Once in 500 Years: Kishore Kumar


The music of Kishore Kumar.


Where does one start with such a subject? His was the voice of the 1970’s. The last of the playback giants whose lineage began with K.L. Saigal and was carried forward by Mohammad Rafi, Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar, Mukesh and Talat Mehmood. After him have come lovely voices aplenty but none has been able to rival Kishore Kumar’s in its diversity or popular appeal.  Certainly none of those who followed has been able to capture the spirit of an entire generation as he did.


Though he had been a familiar face in the Bombay film scene since the 1950s, both as an actor and singer, Kishore came into his own in the late 1960s.  In 1969 Kishore signed up as the singing voice of Rajesh Khanna, India’s male superstar, for the film Aradhana  (Worship).  What happened next can only be described as a chemical reaction that electrified the public and transformed the film industry. The blending of Rajesh Khanna’s handsome, guileless face with Kishore Kumar’s handsome, virile voice subliminally confirmed to millions of fans that these two were in fact, one and the same person.


The character’s played by Khanna were generally optimistic, good hearted and fun loving guys.  They dressed well, whether in suit and tie, bush shirts or kurta pyjama. They treated women courteously.  For the first post-Independence generation handsome Rajesh with the shy smile seemed to embody the youthful, hopeful, morally-on-track and bright future of the nation itself.


And when he opened his mouth to sing fans heard him carry a tune with melodiousness and ease.  It fell seamlessly into place with the values his character represented.  There was no way to tell for sure that this wasn’t Rajesh singing, so inexplicably and naturally did the two fit together.  But it was Kishore Kumar the Bengali boy from Khandwa, in central India, who was stealing hearts with his whistling, chortles and amazing yodels.


Kishore’s brother Ashok Kumar was one of Hindi cinema’s original big stars throughout the 40s, 50s and into the 60s.  Kishore always wanted to sing rather than act, but when he followed big brother to Bombay, it seemed the industry wanted him to follow in Ashok’s footsteps.  Despite his misgivings he reluctantly accepted a number of roles.  As Fortune would have it, he was quite good.  Directors found he had a natural flare for comedy, which endeared him to audiences, especially when he added songs to the scene.  One of Hindi cinema’s classic comedies, Pardosan (Neighbor Lady), marks the zenith of Kishore Kumar as both hilarious character and affecting playback singer.


kishore_kumar_largeProbably out of a 100 other aspiring stars 99 would have been over the moon with such a turn of events–seek one career, yet end up with success in two!  But not Kishore Kumar. To him, acting was not only a distraction, it was the very definition of madness.  Even though he had one of the most beautiful and popular actresses, Madhubala, as his second wife, even though his brother was one a highly respected leading men, even though he was never short of offers, Kishore resented being in front of the camera.  Near the end of his life he gave an interview in which he shuddered at the insanity of running between studios and film projects.


To the objective observer his preference for singing over acting was the real lunacy. By the standards of the day, he had a handsome and strong face. Industry connections and comedic timing only underlined the obvious: stick with acting.  To succeed as a playback singer, on the other hand, seemed almost impossible.  He was up against the honey of reigning king of playback, Mohammad Rafi and the elaborate silk of ghazal maestro Talat Mehmood. And don’t forget Mukesh as well, the favourite of Raj Kapoor, just about the mightiest force in Indian film. All three were classically trained, a condition deemed absolute, if one was to handle the wide variety of styles and genres—classical, ghazal, folk and increasingly, rock n roll—that the musical directors required of their singers. That Kishore was self-taught seemed a sure sign of his inevitable failure.


Rafi and Kishore

Rafi and Kishore

But madness was the quicksilver that coursed through Kishore’s soul, unpredictably and, changing form frequently. Though his voice came very nearly to be the voice of the entire nation many wondered if Kishore Da was not, in fact, truly mad. There was his erratic behaviour: not showing up for sessions; demanding payment up front. His touchiness. His penchant for the solitary life in an industry full of puffed up egos and media hounds rubbed some powerful people the wrong way. Yet, when he passed away in 1988, there were few who disagreed with the assessment that his was a ‘once in five hundred years’ voice.  During his domination of the scene from the late 60s to early 80s, some estimated that Kishore Kumar recorded 60% of all film songs! Rafi, Mukesh and Talat Mehmood had been completely vanquished.


Every hero must have his luck. And Kishore had his share. That his ‘era’ coincided with that of one of the true geniuses of musical composition, R.D. Burman, who relished writing for Kishore was hugely significant. So too was his association with Rajesh Khanna, the first superstar of Bollywood. After Khanna was toppled from the top by the Super superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, Kishore Kumar undoubtedly benefited from being his singing voice as well.  It’s hard to imagine Kishore distinct from from his collaborators.

Rajesh Khanna, Kishore, Amitabh Bachchan

Rajesh Khanna, Kishore, Amitabh Bachchan


But equally, would Burman’s intricate constructions have been as successful with a voice less capable of projecting his vision? In a cinema where hit songs were essential to a film’s success, (for the flops, the songs were the only thing that endured) how brightly would have/could have Khanna and the Big B have shone if Kishore had not given voice to their musical moments? All three required a sonic space as huge and as robust as their artistic vision.  Kishore Kumar was the only one who could accommodate it.


Let me try to describe his voice. It is a strong tenor but with the resonance of a baritone. It is wide. There is a lot of territory between his high yodelling notes on a number like Zindagi Ek Safar and the deeper sombre tones of a ‘tragedy song’ such as Koi Hota Jis Ko.


The width and scope of his voice reminds one of the wide boulevards of Bombay (Mumbai) where heroes ride their mo-bikes, one hand waving free, as well as the great flat Indian expanse of fields, ancient roads and small towns, such as Khandwa, where Kishore himself was born.


BDAY-1Unlike Rafi, Mukesh, Hemant and Talat Mehmood who had more delicate (and agile, yes) voices, Kishore’s was full of mardana (manliness).  At a fundamental level the timbre of his voice was a perfect match for the macho embodied by Amitabh. Listen to Jahan Mil Javen Chaar Yaar for an example.

Kishore’s voice came at you, straight down the middle of the register, like a Tata lorry barrelling down the Grand Trunk Road.  Listen to Rafi speak. His voice is soft, which renders his singing absolutely gorgeous. And because it was, you were happy to suspend belief—that this was actually the hero singing. But with Kishore, suspension is not required. Hero and singer are one. A truly heroic voice!  And if irrefutable proof were needed, Kishore was the only playback giant who sported a moustache! None of this unshaven nonsense for him! Facial hair was a sure sign of virility in 1970s India. The common man (aam admi) understood this and appreciated it!


This is not to say there is no subtlety in Kishore’s voice. There is. Listen to that mega hit from Yaarana, Chun Kar Mere Man Ko, to hear a Kishore that is every bit as retiring and nuanced as Mohammad Rafi. It is hard to believe this is Kishore, who is more often associated with the blare of an air horn then the gentle riff of a bansuri (bamboo flute). Other examples are abundant: Dukhi Man Mere; Aanewala Pal; Meri Mehboob Qayamat Hogi and; Lahron ki Tarah, to name just a few.


Though he repeatedly and consistently rubbished his acting career he could never banish the mischievous child from his soul. More than anyone else he was able to make you laugh when he had to bring humour to the piece.  C.A.T Cat Maane Billi, is Kishore (and Asha Bhosle) in goofy mood. The two singers spell out English words and define them in Hindi over and over in a silly pointless exercise. In what must have a tedious day at the office, Kishore’s final frustrated yell of ‘CAT’ breaks the song open turning it from a complete forgettable ditty into a classic.


It was this confident voice that ushered India into the modern era. Kishore (yes, Amitabh and Rajesh, too) helped make the transition from new born country to strapping ambitious nation with fun and feeling.  In the 1970s he was the undisputed king of melody, and as I think you’ll agree from this special collection of some his greatest songs, his music is essential today as it was forty years ago.


Thank you Kishore Da.


Track Listing:

01 Zindagi ek safar hai

02 Yeh sham Mastani

03 Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara

04 Koi Hota Jis Ko

05 Jaan Tan Se

06 Kabhi Alvida Na Kahana

07 Aanewala Pal

08 C A T Cat Mane Billi

09 Mere Samne Wali Khirki Mein

10 Mein Aur Meri Awargi

11 Sapno Ke Sheher

12 Musafir Hoon Yaaro

13 Chingari Koi Bharke

14 Mein Tera Shehar

15 Dukhi Man Mere

16 Dream Girl

17 Phoolon Ka Taron Ka

18 Yaar Humari Baat Suno

19 Roop Tera Mastana

20 Neele Neele Amber

21 My Name is Anthony Gonsalves

22 Mere Sapnon Ki Rani

23 Mera Jeevan Kora Kagaz

24 Choo Kar Mere Man Ko

25 Beqarar-E-Dil

26 Tum Nahin Ya Hum Nahin

27 Aise Na Mujhe Tum

28 Lahron Ki Tarah

29 Dheere Se Jana

30 Tere Jaisa Koi Dekha

31 Ari Ho Paro

32 Pichli Yaad Bhula Do

33 Mere Hosh Ley Lo

34 Ab To Mere Huzoor [Natasha I Love You]

35 Jahan Mil Javen Chaar Yaar

36 Mere Mehboob Qayamat Hogi






8 thoughts on “Once in 500 Years: Kishore Kumar

  1. What a fantastic collection of Kishore’s best songs & what a marvelous write up you’ve given them. I really enjoyed reading your article on the genius that he was.

    Thanks so much for that & also sharing the collection.

    • Totally agree on the fact that you could several collections of his best work.

      I was privileged enough to see the great man in concert on three occasions in London. The first time was in the early ’70’s when he actually came to our local cinema, the Hounslow Odeon. I remember he was dressed in his famous red kurta of that period. He also had Charanjit Singh in his band on guitar. This made all us Sikhs in the audience very happy !

      The second time was in 1985 when Kishore appeared at Wembley Arena alongside Lata Mangeshkar. It was a great show & I remember he sang a duet with his wife Leena Chandavarkar since it was her birthday.

      The last time was actually only a few months before he passed away in 1987. This time he appeared with my all-time favourite Rajesh Khanna. Rishi Kapoor, Neelam, Shabana Azmi, Anupam Kher & many others were also there. It really was a fantastic show.

  2. Kishore Kumar was the voice of the youth. He was the king of melodies, God of music. His fantastic voice suits Sanjeev Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor the best. He was a maverick, a musical genius who could sing and compose many songs. Before singing for any actor, he would analyse his mannerisms and he used to make a detailed study. He was also a very good actor who played both serious and comic roles. He also directed many films very well. That is why, The Nightingale of India, Lata Mangeshkar calls him as the ‘Sampurna Kalakar’

    • Kishore Kumar, the man from Khandwa was the greatest singer. Such singers are born once in 500 years. His voice was divine. His style of yodeling is also impressive. Oldies saw him as God’s gift to mankind, youth saw him as mankind’s gift to God! His voice, mannerisms, emotions, style was inimitable

      • Kishore Kumar was the master of sad songs like –
        Apne jeevan ki uljhan
        Chingari koi bhadke
        Dil aisa kisi ne mera toda
        Zindagi ka safar
        Mera jeevan kora kagaz
        Mere naina sawan bhadon
        Panthi hoon main us path ka.
        Main shayar badnam
        These songs are wonderful. No singer can try to outsing him.

  3. to put it in the shortest way,there are two types of singers in the world(including both male and female):one is kishore kumar,rest others fall in the second category

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