So dominant have the voices of Kishore Kumar, Mukesh and Mohammad Rafi been in Bollywood playback singing that you could be forgiven for believing that these three recorded every film song recorded in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But in fact, the vocal field is much more diverse, including such names as Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar, Pradip, Talat Mehmood and Bhupinder. Sadly, the conservative risk-averse mentality of most composers, producers and directors meant that these voices were never given the exposure they deserved.
Mahendra Kapoor, the focus of tonight’s post, is one of those underappreciated voices of Indian cinema.
I first registered his voice during a period of my life when I lived on the narrow flatlands of Nepal, known as the terai. I was managing a health program in several Bhutanese refugee camps in the far southeastern corner of the country which required a lot of long road trips. In those pre-CD days, the tape player was our best friend (after the air conditioner, during the sweltery summer) and of course, what music other than Bollywood was there to listen to?
On one of those languid bumpy trips through the skeeter infested paddy fields I remarked to the driver that I loved this guy’s voice but it didn’t seem to be any that I knew. The driver grabbed the cassette cover, as he obviously wasn’t sure himself of the singer’s identity. “Mahendra Kapoor,” he replied. The song was Dil Ki Yeh Arzoo Thi from the film Nikaah and I’ve been a fan of Mr Kapoor ever since.
Kapoor is a Punjabi émigré to Bombay. Like everyone with half a lung and a sparkle in his eye, he wanted to sing for the films, the industry that so defined the city. He was able to get a few singing parts on a special pro bono rate but came to the attention of the Industry by winning a sort of “Bombay You’ve Got Talent” contest. The panel of judges was inhabited by 5 of India’s greatest film musical directors, including Naushad, Anil Biswas and C. Ramachandran. They loved what they heard and soon young Mahendra was able to up his daily rate.
His idol as a youngster was the iconic Mohammad Rafi, and he unabashedly tried to sing like him. With some success too. You can definitely hear the mellow emotionality of Rafi in Kapoor’s swar/awaaz/voice but there is something else in the mix that lifts it beyond pure imitation. As much as I’ve studied his voice I can’t put my finger on what that difference is, but it is there. Sometimes I think it is a voice that sits nicely between the sweet Rafi tenor and the more lively, bombastic baritone-edged Kishore. He is comfortable in both spaces and I guess it’s that neither/both feeling that is what is so right about his voice.
His song choice is also different and perhaps more diverse than that of the Kishore/Rafi dynamic duo. Kapoor seems to have recorded a lot of ‘patriotic’ songs in addition to the usual fare of love-me-do. Again, his strength as an artist comes through in these as they never sound propagandistic, nationalist nor twee. Rather, when he sings of the ‘beloved earth of my country’ (Mere desh ki dharti) or corrupt politicians (Iktara Bole) the predominant feeling is that of humanity.
Kapoor has to his credit one of the funniest Hindi novelty numbers, a rip-roaring duet with Asha Bhosle of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star ever recorded. In a coming post I’ll also share some ‘rock’ in English as well!
Alas, despite his talent, good nature and humility Mahendra Kapoor will always be regarded by the historians as a ‘secondary’ playback singer. But we all know never to trust historians!
You can read a brief bio of Mahendra ji here.
Track Listing (Vol 1)
01 Neele Gagan Ke Tale (Humraaz)
02 Aaj Ki Mulaqat Bas Itni (Bharosa)
03 Jo Tum Muskura Do (Dhool Ka Phool)
04 Adha Hai Chandrama (Navrang)
05 Yeh Kali Jab Talak Phool Banke Khile (Aye Din Bahar Ke)
06 Aur Nahin Bas Aur Nahin (Roti Kapada aur Makaan)
07 Bharat Ka Rehnewala Hoon (Purab aur Pashchim)
08 Din Hai Bahar Ke (Waqt)
09 Badal Jaye Agar Mali (Baharen Phir Bhi Ayengi)
10 Jhoomti Baharon Ka Sama (Dahleez)
11 Jaggaya Jaggaya (Kaala Patthar)
12 Dil Ki Yeh Arzoo Thi (Nikaah)
Track Listing (Vol.2)
01 Tujkho Mera Pyar Pukare (Gumrah)
02 Chalo Ek Baar Phir (Gumrah)
03 Kisi Pathar Ki Murat Se (Humraaz)
04 Lakhon Hain Yahan Dilwale (Kismat)
05 Mere Desh Ki Dharti (Upkar)
06 Jiske Sapne Humen Ros Aate Hai (Geet)
07 Geet Gaaya Patharon Ne (Geet Gaaya Patharon Ne)
08 Fakira Chal Chala Chal (Fakira)
09 Jhuke Jo Tere Naina (Kangan)
10 Mera Pyar Woh Hai (Yeh Raat Phir Na Ayegi)
11 Tum Agar Sath Dene Ka (Humraaz)