The Melodic and Powerful Humming Master
As the birth centenary celebrations (1920-1989) of the legendary singer and music composer, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, popularly known as Hemant Kumar, commence this year, here I pay my tribute to the maestro.
That was 1954. One morning I was going along with my father to Gandhi Chowk to purchase First form books. A rickshaw came in the opposite direction with film posters hanging on both sides and blaring the song: ‘Kaashi dekhi, mathura dekhi, dekhe teerath saare… Tere dwar khada ek jogi’ … A sweet crooning … there is a melody in that rhythm … it caught my attention… …As the rickshaw moved away in the opposite direction, I, turning back every now and then to keep track of the song, slowed down my pace of walk. All that I could then understand from that song was mere four words: kaashi, Mathura, dwar and jogi… yet, the feel in the voice so captivated me that I still remember that experience. It of course, took some years for me to learn that its singer was none other than Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, a brilliant singer, composer, and producer in the Hindi and Bengali film industry.
It was in the early 60s that I got a real feel about his haunting melodies by watching that lilting romantic solo from the film Jaal: moonlit beach… wind blowing gently … moon playing hide and seek through coconut fronds… debonair Dev Anand, draped in a chequered pullover, leaning on the poll of a beach hut and strumming his guitar, blithely lip-syncs to Hemantda’s song … Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahan (). Hemantda’s deep romantic voice that had a unique soothing resonance had seamlessly matched with Dev’s voice. As Hemantda, rising his pitch with the antara—Pedon ki shaakhon pe soyi soyi chaandni / Pedon ki shaakhon pe… mellows down to sing Aur thodi der mein thhak ke laut jayegi … one gets lulled into a trance. This Burmanda composed song—excellent prelude and interludes played with muted trumpets following strings, lovely flute pieces in harmony with the clarinet and saxophone, and in between Hemantda’s sweet humming, together all creating magic—had firmly established the dhoti-and-long-shirt clad, bespectacled Babu Moshai as Dev Anand’s romantic voice.
In all, Hemant Kumar sang 11 songs under Burmanda music direction and all of them were “his biggest hits.” Of that, 10 songs were for Dev Anand, with which in the words of Hemant Kumar, “Sachin babu created a sort of romantic pairing of my [Hemantda’s] voice with his [Dev Anand] screen image.” In House No 44 he sang two songs. Beginning the romantic song Chup hai dharti chup hain chand sitare (The world is silent and so is the moon and stars) with his signature style humming…. Hemantda revels the mysticism of the night so beautifully in an expressive voice by airing those beautiful Sahir’s lyrics, khoye khoye se yeh mast nazaare (these so mesmerizing sights) /thhehare thhehare se yeh rang ke dhaare (these streams of colors that stood still) /dhoondh rahe hain tujh ko saath hamare (searching for you along with me). Singing the other pathos-laden song, Teri duniya mein jeene se to behtar hai ke mar jayen (to live in your world, I should die rather) , he evocatively brings out the anguish of a soul ruing the absence of love in Dev’s life by thus supplicating in heart-wrenching words: ‘Arey o aasmaan vaale bataa, ismein buraa kya hai khushi ke chaar jhokein gar, idhar se bhi guzar jaaye… (Arey o Lord of skies, tell me what’s wrong, a couple of waves of joy may pass even from here, if ever)’.
Then came that 1958 Binaca Geetmala charts topper, Hai apna dil to awara (My heart is a vagabond)… (Solva Saal), which, bemused Dev Anand sings for himself in the company of comedian friend who gave him support on mouth organ, with his eyes riveted on Waheeda Rehman… Of course, it was not a love song that is usually sung to a beloved, but a kind of innocent flirting … free flowing indulgence of carefree heart … with every word of it oozing romance: Hua jo kabhi raazi, to mila nahin kaazi (If he ever agreed to someone, no priest could be found)/Jahaan pe lagi baazi, wahin pe haara (Wherever he has taken a wager, he lost) /Zamaane bhar kaa naakaaraa (rejected by the whole world)…
Hemantda, singing that rip-roaring fun song, Shivji bihaane chale in the film, Manzil, had proved that if the situation demands, he could easily turn out a funny and peppy song too. Finally, the combination of Hemant Kumar, Dev Anand and Burmanda came to an end with that haunting and romantic duet with Suman Kalyanpur, Na tum humein jaano (Baat Ek Raat Ki), which mesmerized the listeners with the voice, lyrics and orchestration, all running together smoothly like a silken thread.
Before moving on to his singing under other music directors, I must mention that gem of a song from Pyaasa, Jaane wo kaise log the jinke pyar ko pyar mila mila (I wonder what kind of people are they who find their love reciprocated), sung in his heavy and melancholic voice under the baton of SD Burman, which aptly expresses the bitterness of a disillusioned poet, a dejected lover, who knew none to share the burden of his sorrow—Kisko fursat hai jo thaame deewaanon ka haath (who can spare the time to befriend a madman).
Hemant Kumar had hits with other music directors like C Ramchandra, Naushad, Shankar Jaikishan, Salil Chowdhury, Vasant Desai too. Among his solos under other music directors, the first song that comes to my mind is the paean that he sang for the river Ganga—Ganga aaye kahaan se Ganga jayee kahaan re—where does Ganga come from? where does Ganga go? (Kabuliwala). The inimitable Salil Chowdhury ensured minimal orchestration so that the gorgeous voice of Hemantda shone all through. He starts with his usual aalaap in high notes and continue to sing so, gently praising the beauty of Ganga at sunset in his serene voice—laharaye paanee me jaise dhup chhanv re …—its waves rippling in the play of light and shadow and then meanders on to a philosophy … of embracing all irrespective of variations … Naam koi, boli koi, lakhon rup aur chehare …different names, myriad languages, millions of forms and faces just as Ganga embraces all… This typically Bengali-folk-music style song—Bhatiali seasoned with Baul—was picturized on a Sadhu and Hemantda, like a true sadhu…sang it so soulfully in his divine voice that it transports us into a mystic plane … and, it lingers too.
Under the baton of C Ramchandra, whom Hemantda held in very high esteem, he sang two songs for Anarkali and both are special in their own way. The first one is Rajendra Krishan’s poignant lyrics steeped in philosophy that he sang in his baritone voice: Zindagi pyar ki do-chaar ghadi hoti hai (Life is but a few short hours of loving…). The second song is: Jaag dard-e-ishq jaag, jaa (Arise, pangs of love arise). It is a duet, composed based on Raag Bageswari sung along with Lata Mangeshkar. Hemantda sang it so beautifully in his sonorous voice that was tinged with a feel of romance with simple aalaaps in between. His repeating the words Jaag, Jaag … that too drawling them a bit made the song all the more captivating.
This talk on duet suddenly reminded me of his magical duet with Lata in the film, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje: Nain se nain nahin milaao (Don’t look into my eyes)/dekhat surat aavat laaj… saiyyaan… (When you look at my face, I am embarrassed, my love…)/ Pyar se pyar aake sajaao/madhur milan gaavat aj guiyaan (singing sweet songs of being together, my friend). My god, what a magical creation! Vasant Desai composed the tune in raag Malagunji and Hemantda sang it in his honey-tinged voice along with Lata Mangeshkar in her mellifluous voice. In it there is a certain placidity of a leisurely flowing river in the evening. Their aalap had imparted beauty and depth to love…all together it had an exquisite lingering effect. There are a couple of more such duets sung by these two artists such as that melody about yearning and pining for the love lost, Tumhe yaad hoga kabhi ham mile the … from Satta Bazaar under the baton of Kalyanji and that passionate longing for love… Aa neele gagan tale pyar hum kare from film, Bhadsha under the baton of Shankar Jaikishan, which are equally captivating.
There is another exceptionally melodious duet that he sang with Geeta Dutt which merits equal attention: Mujh ko tum jo mile yeh jahan mil gayaa composed by Mukul Roy, brother of Geeta Dutt, from the film Detective. What a soft tune! And how sweetly both of them crooned those simple but lovely words …starting off with a romantic humming by Hemantda it flows like a lullaby swaying the listener.
Hemant Kumar had the innate knack for gliding through the compositions with remarkable smoothness. He was quite adept at expressing multi-layered feelings. Be it vocalizing the lyrics of Shailendra, Gulzar, Kaifi Azmi, or Shakeel Badayuni, as a singer Hemantda instantly appealed to the listeners more because of the ‘feeling’, the feeling of compassion, romance, pathos and humanism that his honey-tinged voice expressed so very effortlessly, which reached the soul of the listeners calmly like a river that flowed to the brim along the banks but caressingly.
Although Anand Math (1952) with that superb song, ‘Vande Maataram’, sung by Lata Mangeshkar which hit the patriotic chords of people, was Hemant Kumar’s first Hindi film as music director, it is with Nagin (1954) that he got mainstream acclaim amongst Hindi filmgoers: 16 songs and 16 hits and a Filmfare award. Its songs became so popular that even people from non-Hindi belt took them to heart: young girls used to dance for the song ‘Man dole mera tan dole mere dil ka gaya qaraar re yeh koun bajaaye baansuriya’ on stage during festivals. Listening the song, ‘O zindagi ke denewaale, zindagi ke lenewaale’ I used to always end up wondering how god might have reacted to Hemntada’s gentle question raised in his ascetic-voice: ‘Prit meri chin ke bata tujhe kya mila?’
Unlike many other music directors from Hindi film industry, Hemant Kumar composed light and sweet tunes with no jerk of unnecessary musical ornamentations. His was a straight forward approach towards capturing emotions through tunes that ensured melody. Next to Nagin what comes to mind when we think of him as music director is his films: Jagriti, Bees Saal Baad, Kohraa, Anupama, Khamoshi and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
After Nagin it was Bees Saal Baad that put him on a high pedestal as music director. All the songs were super-hit. The instrumental arrangements, captivating voice of Lataji and the ebb and flow of the lovely composition of Hemantda made the song, Kahin deep jale kahin dil, a memorable and haunting song. There is another composition that he himself sang—Beqarar karke hamein, which, set to a catchy rhythm, captures the playful and teasing mood of the hero beautifully. Hemantda’s sonorous voice and the excellent use of whistling and accordion notes impart magic to this otherwise breezy song that recreates a kind of carefree romanticism.
His music composition for Khamoshi, a film produced by himself stands out as the best with three heart-tugging melodies of Hemantda, Kishore Kumar and Lataji. Of the three, it must be said that the song, Tum pukarlo tumhaara intezaar hai’ (Call out to me, I am waiting for you) sung by himself in his deep baritone voice vocalizing Gulzar’s lyrics soulfully, stands out as the most haunting solo of the 1970s. Beginning with the music of piano bars followed by a mellow whistle and Hemantda’s resonant humming and his empathetic vocalization of the words, ‘Tummmm pukar lo in the lower notes, the song is sure to put one in wistful mood. This song is indeed a counterpart of Eyi raat tomar amaar (This night is yours and mine) that he composed and sang for his own Bengali production, Deep Jeli Jai (1959). The beauty of this song is it runs in low notes as the Khamoshi song is but to vocalize the antara, ‘Tumi achho aami achhi taayi…’ (You are there, so, I am) he raises the pitch slightly which imparts such a depth and emotional intensity to the underlying romantic feel of the song that it simply hypnotizes the listener. He had improvised this original Bengali tune for the Hindi version in Khamoshi, of course, retaining the core elements such as the prelude and the whistle-interlude as it is. It is the subtle interludes created by delicate mingling of strings and piano notes, and the minimum orchestration that had sustained the surcharged atmosphere all through. Interestingly, in the Hindi version how longingly he phonates the words in a low pitch, ‘Mukhtasar si baat hai... Tumse pyaar hai’ (matter is simple, I am in love with you)—it simply enthrals the listener. The overall impact is: it lingers in the mind for long. It is this kind of musical expressions that makes his songs sound as though “coming from a distance to assimilate into heartbeats” of a listener. The second song of this film, ‘woh shaam kuch ajeeb thhi’, that was penned by Gulzar and composed in raag Kalyan by Hemant Kumar was beautifully sung by Kishore Kumar. The subdued longing in Kishore Kumar’s majestic voice aptly reflects the blurred memories of the past and present love of the protagonist. Drawing a polarized rendition of this song from Kishore, Hemantda proved to the world that Kishore could do serious songs too well before any other music director ventured out.
Incidentally, Hemantda used the tune of Eyi raat tomar amaar as it is without of course, the prelude and the whistle interlude for the film Kohara: ‘Ye nayan dhare dhare, ye jam bhare-bahre, zaraa peene do’ penned by Kaifi Azmi and sung by Hemantda became a superhit song. The delectable cadences and rolling pauses and the humming of Hemantda in the composition simply immortalized this song. We thus had three gems from a single composition. Critics have, of course, accused that the whistling tune in the Bengali song is a copy of a composition in the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Later he had however proved that his notation for the whistling interlude is different.
In Anupama (1966), Hemant Kumar composed a serene melody in raag Bhimpalsi, perhaps to enhance the melancholic beauty of the lyrics that Kaifi Azmi wrote—Kuchh dil ne kahaa, kuchh bhii nahiin (Heart said something; yet it was nothing at all) / Kuchh dil ne sunaa, kuchh bhii nahiin (heart heard something; yet, it was nothing at all)…—capturing the conflict that the lady protagonist of the film faces: whether to pursue her romance with Ashok or to shun him away to appease her father, which Lata Mangeshkar sang as usual excellently. She had indeed emoted softly the dilemma of the heroine so beautifully by singing it at a lower pitch than her usual self. For instance, when she vocalizes the line ‘aisii bhii baaten hotii hain’, she drops down to one of the lower notes of her usual range, indeed whispers it in a hushed voice. It is these variations along with delectable echoes, sweet flute bits and importantly restrained orchestration that imparted ethereal beauty to this song. There is another gem of a song in this film that he composed and sang himself—Ya dil ki suno duniyawaalon—in a voice full of pain and sympathy for the lady protagonist who finds it difficult to articulate her feelings with her father. There is a certain sensitivity and a beauty in the cry of the poet, Kaifi Azmi, and Hemantda did full justice to the lyrics. Without any percussion as Hemantda’s voice resonates beautifully in sheer melody, one gets transported to another world. It keeps playing in mind over and over long after listening it.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) is another film for which Hemant Kumar gave well-rounded, diverse but sweet and melancholic music, which well reflects the sentiments and mood of the situation effectively. The desolation and melancholia of Chhoti Bahu is well brought out in the composition of the song—‘Na jaao sainyya chhudake bainyya’—which was sung by Geeta Dutt in a voice that was submerged into depths of feeling. Incidentally, this is a remake of the Bengali song, Oliro kotha shune bokul haashe’ sung by himself. Listening to the song, Piya Aiso Jiya Mein Samaye Gayo Re, sung by Geeta Dutt, which had the influence of raag Sharang, one can visualize Chhoti Bahu’s bracing up for a meeting with her Swami. Singing the song, Koi door se awaz de chale aao, Geeta Dutt effortlessly brings out the despair that is writ large in the composition and effectively conveys the irreversibility of the situation—that her lord will not return. In all, through these three songs Geeta Dutt effectively brought out the anticipation, desires, pathos, longing and the frustration of unfulfilled desires of heroine beautifully with her rich voice.
In film, Shart (1954), he composed a captivating tune for the lyrics of SH Bihari—na yeh chand hoga na taare rahenge—based on raag Aashavari that was sung by Geeta Dutt straight from heart with a voice steeped in feeling. The slow-paced rhythm of the song had further heightened the feel of the song. Male version of this was sung by Hemant Kumar himself. If you listen to this solo that he croons about the enduring love in separation in the quietness of night, you would realize how true Lata Mangeshkar is, when she said, “Listening to Hemantda, I feel as though a Sadhu is sitting in a temple singing bhajan”.
The other picture I had in mind is, Champakali (1957), for which Hemantda composed a beautiful tune for Rajendra Krishan’s poignant lyrics—Chhup gaya koyi re door se pukaar ke … The flute notes in the prelude indeed set the mood for this Lataji’s heartfelt rendition. It has a subtle background music of interspersing sweet flute notes of Pannalal Ghosh beautifully complimenting the divine voice of Lata, which conveys Suchitra Sen’s melancholic feelings quite effectively. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the heart-touching flute notes that followed Lataji’s rendition which made this song extremely melodious and lilting.
Much before becoming popular in the Hindi film industry, Hemantda was a popular singer in Bengali films. His first Bengali playback song was in the film Nimai Sanyaas (1940), composed by Hariprasanna Das. He composed music for many more Bengali films than Hindi films. His voice was considered as the romantic voice of Uttam Kumar. He was also an exponent of Rabindra Sangeet. When I think of his Bengali songs the first song that comes to my mind is: Nijhuma sandhaa panth paakhera bujiba path bhooley jaaye from Monihar (1966) that was sung by Lataji. Though it is an adoption of Burman’s composition in Hindi, Tasveer en banti hain, kirnon si chhanti hain, it has its own charm. This is the first Bengali song that I hummed immediately after listening to it in my early Kalyani days. How I loved it! Even without knowing any meaning of it… that’s its sweetness! I equally enjoyed the duet he composed and sung along with Sandhya Mukherjee for Uttam and Suchitra in the film, Saptapadi (1961)—Ei path Jodi na sesh hoy … that iconic romantic song of Bengali films. He won the President’s Gold medal for his Bengali film, ‘Neel Aksher Neechay (1959).
Watching movies for which Hemant Kumar gave music, we never feel that his songs are taking us away from the narrative, nor do tunes jump in our face. They are easy to assimilate. They stay in mind and make the listener want to hum. They, being simple but sweet tunes with no ornamentation but steeped in expression, tug to heart. As one critic said, “he had transmuted his comprehension of music in an uncomplicated manner into his compositions that made them melodious and appealing instantaneously.” The net effect of his compositions is: they simply haunt us—for some reason, they remain etched in mind and we keep humming them. Listening to the songs of yearning, love, wistfulness that he sang in his deep and vibrating voice, one experiences a haunting effect. They linger with us for long.
This sonorous voice was silenced by a fatal cardiac arrest on September 26, 1989. He received glorious tributes from the film fraternity as Satyajit Ray said, “Rabindra Sangeet has died”; Salil Chowdhury lauded, “Hemant Kumar’s voice was the voice of God”. An apt tribute was paid by Kaifi Azmi to Hemantda’s brand of singing and music when he said: “Ghul-sa jaata hai suroor fiza mein/Teri aawaz ko sunoon ya teri mausiqi ko sarahoon?—Intoxication gets assimilated into the ambience/Should I listen to your voice or shall I admire your musical skills.” I wish to conclude my tribute by drawing your attention to that very emotional Bengali song —‘Aye khoku aye / aye re amar sathe gang eye ja….’ composed by Balsara and confessing that whenever Katena samay jakhoon aar kichhuteyi (time is not passing off in any other way) I shall simply turn to my player and put on Hemantada’s disc….