The Enchanting Kishore Kumar

I am sure most Indians or for that matter, people of Indian origin who follow the music of Bombay would know of him, but it is my guess that most focus on his songs, otherwise passing him off as a maverick, or an eccentric recluse, at best. He was actually a very charming, intelligent, and interesting person, as I discovered, after reading a couple of his biographies recently. So, I thought I should jot down a little bit of what I gleaned, i.e., on the less talked about aspects of Kishore. One thing I am sad about is that I never got to attend any of his spectacular stage shows or Kishore nites as they were termed, they would have been quite entertaining, for sure. So, let me start by telling you something you may find hard to believe, Kishore was initially quite scared of getting on stage. Would you believe that he insisted on singing from the shadows or as in his first performance, in the shadow of Sunil Dutt, much like it the movie scene in Padosan with the song - Mere Samne Wali?

Abhas Kumar Ganguly’s i.e., Kishore’s trip to superstardom in the tinsel world, and his team up with his illustrious brother Ashok Kumar is a lively story. Even though his antics, later on, were much talked about, Kishore was actually quite a nervous character and a virtual loner most of the time. But he did have his gang of music enthusiasts and among them, he was a blast. Ashok Kumar tried to make an actor out of the young lad, but when facing the camera (in films) as a gardener in Ziddi, he simply panicked and ran away. It was also in Ziddi (1964) that he sang for the first time, a Ghazal for Dev Anand. Interestingly he went on to act in some 102 films, with most people calling him a natural actor, so much so that Hrishikesh Mukerji had planned to cast him in the lead for Anand, even writing the script to suit Kishore.

But well, you may not know this, Kishore appeared on the Anand set with a shaved head forcing Mukerji (another version states that Kishore’s gatekeeper sent back an irate Mukerji who had come to discuss the project) to cancel the shoot and replace him with Rajesh Khanna. Kishore explained many years later that he hated acting, and wanted to be nothing more than a singer. He explains that all the tomfoolery was only to get out of acting, but well, in a way all that backfired and he became a good comedian! As Dev Anand mentions in his autobiography, Kishore was always an enigma.

Kishore took to a serious career in singing only after acting issues with producers. At that juncture, his first wife Ruma Devi had suggested he cut down on acting assignments, especially as some of his films were not doing too well. The big leap came with Aradhana, propelling him into a busy musical career, which resulted in him singing some 2,905 mesmerizing numbers! Yeah, there was a silly Malayalam song too in that list, it was “ABCD Chettan KD, Aniyanu pedi” (actually not as atrocious as you would imagine, when it comes to pronunciation since it had a lot of Hindi lines in it).

As they say, there is always a method to his madness, and a classic example is how he used to study the actor of the song carefully before he recorded it, to make sure the song really matched up with the character. Who really does those things these days, in fact, most don’t even know what the character is or for that matter who the actor is! The life of the song is in the mood it creates and Kishore insisted that he understood it well in advance, not just the film scene or the situation, but also the character of the actor playing the role. RD Burman used to mention that Kishore always imbibed the persona of the actor, even the walk, the talk, and the mannerisms for a few days during the recordings.

People remember Kishore for his yodeling, something he introduced in Bollywood. Both Kishore and his brother Anoop had studied the works of Swiss singer Tex Morton and the Australian Jimmy Rodgers for many years, before perfecting the yodeling style. Though Anoop reached nowhere in his singing career, Kishore excelled at it. And that was how Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo became his signature yodel! Brilliant yodeling hits followed, Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana (Andaz), Bhor Aayee Gaya Andhiyara (Bawarchi), Ye Sham Mastani (Kati Patang), and many more. Dev Anand states that he always encouraged it, stating that “It sounded like the cry of a solitary voice in the loneliness of the hills, a cry for romance. Kishore was also fascinated with the Israeli singer and entertainer Chaim Topol, and seemingly saw his movie ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ more than a hundred times.

Kishore it appears studied the nuances of western music, and took pains to understand complex compositions of classics such as Mozart, and the styles of maestros such as Elvis and Frank Sinatra! Fascinating tidbits jump out from his recording sessions, how Lata and Asha would insist on Kishore being kept out of the recording rooms during their parts, simply because he made them laugh uncontrollably during rehearsals. He did see sides others did not, like how he got Hema Malini to sing a Bengali song Gun Gun Gun Kore. Asha would always say that it was Kishore who drove her to such heights, making her take risks and going up the scale at times, well beyond the original plan, only because her duet partner Kishore had done it in the previous stanza!

Some might wonder how a popular singer who produced so many hits and commanded a good price was perpetually in financial difficulties, well it had to do with his passion for producing films, and though he did not quite have that box office knack, many of them were good. But the fact that they left him penniless made Kishore a bitter man most of the time.

We saw at the outset that he had this incredible stage fright, but also that he went on to become one of the greatest stage entertainers. Kishore Kumar nites were much talked about and ever-popular, and in those days when they did not use technical wizardry and pyrotechnics. Performers had to get the audience on their feet using their own skills and indeed, it was a tough act. Melody, mimicry, tomfoolery, and of course yodeling, interspersed with some brilliant singing and play-acting took him to entertaining heights. One of his signature techniques was to start a song without music and let the orchestra catch up, unlike singers today who need to start with the right chord!

But what you did not know was that in his early days, he had recording studios cleared of bystanders since he could not tolerate anybody staring at him! Can you imagine that he wanted to be blindfolded at times so that he would be to himself in the recording room? Actually, the first time he went on stage was at Calcutta, to start a series of Kishore Kumar nites, and he actually backed out, joining the troupe on stage only at the very last moment, eventually starting his stage career with a composition of his own, done impromptu on the spot! Sunil Dutt explains that he took Kishore along to entertain the Jawans at Ladakh once and Kishore refused to come on stage. At this point, Sunil suggested that he go in front and Kishore sing in the background (much like they did later in Padosan), but then they found that there was no curtain behind which Kishore could hide. Sunil then suggested that Kishore stand in his shadow and as the songs progressed, Sunil stepped out leaving Kishore exposed. Initially, the singer panicked, but then continued on, gaining confidence. Slowly he got the stage fear out of his system and became a superlative performer. Kishore studied Danny Kay the Hollywood actor and it was after watching him that Kishore molded himself as a complete stage entertainer later on in life.

A photo of the mantelpiece at his home shows many photographs of Vivekananda, his mother, Virgin Mary, Ganesha, and Marlon Brando’s large still from Godfather. That was a surprise. Why Brando?? Seems Gary Cooper was his favorite actor and Marlon Brando was his idol. In fact, a meeting between Brando and Kishore had also been planned. But it was not to happen, for in that very year, 1987, Kishore passed away.

Back to the singing career of Kishore - After coming out of his Saigal fixation, Kishore finally found his own style, thanks to SD Burman and Dev Anand. Interestingly SDB heard Kishore singing while at Ashok’s house in order to discuss the film Mashal and hearing Kishore, asked him to forget Saigal and start singing in his own voice. Not only did he just say it, but decided to help Kishore mold his voice over several years. It was Dev Anand who help catapult to the top of the charts, with his songs tuned by SD and the trio Dev-SDB-Kishore delivered many hits while Kishore became well known as Dev’s voice.

Dev Anand says - After he became a star-actor, and the artist in him grew in great measure, Kishore never sang for anybody except for me, barring a few exceptions. Whenever I needed him to sing for me, he was ready to play Dev Anand in front of the microphones in the recording studios. He always asked me in what particular way I wanted to perform the song on the screen, so that he could modulate and style his singing accordingly. And I would always say, 'Do it with all the pep you want, and I shall follow your way.' There was that kind of rapport between the two of us.

But curiously Kishore got stuck for a while as a straight romantic singer and continued with his comedic roles and films, as an actor, nevertheless continuing with his daily Riyaz with his harmonium, meticulously. That was around the time when his problems with the IT department started. After the film Padosan, his style of comedy fell by the wayside and Kishore no longer had the luxury of twin careers, he was forced to focus on his voice. Adding misery, disagreements with his wife Ruma Ghosh resulted in her leaving him and going back to Calcutta. Soon enough, after Chalti ka Naam Ghadi, he married the ailing Madhubala. Her surgery at London did not pan out and upon their return, the relationship descended into gloom, squabbling and pathos. Door Gagan ki Chaon Mein flopped, taxmen came after him and his finances were in shambles. The tax authorities pounced on Kishore who was already broke. Ashok had to pay the Rs 25,000/- deposit, in order to avoid bigger issues.

In 1968, Kishore once again came across SDB after many years and the latter suggested he focus on his voice. In 1969, SDB roped him in for Aradhana, for a singing comeback and in the process, Kishore built up a rapport with RDB who was assisting papa SDB. Their tweaking of the song Roop Tara mastana created an everlasting memory for the audience. His partnership with Rajesh Khanna blossomed and many memorable numbers ensued. Finally, he had his voice, that special brightness, his price and his place in the Bollywood film factory. Time went by, things changed - Khanna went out and Amitabh Bachchan came in. Kishore hits tuned by RDB and Gulzar followed with wonderful regularity.

One incident I always remember is his absence from the radio waves during the Emergency years. I missed him sorely and only recently did I lay my hands on the Shaw commission report which provided many details of the incident.

It all started with the discussions to create a TV show 'Geeton Bhari Shaam' with many film personalities praising Sanjay Gandhi’s 20-point program, for which a team from Delhi had come to Bombay in Jan 1976. VC Shukla was the minister for I&B and he was represented in the above meeting by Joint secretary CB Jain. Kishore Kumar did not attend the meeting and GP Sippy the producer suggested that Jain contact Kishore directly to persuade him, as Kishore was playing truant and refusing to help with the propaganda work. When Jain called Kishore and pressed him, stating that they could come and meet Kishore at his home, Kishore replied curtly that he was unwell with a heart ailment and that he did not wish to sing on the radio or TV. Jain was miffed and considered this grossly discourteous behavior. Around the same time Kissa Kursi Ka had been trashed and Aandhi had been banned.

Returning to Delhi, Jain reported the incident and Kishore’s noncooperation to his boss SMH Burney. Burney decided that Kishore be banned from the AIR and Doordarshan, that none of his songs be played on these channels and that none of his films be shown on TV. They also decreed that all sales of gramophone records with his songs be frozen. HMV agreed and also decided to stop future song recordings with Kishore, but Polydor did not do so. Burney then noted in the files that this was having a desired effect on the film industry and that others quickly toed the line stating - these measures “had a tangible effect on film producers”.

After a while, whether due to pressure from his peers and others in the industry or of his own volition, Kishore sent a letter to the ministry a couple of months later in July, where he agreed to cooperate with the government. It also appears that others interjected on his behalf and we can read about the visit undertaken by Dev Anand to Delhi to meet Shukla, Dev’s attempts to get Nargis to interject on behalf of the film people etc. Eventually, in view of this “undertaking in which Kishore had agreed to cooperate with the government,” Jain wrote, “we may lift the ban and watch the degree of co-operation that he extends.”

Facing the Shaw commission inquiry much later, after all the damage was done, VC Shukla who had formally approved Burney’s actions, accepted responsibility for the regrettable misuse of authority. I used to wonder what happened to these characters ever since and read that Sayed Muzaffar Hussain Burney lived on to a ripe age of 92, passing away in 2014, serving as a governor in various states, then as the chairman of the minority commission and also as the chancellor of the JMI University. Jain seems to have continued in the bureaucracy, working with tourism and so on. VC Shukla kept changing alliances and parties and passed away in 2013. Strange are the ways of fate, I guess! Kishore on the other hand continued to suffer through several IT raids and had to do a number of stage shows to pay his tax dues.

One of my all-time favorites and a particularly fascinating Kishore number is Yeh Jeevan Hai from Piya ka Ghar, a soft, melodic and intimate piece. Imagine, he sang it without a rehearsal, as he did often in the old days, sitting in a high back chair, with an unmoving body but gesticulating with his hands and expressive in his face! Zindagi ka Safar, Badi Sooni (sung after SDB recovered from a heart attack) and Mera Jeevan Kora Kagez, were superb numbers, those which remind me of my college days and our resident Kishore – VK Haridas - who sang them with such aplomb. Wo Sham Kuch Ajeeb and Koi Hum dam are perhaps the most satisfying, though. A long gap of mediocre songs followed till Chookar mere man ko, Mere Naina Sawan Bha do, Hume Tumse Pyar and Chalte Chalte came about.

Mechanical toys, dolls, real and dummy dogs, mannequins and brooding alone at his home took up most of Kishore’s spare time. Another short-lived marriage with Yogeeta Bali followed, with arguments over her using his toilet, something he could not tolerate and later her overbearing mother-in-law Geetha Bali, an actress from yesteryears. Finally, in 1978 that Leena Chandavarkar entered his life and balanced it, but it was perhaps a wee bit late. They got married in 1980, his fourth marriage and had a son Sumit.

Kishore never drank or smoked, but chewed fresh betel leaves, plucked from his own garden. His secret hiding room, his glass door which guests frequently banged into, the all-around closed-circuit TV etc. are all the stuff of legends. What most people did not know was that Kishore went to that hidden room to practice, and I read that he would spend days to get a song right before he went to the recording studio. He loved fish and mutton curries, fried food like pakoras and bhajjis, while kheer and rabdi were his favorite desserts. He hated parties, loved watching Hitchcock and horror movies and did talk to his trees and the many pet dogs and cats, often.

Kishore always wanted to get away from Bombay – Once he told Pritish Nandy - Who can live in this stupid, friendless city where everyone seeks to exploit you every moment of the day? Can you trust anyone out here? Is anyone trustworthy? Is anyone a friend you can count on? I am determined to get out of this futile rat race and live as I’ve always wanted to. In my native Khandwa, the land of my forefathers. somehow, thanks to peculiar circumstances, I was persuaded to act in the movies. I hated every moment of it and tried virtually every trick to get out of it. I muffed my lines, pretended to be crazy, shaved my head off, played difficult, began yodeling in the midst of tragic scenes, told Meena Kumari what I was supposed to tell Bina Rai in some other film – but they still wouldn’t let me go. I screamed, ranted, went cuckoo. My shirts flying off, my trousers falling off, my wig coming off while I’m running from one set to the other. Very often I would mix up my lines and look angry in a romantic scene or romantic in the midst of a fierce battle. It was terrible and I hated it. But who cared? They were just determined to make me a star, because I was dadamoni’s brother. People bore me. Film people particularly bore me. I prefer talking to my trees.

Dev summarizes Kishore’s character admirably - He was a great funster, though this was not apparent to the outside world. Since we were both childlike, we made jolly good friends. He often confided in me, like a child in his elder brother. Before he got married to his first wife, he asked me if marriage was a good idea. I told him, 'If you like the idea, and are in a mood for it, it is the best thing in the world." But Kishore remained an enigma to me, a very loveable enigma. A great singer who never learnt singing professionally from a master, a great comic actor who never went to a training school, a reasonably good director who conceived and directed his own movies, having never been an assistant to any director.

In the end, money became his craze, and overwork followed, if only for the thrill of counting wads and wads of money. Perhaps it was looming insecurity. It was bound to have a detrimental effect and in 1982 he had a massive heart attack at Calcutta where his stage shows had started. Advised a bypass, Kishore turned it down and continued singing and making movies. In 1987 Ashok Kumar, his elder brother and the mainstay in his life passed away. A few months later in Oct 87, Kishore had his second attack, which took away his life, he was aged just 58. There is continued talk about his eccentricities, but they are not really worth talking about, the man, the singer was much above all those silly antics. He was a man who sang from his heart.

Dev Anand concludes - And finally, one day, without giving any warning, he was gone, suddenly. I stood by his dead body in his bedroom all alone, closed my eyes and silently sang all the songs he had sung for me, in a deep moment of sorrow. Then I rushed back to my car outside, and cried and cried, crying all the way back home.


Kishore Kumar – Method in Madness – Derek Bose

Kishore Kumar – The definitive biography – Kishore Valicha

Shah Commission Interim report – Volume 2

A lovely site with all kinds of Kishore trivia and see a lovely video of him recording a song



Haddock said...

I just loved him and his performances on screen. As far as his songs go, it is his timing that makes him stand out. His. timing of responding to the previous line (by the co singer) Just close your eyes and listen to it. It is almost like responding at the right time with the right tone.
He is the equivalent of Charlie Chaplin in India. Director, producer, actor, singer, music director all rolled into one.

Maddy said...

Thanks haddock..
A real enigma , that was Kishore!!

harimohan said...

Never knew this kishore..what an immensly talented singer

Maddy said...

Yeah - a real enigma

sudhir said...

Not that Kishore is the only singer who never sees into the text to sing on the stage but his timing and performance is just out of this world.

Maddy said...

Thanks Sudhir,
I recall reading he prepared quite a bit before his stage shows, also any difficult song he was going to record. Yes, sometimes he did it without any rehearsals, but otherwise, he prepared in advance.