From Dev Anand to Dharmendra, Hemant Kumar was the voice of his time

Interested in music from his early years, a young Bengali completed his primary education with great difficulty and dropped out of college after Calcutta AIR took him on board as a singer. He spent most of his salary on getting a harmonium and on honing his musical abilities, especially Rabindra Sangeet.

Bengali cinema and then the Hindi films industry beckoned, but the path was not easy for Hemant Kumar Mukhopadhyay, or Hemant Kumar, as he is better known to the legions of his fans, was born on June 16 in Benares in 1920.

The rare combination of a gifted musical composer, who wove in classical music strains, and a playback singer with a soothing mellifluous voice, he recorded his first (Bengali) song in as early as 1940 and his first Hindi song a couple of years later. Yet it was only “Anand Math” (1952) that brought him national fame, both for his music, and then his renditions of “Vande Mataram” and “Jai Jagdish Hare, Jai Jagdish Hare” in this classic. This also seemed like a flash in the pan as his next two films flopped.

It was “Nagin” (1954), with its hypnotically compelling music, especially that snake-charmer melody on an earthen ‘been’ that cemented his place in Hindi cinema.

Yet, Hemant Kumar was fated to stay in the spotlight for just the next decade and half in both his avatars and from the 1970s, his brand of music and his genteel voice failed to attract the attention it once got and he gradually faded from the scene. He figured in the news a few years before his death in 1989 — after a concert tour in Dhaka, when he rejected the Padma Shri announced for him, saying “it had come too late”.

As noted, Hemant Kumar belonged to that rare breed of both top-notch music composer and playback singer — a status he only shared with the incomparable S.D. Burman. The senior Burman’s songs, however, were more situational, but Hemant Kumar sang for almost all the top heroes of his time, from Dev Anand to Dharmendra.

On his birth anniversary, let us look at some of his most unforgettable songs.

“Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum” – Few love songs in Bollywood sound so fresh and natural as this one, picturised on Dev Anand and Usha Kiran in “Patita” (1953). Hemant Kumar’s sonorous voice melded perfectly with Lata Mangeshkar, while Shankar-Jaikishan wielded the baton and Hasrat Jaipuri provided the lyrics.

“Nain so nain naahii milao” – There was always a dream-like quality to Hemant Kumar’s voice and it is markedly evident in this duet with Lata in V. Shantaram’s “Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baaje” (1955). Classical dancer Gopi Krishna and Sandhya were the performers, Vasant Desai the music composer and Hasrat Jaipuri provided the lyrics.

“Main gareebon ka dil main machalti saba”: Little is known about “Aab-e-Hayat” (1955), though it seems to be another one of the Arabian Nights-type escapade that were Bollywood staples for years, but this song stays in public memory. Picturised on Premnath, it was scored by Sardar Malik and Hasrat Jaipuri was again responsible for the lyrics.

“Jane woh kaise log the jinke pyar ko pyar mila”: This song of existential angst, and a resigned acceptance to the vicissitudes of life and fortune, has to be the among the greatest of Bolllywood tracks and Hemany Kumar did it full justice. Note the slight and nearly indiscernible break he takes while repeating “Bichad gaya … bichhad gaya har saathi dekar / Pal do pal kaa saath / Kisko fursat hai jo thame deewaanon ka haath”, and then the slight change of tone while going on with “Humko apna saaya tak aqsar bezar mila.”

The film was Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa” (1957), S.D. Burman the music composer and the the magical Sahir Ludhianvi the lyricist.

“Hai apna dil to awaara, na jaane kis pe aayega”: It was always difficult to capture that natural nonchalance that Dev Anand exhibited in his on-screen persona in song, but Hemant Kumar nailed it in this breezy number from “Solva Saal” (1958). The enthralling music was of S.D. Burman at his best and Majrooh Sultanpuri was masterly with the lyrics.

“Zara nazron se kah do ji nishana chuk na jaye”: Hemant Kumar turned director with “Bees Saal Baad” (1962), loosely adapted from Sherlock Holmes’ “The Hound of Baskervilles”, with the necessary Indian ingredients thrown in. Appreciated in its heyday, it proves to have gaping plot holes when you see it now, but the songs are still a saving grace. “Kahin deep jale kahin dil” is still among the spookiest tunes of Indian cinema, but Hemant Kumar showed his playful side with this song, and with “Beqaarar karke hame yun na jaiye”, picturised on Biswajit. He scored the music; the ever-dependable Shakeel Badayuni penned the lyrics.

“Ganga aayee kahaan se”: “Kabuliwala” (1961), based on Rabindranath Tagore’s eponymous short story, and Balraj Sahni in yet another of his masterly performances, holds a unique position in Hindi film music. It has just three songs — but each is by a master. “Ae mere pyare vatan” by Manna Dey is the best-known, and the exuberant “Ya Kurban” by Mohammad Rafi and chorus, captures the ethos, but it is this sombre reflective piece by Hemant Kumar that also deserves more space. Salil Choudhary provided the music and Gulzar the lyrics.

“Na tum hamen jaano, na ham tumhe jaanen”: Hemant Kumar came up trumps again for Dev Anand in this remarkable song from “Baat Ek Raat Ki” (1962), where our hero begins with a softly-hummed phrase of love over a sleeping Waheeda Rehman, before breaking into a full-throated song. Hemant Kumar was also the music composer and Majrooh Sultanpuri the lyricist.

“Chhupa lo yun dil mein pyar mera”: “Mamta” (1966), featuring Ashok Kumar and Suchitra Sen, stands out for its songs, especially “Rahen naa rahen ham, mahka karenge”, but it is this Hemant-Lata duet which stands by itself, especially for the dream-like vista Hemant Kumar’s voice evokes. Roshan (grandfather of Hrtithik) was the composer and Majrooh the lyricist.

“Tum pukaar lo, tumhara intezaar hai”: This song from “Khamoshi” (1969), for which he provided music for as well, was perhaps Hemant Kumar’s swan song. With lyrics by Gulzar, it sees Dharmendra showing a sensitive side and our singer’s enunciation, notably in the transition from “Jaagte rahenge aur kitni raat ham … Muktsar si baat hai tum se pyar hai”.

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