From Dev Anand to Dharmendra, Hemant Kumar Was The Voice of His Time
BY VIKAS DATTA
Interested in music, 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 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 legions of fans.
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 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.
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”.
Hemant Kumar sang for almost all the top heroes of his time, from Dev Anand to Dharmendra:
“Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum” – Few love songs in Bollywood sound so fresh and natural as this one. Hemant Kumar’s sonorous voice melded perfectly with Lata Mangeshkar.
“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”.
“Main gareebon ka dil main” – Little is known about “Aab-e-Hayat”, though it seems to be another one of the Arabian Nights-type escapades that were Bollywood staples for years, but this song stays in public memory.
“Jane woh kaise log the” – This song of existential angst, has to be the among the greatest of Bollywood tracks and Hemant Kumar did it full justice. The film was Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa.”
“Hai apna dil to awaara” – 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”.
“Zara nazron se kah do ji” – Hemant Kumar turned director with “Bees Saal Baad”, 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.”
“Ganga aayee kahaan se”- “Kabuliwala”, 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.
“Na tum hamen jaano” – Hemant Kumar came up trumps again in this remarkable song from “Baat Ek Raat Ki”, where Dev Anand 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.
“Tum pukaar lo, tumhara intezaar hai” – This song from “Khamoshi”, for which he provided music as well, was perhaps Hemant Kumar’s swan song.