen while giving playback to making strange sounds in songs; Kishore Kumar brought a sort of different and livelier spirit in Hindi film playback singing.
5. Urban Legend?
As the Urban population of india is on a rise, with changed cultural values and tastes, when they look back in future, they find similarities mostly in Kishore Kumar and R D Burman. It is also true that the rise of Kishore Kumar’s superstardom in the early 70s was coincided with the developing and strengthening Urban population of India. Kishore’s style and singing genre appealed young city residents.
As the period went ahead, Indian movie fraternity started getting more urban dominance. The initial phase started with the lot of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Gulzar, who started portraying the middle class urban sentiments of India through their pictures. Unemployment, Extra marital affairs, Polygamy, Joint family differences- Indian cine movie plots went on becoming more complex than those simpler days of 50s and 60s.
Now, this can be a dubious legacy, as many Kishore Kumar fans might not agree with me also. But, in rural Hindi speaking India, even today Kishore Kumar has an acceptance problem. But, he rules amongst the city crowd. And as the times progress, the Urban dominance strengthens with the increasing multiplexes and modern themes of movie making, Kishore Kumar becomes more and more saleable. So, a song of him under Usha Khanna was auctioned at Delhi for Rs 1.1 Million in August 2012, A biopic on his life has already been announced and retro shows on him in all the major cities keep on rocking!
Charlie Chaplin was hesitant in making Talkie movies as he thought the universal acceptance of his famous Tramp character would be lost if he would start speaking in English. He was not very wrong, as except The Great Dictator, his other talkie movies in spite of being top class in quality, could not see much commercial success. And even today, Charlie is a prisoner of his own image, and his Tramp character has surely outdone Calvaro of Limelight or Shadov of A King in New York. Kishore Kumar cannot enjoy universal appeal; his language of work would not allow him to have so, but at National level he has ensured immortality and a legacy which I feel would go only stronger with every passing day.


  1. Superb article. Very very thought provoking. Many thanks for articulating your views.

    1. Such a precious compliment! Thanks, Archie Da.

  2. Capturing Kishore Da's multifaceted personality in words is an extremely difficult task in my honest opinion. The more one tries to analyze his creations the more overwhelmed one feels. You have done an amazing job here!!

    1. Very true Ashwini. Even a lifetime is short to understand so many facets of this genius. Thank you so much.

  3. Khoob Shundar. Very well written.

  4. Very nicely itemised Arghya - yes even I watched that programme where Pt. Ajoy C gave detailed analysis and sang the song in his classical style and explained how simply KK did it ... Also remember Amit Kumar explaining how a difficult song like "koi humdum" set in raag jhinjhoti was stylised by KK much later [he was taunted by Dadamoni thus "Tu kaise gayega tune toh classical bhi nahi seekha" ] shows his class and then some.


  6. Very good and unique article
    Kishore has many voices
    He sounds differently in each song
    And he adjusted to changing times