Songs, like souls, are immortal. Only the singer dies, his voice lives on. KK the singer is gone, KK the song remains alive—he is singing to me right now through streaming music; he is singing for you, for him, her and them. On loop.
At 18, KK and I thought 40 was old—Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all died at 27. Thirty-five years later, at 53, I think KK was too young to go.
He was young and rocking. Age is a number, a context. The word ‘old’ stretches with experiences. But death is a certainty, a destiny. It’s what you do in between that defines you. You can rock and spread joy, you can sing and make folks cry. And once you leave your body, your songs keep you immortal.---
We, the band called Horizon in Delhi’s Kirori Mal College, would meet at 8:15 am in the green room every day. We would step out of the University Special bus and walk straight to our instruments—Franz and Tom on the guitars, Sandeep on the bass, Julius and KK our singers, KK also our drummer, and I the keyboardist. Between classes (all of us were in different courses) and coffee, we were constantly practicing for one concert or another, one competition at a time.
We were the first to play 'Sultans of Swing' by Dire Straits in Delhi, we played 'You Drive Me Crazy' by Shakin’ Stevens, 'Every Breath You Take' by Sting, 'Run to You' by Brian Adams, 'Dancing in the Dark' by Bruce Springsteen. We played in the music room, in inter-college festivals across India, in warm auditoriums, in cold open spaces. And when we got lucky, we even earned money: a full Rs 5,000 for a concert at Siri Fort Auditorium. Only to pack ourselves tightly into an auto, with our instruments, and return. Those were intoxicating times.
In various college competitions, we would win most of the prizes. We would also make errors. Once, I began the song 'Walk of Life' by Dire Straits in a competition at Maulana Azad Medical College at a pace that was significantly slower than the original. The band members were glaring at me. KK was the drummer and after the initial tense moment of trying to get me to increase the tempo, which I couldn’t—once you enter a rhythm, you can’t get out of it, that’s the grammar of live music—we just adjusted to the slower tempo and laughed our way of trouble. We were lucky to walk away with the second prize.
Oh, we were the kings, we were going to break into the music circuit. We would compose, perform, break into the global music scene, churn out albums…follow our dreams.
And then, we grew up.
And met an adversary called reality. Life happened. The 1990s were not the go-go years. On the economic side India was still coming to terms with survival. Who had the time for singing-shinging, music-shewsic? All of us parked our dreams in the parking lot of disappointments and took day jobs. Don’t get me wrong. We were happy. But incomplete—there was, and still is, that yearning in our hearts. One of us got into sales, another joined the family business, a third made his career in entrepreneurship. I joined the media.
Except KK as a singer and Julius as composer. Both had the courage and the tenacity to stick it out, follow their hearts.
KK’s journey wasn’t without challenges. Life threw him in a job selling typewriters. He sincerely tried. But at some point, it was too much. The soul in him was feeling suffocated. It just wasn’t his swadharma.
Everything changed with a camera. Or, perhaps things had changed and the camera was a tool. He showed me that camera of transformation, stuck atop a building in Connaught Place at the crossing of Janpath and the Outer Circle. He said that while he would walk dejectedly, with a typewriter hanging on his shoulder, he would look at that camera. One day, he stopped and felt his soul enter that camera. From there he turned and watched himself standing. The KK in the camera spoke to the KK on the road and said, what the hell are you up to, man? A few days later, he walked away from typewriters.
The typewriter’s loss was the hotels’ gain. As KK began to sing for his supper in hotels, it was a relief to the soul but his heart longed for more. He said, it would be disappointing to watch people eating, the tinkling of wine glasses, the cutlery; the ‘happy birthday,’ the ‘happy anniversaries,’ the property deals, the banking transactions…while the band was trying to catch crumbs of attention.
Then they found an escape. As a band, they would close in as a circle and create an invisible sheath around themselves. In this protective sheath, this armour, they would play for one another, for each other, take cues and give them. Essentially, do what they wanted to. The diners were too busy, the occasional “sing us a happy birthday song” notwithstanding.
Off and on, KK and I would meet. Once he dropped home, carrying a new enthusiasm in his heart and a cassette in his hand. “This is my latest song…issko suno,” he told my wife and me. At that point, we couldn’t even afford a half-decent music system. So, we went for a drive in our Maruti 800 and heard the song. And we have never stopped hearing it: 'Tadap Tadap'. The intensity hit us with a force, the poignancy with pain. Till date, I see this song as his best. The high notes he reached in this song, we had not encountered in our band.
Once when I was in Mumbai for some work, KK came to my hotel on Marine Drive and we walked the streets through the night. With waves of the Arabian Sea splashing behind us, we stood at the end of Marine Drive and he said, you know I came here and stood exactly here on this spot and looked at these lights and wondered if Bombay would give me space. It did—Bombay became Mumbai and our KK became India’s KK. His transition from a village called Horizon (our band) to an institution called KK was complete.
We relived our days of youth, our separate journeys but intertwined lives, wives, children, careers, hopes, dreams—and music. We ran through our music, old music, new music, new sounds, future music, the unsung songs, the unplayed notes. Remember this song? Remember that competition? Remember how they cheated us out of the first prize? I was struck with admiration for him. Here was KK—our KK—who had transited into the big league. His success felt like our success.
At a corporate gig in Delhi’s Taj (one of the hotels he played for earlier), my daughter and I attended his concert, watched him from the front row. Even at age six, my daughter could feel the energy. When we sat in his room, looking at the city’s lights from a height, we discussed his performance, his future gigs. In all this, he remembered to get a chocolate mousse for my daughter, who in turn, was mesmerised by the whole experience. It was her first show. She still remembers it.
Moving from the intimacy of a band tied together through friendships—regular practice, the highs of applause and awards, the lows of a broken string or losing the guitar cord in mid-song when Franz jumped too high—to the world of professional singing is not easy to navigate. As a band, when we played, the six individual players became one unit. Almost like a new consciousness playing through us that was more than the six of us. It’s a tribal anchoring, each knowing what the other wants. But when you shift to professional singing, the musicians are different, as are the studios, as is the incentive, as is the demand and there are no friendships to lean on. That KK was able to bridge this is a feat.
Many have done this before him, many will do it in future. But it takes a special being to first make this jump, then become successful, and yet remain grounded in humility.
At 53, he didn’t look a day older than 40. There was a beauty of love and compassion in him that came out. He sang many songs.
And in every rendering of every song he gave his all—his voice, his heart and his soul. Like Kishore Kumar before him, KK the singer would become KK the song.
The poignancy and pain in 'Tadap Tadap', to me his finest song, is KK. Equally, the deep devotion in 'Tu Hai Aasman Mein' is also KK. The joy of friendships in Yaron is KK and the ascent to the mountains in 'Mehki Hawa' are also KK.
It was this ‘special something’ that brings life to every moment in every KK song. The song and the singer were one. And they were beautiful.
His leaving us so suddenly has left a KK-sized hole in each of the five remaining hearts of our disbanded band. And if conversations with thousands of people on digital platforms are to be believed, this hole is there in their hearts as well. Even people who didn’t know him told me that they felt as if a member of their family has died.
Souls don’t die. In KK’s case, even his voice will live on. The songs into which he breathed life will keep him immortal. Everyone has to go, my friend KK. You took an early flight. I’ll follow at some point. See you on the other side.
(This article is from The Quint's archives and was first published on 2 June 2022. It is now being republished to mark late musician KK's birth anniversary).