Kishore Kumar: A Jovial & Eccentric Legend, Who Was 'Sad Under The Mask'
On his 34th death anniversary, a peek into Kishore Kumar’s longing to flee from the madding crowd.
Behind the well-kept façade of a fun-loving, jovial, and often eccentric persona that Kishore Kumar built around himself, lay a forlorn soul from the lonely hearts club. Make no mistake, he was a creative genius of the highest order — an artiste par excellence, who took his craft very seriously despite being a supremely gifted natural talent. But he was also a very private person, who carefully concealed a bruised heart behind his trademark prankster image and all the fun and laughter he was known for.
While Kishore Kumar wanted his image to be that of an out and out entertainer, that he avoided facing live audience for a long time until Sunil Dutt coaxed him to take up stage shows in the 1970s, exposed his introvert nature off-camera.
The fact that he preferred to remain a recluse is evident in his evasion of any media interviews until Ameen Sayani roped him in to his Binaca Geetmala radio show to talk about his life, which he cleverly turned into an audio drama of sorts without really revealing any secrets of his success, talk about his daily routine and riyaaz regime or even sharing any tips and tricks of how to sing like he did, which his fans would have been interested in knowing.
A Madcap, Who Was Sad Under The Mask
The only candid interview Kishore Kumar ever agreed to, after some persuasion, was to his life-long singing companion Lata Mangeshkar, who was born in the same year as he was, starting her career around the same time under the same music director, Khemchand Prakash. Here he admits, “When the world has accepted me as someone who is crazy, I find it amusing, why not be a madcap and stay that way for the world?”
Kishore Kumar’s favourite rejoinder to those who thought he was nuts remained, “Duniya kahti hai mujhko pagal. Main kahta hoon duniya ko pagal (The world says I’m mad. I say, the world is mad)".
A month before his death, Kishore Kumar opened his heart about his grief and loneliness to Lata Mangeshkar, who knew him as a friend who “was very sad under the mask.” “He called me to share his sorrow. He didn’t want to come home as there would be too many people there. So, we met at a mutual friend’s place where I saw the other, sombre, side of him. I’ll never forget what he told me about his life that evening. I can’t share that, but I had never imagined he was so unhappy from within,” Lata Mangeshkar revealed in an interview with Subhash K. Jha.
An Enigma… Gone, Suddenly
In his autobiography 'Romancing with Life', legendary actor Dev Anand reminisces: “Kishore remained an enigma to me … And finally, one day, without giving any warning, he was gone, suddenly.”
He fondly remembers the very first song Kishore sang for him in Ziddi (1948), which talked of death and the afterworld: ‘Marne ki duayen kyun mangoon? / Jeene ki tamanna kaun kare? / Yeh duniya ho yaa woh duniya / Ab kwahish-e-duniya kaun kare?’ In Dev Anand’s translation: ‘Why should I wish to die / And who wishes to live? / Whether it’s this world, or whether it’s that / What is left in worlds to desire?’
Similar thoughts echoed in a more famous SD Burman composition, which Kishore sang for Dev Anand about not living in a world where there’s no peace — that helped him establish himself as a serious singer of reckoning: ‘Dukhi Man Mere, Sun Mera Kahna / Jahan Nahi Chayna, Wahan Nahi Rahena.’ (Funtoosh, 1956)
Kishore made his last wish for his long-time buddy, Dev Anand, while recording his last solo for whom he had sung his very first solo almost 40 years ago — ‘Tanha, Main Akela, Toota Tara Koyee’ (Lonely, I’m a solitary fallen star) for Sachche Ka Bol-Bala (1989), which was released two years after his death.
Kishore called him into the recording booth and said, “Dev Bhai, I'm going abroad for my last concert. This time it is my wish that you too come along, to make an introductory speech to the audience. It is everybody's wish in America.” Dev Anand promptly agreed, but Kishore “changed his mind and left us all, leaving me stunned along with the rest of the world,” he recounts.
On the day Kishore passed away, Dev Anand “stood by his dead body in his bedroom … in a deep moment of sorrow,” then “rushed back to my car outside, and cried and cried, crying all the way back home.”
He quotes the opening lines of a song Kishore had sung for him in his film Munimji in 1955, which deeply reflected his state of mind of losing one of his dearest friends:
‘Jeevan ke safar mein rahi, milte hain bichhadh jaane ko / Aur de jatein hain yadein, tanhai mein tadpa ne ko.’ Or as Dev Anand translates it: ‘Travellers on the road of life meet only to part / And parting, leave behind memories to torment the lonely times.’
Homeward-Bound Soul – Longing For The Far Unknown
Kishore Kumar had an indomitable urge to go somewhere far away. This is obvious from the titles of his trilogy, the three films in which he was fully invested in — from writing and directing to acting and singing.
As Amit Kumar notes, all three of these home productions had one thing in common — ‘door’ — the same ‘faraway’ theme: Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein (1964), Door Ka Raahi (1971) and Door Waadiyon Mein Kahin (1980). No wonder, he could pour in so much pathos and passion into such sad songs of leaving as ‘Teri Duniya Se Hoke Majboor Chala / Main Bahut Door Chala.’ (Pavitra Papi, 1970), and ‘Main Tera Shahar Chhod Dunga’ (Nazrana, 1987).
Kishore Kumar wanted to retire at the top of his game and on his own accord. “I’ve seen life’s ups and downs. Now I’ve reached a stage from where it’s better to quit because one shouldn’t leave at a time when he is down and out and is removed … Today, by the grace of God, people regard me, and I have a standing. I want to part from this very point,” said Kishore in his last recorded tête-à-tête with Lata.
He also expressed his urge to go back to his birthplace, Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh: “I miss my home and my hometown very much… I don’t want anything now. I only want to rush back home as soon as possible. It is calling me… ‘Haath uthakar bula raha hai, chal re musafir chal re, apne ghar to chal re!” (Raising its hands, it is calling you; go traveller go, to your own home, go…’)
Kishore Kumar told Pritish Nandy in his oft-quoted Illustrated Weekly interview why he wanted to leave Bombay: “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. Who wants to die in this ugly city?”
In the same vein, poet and writer Javed Akhtar recalls what his favourite singer once told him about why he doesn’t want to die in Bombay: “During a recording session, Kishore Da told me that when I die, let my last rites be done in Khandwa … Here the entire film industry will arrive, and the public will gather around as if it’s a premier of some film.”
“He had this small-town innocence in him and always told us he wanted to go back to Khandwa and become a school master. He always wanted to become one,” recalls his son Amit Kumar in a 1997 interview to Sharmila Taliculam. Amit Kumar also vividly remembers the incident when he saw his father crying while listening to ‘Aa Ab Laut Chalen’ sung by Mukesh in Raj Kapoor’s Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) “because it reminded him of his village. This was five months before his death. After his death, his body was taken to Khandwa for a last visit.”
Honouring his final wish, Kishore Kumar was cremated in Khandwa. The Madhya Pradesh state government has built a memorial on the outskirts of Khandwa in memory of its most famous son of the soil. As a tribute to his Bengali lineage, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation erected a statue created by sculptor Sunil Pal of Kumartuli in 2000 in a park named after him.
Never Say Goodbye!
Like his famous ‘alvida’ song from Chalte Chalte, Kishore Kumar’s last Bengali Puja album 'Hey Priyatama' (Saregama) also had the “never say goodbye!” leitmotif written all over it. Uncannily so, the title song of his final offering of these festive songs to his Bengali fans opens with the line: ‘O beloved, I will never bid you goodbye!’ (‘Hey Priyatama, aami toh tomay biday kokhono debo na’).
This thought becomes even more profound when we listen to the slow and sombre version of Bappi Lahiri’s popular Chalte Chalte song. Here, Kishore lent his velvety baritone to Amit Khanna’s emotional lines that underscore the very fact of life: ‘No one has ever lived to see the end:’
‘Alvida to anth hai, aur anth kisne dekha? / Chalte chalte, mere yeh geet yaad rakhna / Kabhi alvida na kahena…”
Just as he sang in this goodbye song, Kishore Kumar is remembered every single day through hundreds of immortal melodies.
Just as he wished in his heart of hearts, his songs have never seized to touch our hearts. True to what he sang so passionately in this song, we can never say goodbye to Kishore Kumar — the most charismatic, ubiquitous, and undying voice of Bollywood music.
Today, even after a third of a century has passed since his untimely and sudden death on the 13th of October, 1987, Kishore Kumar’s voice reigns supreme among the all-time favourite Bollywood chart toppers and continues to awe every generation of music lovers while ruling the hearts of a million fans, who swear by his evergreen melodies and an everlasting musical legacy.
(This article is part of an upcoming book on Kishore Kumar’s musical journey by the author)
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