A song for Mr Maverick

Bishakha De Sarkar | Updated on August 28, 2020

Many Kishores: He danced with seemingly boneless limbs, sang with a voice dipped largely in joy but often in sorrow, composed the best music of the time and directed and acted in films   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A Kishore Kumar loyalist on stories that surround the artiste she wishes she’d interviewed

Masood Sa’ab was a great raconteur — and that explained why lunch at his sprawling but somewhat decrepit resort in Ranikhet was often served at around tea-time. In between the stories, our gentle host would amble up to the kitchen and stir the meat cooking in a large cauldron. Once done, he’d be back with us, and the unfinished tale.

So there he was, he said, travelling with Kishore Kumar in an Ambassador car, on their way to Almora.

“Suddenly, he (Kishore Kumar) asked us to stop. He got out of the car, and looked up. The sun was about to rise. As a pale orange light spread across the sky, he burst into a song. I stood at a distance and listened to him,” Masood Sa’ab recalled.

Masood Sa’ab’s Norton’s Hotel was a popular hub for the leaders of Bombay’s film world. It was here, he said, pointing to a corner, where Bimal Roy sat when he came to the Kumaon Hills for Madhumati. Kishore Kumar stayed there, too, possibly in the ’60s. At night, he used to stride up and down the hotel’s lawns, singing a full-throated song.

I was reminded of Masood Sa’ab’s stories as I watched the world (well, largely the social media mini-world) celebrate the 91st birth anniversary of Kishore Kumar on August 4. In the midst of all the celebratory songs, I could imagine him, enveloped by the mellow gold-draped rays of the early morning sun, singing his heart out. What did he sing? Masood Sa’ab couldn’t quite recall when he related the story to us back in the ’90s.

A long time ago, for a column in a Kolkata newspaper, former minister Mani Shankar Aiyar was asked if there was anyone he truly regretted not having met. Nutan, he replied.

That got me thinking. I would have liked to have met Kishore Kumar. There is so much that I’d like to know. Not just what he sang that morning, but why he turned down Sanjay Gandhi’s invitation to sing at a concert during the Emergency, following which he was blacklisted by the government media.

I am not sure he’d have given a straight reply. He usually didn’t. Once, when a young reporter asked him if he was lonely, he offered to introduce her to his friends — and called them out by their names: Janardhan, Raghunandan, Gangadhar, Jagannath, Buddhuram and Jhatpatajhatpatpat, all trees in the garden.

“People bore me. Film people particularly bore me. I prefer talking to my trees,” he said while recounting this incident to journalist Pritish Nandy.

Sure, he was eccentric. But he was a rare genius. He danced with seemingly boneless limbs, sang with a voice dipped largely in joy but often in sorrow, composed the best music of the time and directed and acted in films, often as a comedian. He was, of course, by all accounts, also an enfant terrible who shaved half his head and went for a shoot after his producer paid him only half his fees. I fear he may have been the bane of lyricists and music composers, too. Take Aake Seedhi Lagi Dil Pe (it stabbed the heart) which he sang for Salil Chowdhury in Half Ticket. He pepped the lines up with a few words sung in high falsetto — bachao... o murge o kauwe (Rescue me, o hens, o crows). I somehow don’t think that was in the original score set by Chowdhury and lyricist Shailendra. So it doesn’t surprise me that in the midst of the memorable interview to Nandy, Kishore Kumar suddenly started yodelling — and carried on doing so till the tea arrived.

The interview — published in 1985, two years before his death at the age of 58 — is the shrine for all Kishore Kumar fans, for it is full of little gems that define the man. The Khandwa-born artiste mentions, in answer to a question about doing “strange things”, how — in sultry Bombay — an interior designer once visited him in a woollen suit. “After listening to him for about half an hour and trying to figure out what he was saying through his peculiar American accent, I told him that I wanted something very simple for my living room,” Kishore told Nandy.

It would have boats floating in water. The centrepiece would be anchored so that the tea service could be placed on it and every one could row up to it and have their tea. Because he liked nature, live crows would replace paintings. Instead of fans, monkeys would be breaking wind from the ceiling.

“That’s when he slowly backed out from the room with a strange look in his eyes,” he said. “What’s crazy about having a living room like that, you tell me? If he can wear a woollen, three-piece suit in the height of summer, why can’t I hang live crows on my walls?”

He was clearly having fun when he recounted this. But he was characteristically reticent when it came to his own life: His four marriages and the strain of quiet grief that ran through his films and music. Who but a man with a troubled heart could write Panthi hoon main (I am a traveller of the path that has no end) — one of the most poignant songs ever composed in Hindi films?

I wonder why Kishore didn’t do what the rest of the mini-world does when depressed — listen to Aake dil mein lagi. Nothing works as a pick-me-up better than those four little words: O murge o kauwen.

(If Only is an occasional column on people — real and fictional — we wish we had met)

Published on August 28, 2020

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