Hemant Kumar, the man with the golden voice

Ranjan Das Gupta | Updated on July 19, 2019


Remembering Hemant Kumar, the honey-tinged voice of Bollywood, on his 100th birth anniversary

Those were the days when the singer Pankaj Mullick ruled hearts. A young man, with a splendid voice of his own, was such a fan of his that he tried emulating the senior musician’s somewhat nasal way of singing. Mullick, who knew him well, encouraged the young singer to develop his own style — and the world was introduced to Hemanta Mukherjee’s golden voice.

The year 2019 ushers in the 100th birth anniversary of Mukherjee, known as Hemant Kumar in the Hindi music world. The bespectacled musician — who was most often seen in a dhoti with a long white shirt — was born in June 1919, though some believe he was born a year later. More than 30 years after his death, his voice and music are still alive. Yet, few know that it was Mullick who had urged Mukherjee to rely on the strength of his voice.

Mullick had earlier sung his composition Diner sheshe (In the realm of sleep) in his inimitable style. And Mukherjee finally recorded it in his way in the ’50s. Mullick had later said that the younger man’s rendition was better than the original.

Mukherjee was born in Varanasi. The second of three brothers, he completed his Bachelors in Engineering from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, but was soon drawn to the world of music. He was a close associate of the poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay and recorded his first song in 1935.

Much before he became a household name in the rest of the country, he was one of Bengal’s most popular singers. The stark poems of Sukanta Bhattacharya were set to music by Salil Chowdhury and mostly sung by Mukherjee. Years later, people still recall his soulful rendition of many of those songs, including Ranar ranar, a paean to the postman of another era who ran with his bag of letters from house to house, village to village.

Music lovers recall the close relationship between Chowdhury and Mukherjee. Once, when Chowdhury was flying to Mumbai, his flight was hit by extreme turbulence. That was when he developed the idea of Ami jharer kachhe rekhe elam (I left my address with the storm). After he landed in Mumbai he composed the melody on the piano and Mukherjee sang it the way only he could.

Mukherjee was not formally trained in classical music, but his honey-tinged voice was one of a kind. Hindi cinema’s Lata Mangeshkar once said that his voice reminded her of a saint chanting hymns at sunrise. India’s nightingale also sang Rabindranath Tagore’s Tomar holo shuru (Thine is the beginning) with Mukherjee. She was, she had told me in an interview, not very confident about being able to do justice to the song but was persuaded to give it a try by Mukherjee. The recording was completed in two takes. And Mangeshkar said with a smile, “Dada, you have overshadowed me with your baritone and flow of emotions.”

The eternal voice of popular Bengali heroes Uttam Kumar and Biswajit, Mukherjee’s first Hindi songs were recorded in 1940, though he made his name as a composer in the Hindi film industry with Nagin in 1954. Indeed, when it came to composing music, there were few like Mukherjee in Mumbai’s film world. Songs such as Kuchch dil ne kaha (The heart speaks) from Anupama or Woh shaam kuchh ajeeb thi (That evening was unusual) from Khamoshi are eternal favourites.

His voice blended with Dev Anand’s seamlessly when he sang SD Burman’s Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahan (Where’s the night, the silver moon) for the 1952 film Jaal. The tie between the actor and the singer was strong, and Anand once related how he was present during the recording of Na tum humein jaano (You don’t know me) for the 1962 film Baat ek raat ki. Composer Burman had asked Mukherjee to infuse the song with what he called romantic dignity. After the recording, Anand embraced the singer and said, “Hemant, my romanticism has received a new dimension through your singing.”

His career was not without its share of controversy. Critics accused him of lifting a tune from a popular American song called Oh by jingo for the Bengali Shing nei tabu naam taar shingho (Doesn’t have horns, but it is called a lion) — sung by Kishore Kumar — in the film Lukochuri. A whistling tune used in the song Ei raat tomar amar (This night is yours and mine) was believed to have been influenced by a melody in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Mukherjee, however, proved that musically his notation for the whistling interlude was different. The singer Manna Dey had once told me he cried in joy every time he heard the song.

Mukherjee was also a producer, but the films, though critically acclaimed, seldom made money. He produced Bees saal baad, Kohraa and Khamoshi, but only the first was financially successful. He, however, cleared all his debts — a claim confirmed by Gulzar, who wrote many of his songs, and Waheeda Rehman, who acted in the films.

He died on September 26, 1989 — apparently disillusioned by the cacophonous turns that music had taken, as well as the fact that few offers came his way. He left behind a legacy of unforgettable songs. And memories of a golden voice.

Ranjan Das Gupta is a Kolkata-based writer

Published on July 19, 2019

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