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August 4, 1929: A Star is born

On this day, 90 years ago, Abhas Kumar Ganguly was born. He would change his name to Kishore Kumar and herald a musical era in Bollywood. A spontaneously comic actor, an artist who sang from his soul, a director, a lyricist and a music composer, Kishore was a versatile genius, Regarded as one of the best singers of India, he never received formal training in music. He was the actor who dominated the music industry.

What introduced Kishore Kumar to music?

On the 4 August 1929, Kishore Kumar was born to a Bengali family in the small town of Khandwa (now in Madhya Pradesh). During those days, he was known as Abhas Kumar Ganguly. His father Kunjilal Ganguly was a lawyer and his mother was Gouri Devi.
He was the youngest out of four children. His brothers Ashok Kumar and Anoop Kumar entered the arena of Bollywood when he was still a child. Spending time with his brothers, the charm of Bollywood movies too intrigued him and his family seconded his interest.

Post Ashok Kumar's stardom, the Ganguly family shifted base to Mumbai. This was also the time when Abhas Kumar Ganguly changed his name to Kishore Kumar. His first venture into the big cinema career was as a chorus singer in the film "Bombay Talkies".

His first film as an actor was in the film called "Shikari" which was released in the year 1946, wherein Ashok Kumar was the lead hero. In 1948, Kishore Kumar got a chance to sing the song "Marne Ki Duayen Kyon Mangu" for the film "Ziddi". After this, he got many other assignments, but he did not seem to be making a place for himself.

Although his films were flop initially, he achieved success as a comic hero with movies like "New Delhi", "Half Ticket" and "Padosan". For all the praise and honor for his acting skills, acting was not what he would be most remembered for.
He achieved his supreme fame after he was recognized as a versatile singer.

Kishore was a big fan of legendary senior Indian actor-singer, Kundan Lal Saigal and he soon started mimicking his style. He gradually developed his own yodeling style of singing after music director SD Burman advised him to stop copying Saigal.

Later, SD Burman also gave him umpteen number of opportunities in movies like Dev Anand's "Munimji" (1954), "Taxi Driver" (1954), "House No. 44" (1955), "Funtoosh" (1956), "Nau Do Gyarah" (1957), "Paying Guest" (1957), "Guide" (1965), "Jewel Thief" (1967), "Prem Pujari" (1970), and "Tere Mere Sapne" (1971).

With time, music directors started recognizing the potential of Kishore Kumar and he became one of the leading singers in the Indian film industry.

Why was the journey not as happy as it seems?

The period of 1960s was a lean patch in the career graph of Kishore. Most of his films bombed at the box office. However, in 1969 the tables turned once again, as R. D. Burman took over the recording after S. D. Burman fell ill for the film "Aradhana".
R. D. Burman got Kishore Kumar to solo sing the songs "Mere Sapno Ki Rani" and "Roop Tera Mastana", both of which gained instant success. Kishore Kumar also won his first Filmfare award for the song "Roop Tera Mastana". Kishore then worked with other music directors such as Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Rajesh Roshan, Sapan Chakravarty and Bappi Lahiri.

During the 1970s and 1980s, he sang for leading Bollywood actors, such as Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Jeetendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Dev Anand, Shashi Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty, Sanjay Dutt, Sunny Deol, Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff.

Kishore knew what he wanted to do. And he also knew what he didn’t want to do. And he remembered his grudges. During the Indian Emergency in 1975-77, Kishore refused to sing for Indira Gandhi's 'Emergency Propaganda'. In retaliation, she banned his songs on the national media. When Amitabh refused to do a guest appearance in a film produced by him, Kishore stopped singing for the actor.

Later in 1970s and early 1980s, Kishore Kumar produced and directed movies such as "Badhti Ka Naam Daadhi" (1978), "Zindagi" (1981) and "Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin" (1980). In the mid-1980s, Kishore Kumar sang for Anil Kapoor in Kapoor's debut film as a leading man, "Woh Saat Din" and also recorded for "Mr. India". He sang a duet with Alka Yagnik, "Tumse Badhkar Duniya Mein Na Dekha" for "Kaamchor". He also recorded a few songs for the film "Saagar" with R. D. Burman.

By mid-1980s, however, Kishore had grown tired of the type of songs he was singing and decided to retire from the industry.

When did he produce his best work?

His songs, Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si (Chalti Ka Naam Gadi), Pyaar Deewana Hota Hai (Kati Patang), Main Shayar Badnaam (Namak Haraam), Rim Jhim Gire Saawan (Manzil), Diye Jalte Hain (Namak Haraam), Hume Tumse Pyaar Kitna (Kudrat), Ek Ajnabee Haseena Se (Ajnabee), Tere Bina Zindagi Se (Aandhi), Dekha Ek Khwaab (Silsila), Roop Tera Mastana (Amar Prem) among others have been blockbuster hits and favorites for millions of Indians.

Experimentation with expressing different emotions or the same emotion in different ways and generating feelings in varied emotions almost came naturally to Kishore Da – it is also because of him that we love to yodel and Bollywood ever became familiar with the concept of yodeling, otherwise famous with the artistes Tex Morton and Jimmie Rodgers.

He started his singing career in 1946 and the inimitable singer’s legend of evergreen romantic songs still lives on. Radio shows, Internet song downloads and the shared love for musical notes among many Indians prove that his success as an artiste knows no bounds, age groups or occasions.

An unparalleled comic actor, a producer, a director, screenwriter, lyricist, music composer, distinguished playback singer not only for Hindi but other languages like Urdu, Marathi, Bhojpuri, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam and Odia, there will not be another entertainer who can stand up to Kishore’s eccentric genius and the electrifying energy in his music.

Speaking of acting, comic timing and musical comedy movies, who can forget Vidyapati, Bhola’s friend in Padosan or Jhumroo in the movie Jhumroo or Vijay’s struggles in Mumbai in Half Ticket? He could roll, dance, jump, leap - all with élan.

Especially because he gave innumerable hits and classics to live by to the Indian music industry, such as O Hasina, Zindagi Ek Safar, O Majhi Re, Gaadi Bula Rahi Hai, Hume Aur Jeene Ki, Pal Pal Dil Ke paas, Chukar Mere Mann Ko and Pyaar Maanga Hai Tumhi Se, it is nearly impossible to believe that he had no formal training in singing or music.

Such was his demand in Bollywood that he recorded his last song (an unremarkable, guru guru) a day before his death on October 13, 1987 at the age of 58.

Where is the Kishore Kumar not celebrated?

He was a maverick and a genius, who made the world sway to his everlasting songs for decades. He is still considered by many to be one of the most successful playback singers in the history of Hindi cinema.

Interestingly, despite the fact that there is an award instituted by the Madhya Pradesh government in his name (Kishore Kumar Award) for contributions to Hindi films, the legendary singer was never awarded with a national honour (Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan or Padma Shri), unlike his contemporaries.

The total count of his songs is estimated to be 2950. Kishore Kumar's fans have decided to come together and work towards this. The Salkia Kishore Kumar Memorial Cultural Association was formed in 2016 with the sole objective to demand a Bharat Ratna award for Kishore Kumar. His son, singer Amit Kumar, said in 2017, "I think it is a good thing that his fans have taken up this initiative. My father was a Kohinoor. He himself is an award. But then, his fans want him to get one."He added, "I have encouraged them and said that I am with them. If he gets the Bharat Ratna, it will be good, but even if he doesn't, it is okay. I cannot tell the government, 'please give this award to my father'. But my best wishes are with all his fans. Let's hope this works."

Kishore Kumar won 8 Filmfare Awards for the Best Playback Singer. He even holds the record for winning most number of Filmfare Awards in that category.Yet, he was not considered worthy of a national honor by the government. If Lata Mangeshkar, Satyajit Ray or MS Subbulakshmi could get the Bharat Ratna, why not Kishore Kumar?
Perhaps he was – and still is - bigger than any award.

Who can be inspired by Kishore Kumar?

Kishore Kumar was an authentic rebel who chose to do things he liked, no matter what. In fact, his accidental foray into playback singing was born of rebellion – a fixture that would remain central to Kumar’s music and being.

His brother, Ashok, wanted Kishore to be an actor like he and Anoop, but Kishore resisted relentlessly, delivering deliberately mediocre deliveries in his unspectacular, roguish film career and willfully turning directors to acrid hostility. When he was finally permitted to sing, he was ridiculed for his rustic voice and his apparent lack of classical, or even rudimentary, training in music.

The moment of finality came when Kishore Kumar, a professed disciple of KL Saigal to the point of mimicry, was humiliated by SD Burman for the tendency to follow after ‘styles’ and subsequently encouraged to evolve his own. Here was born another dramatic rebellion of Kishore Kumar’s life as he proceeded not only to berate, throughout his illustrious career, classical training and the conviction that music was something that could be learned, but to militate against standards of music.

At a chronological crucible of considerable cultural flux, Kishore Kumar represented the impossibility of obeying. Kumar would return to this impulse in the mid-1970s at the epochal juncture of a nationalist crisis – Indira Gandhi’s much vaunted and critiqued political emergency. When asked to perform at a Congress soiree by Sanjay Gandhi, Kumar flatly refused, bearing cultural disavowal and exclusion by the state for much of the decade.
Kishore was an eccentric genius. That’s something you cannot be trained for.

His eccentricities increased as he matured and he was said to address the trees in his backyard with names he had coined for them. Another story has him coming on the sets with only half a moustache. A flummoxed producer asked why, and he said, ‘I have been paid only half the instalment.’

An interior designer took to his heels after Kishore suggested a swimming pool in the midst of the living room. And this one takes the cake: when an eminent producer brought forth a legal injunction mandating that Kishore Kumar obey his director, Kishore would have his revenge in driving to Khandala for an otherwise dull scene because the director had forgotten to say ‘cut’.

Kishore Kumar’s many eccentricities came of a dark, tumultuous, and tragic personal life, but also of a time, his time, when no orthodoxy was too lofty to be unassailable.

How should we remember Kishore Kumar?

Versatility: Though the first thing that comes to our mind when we think of Kishore Kumar is his singing and yodeling, he was also an immensely talented actor, producer, director, music composer, lyricist, and scriptwriter. Last year, Google Doodle celebrated his multi-talents as the four pillars of Indian film industry viz. acting, music, direction and writing.

Dreams: Kishore Kumar was the youngest of four siblings, and his eldest brother Ashok Kumar had become a star when Kishore was just a child. Kishore was always fascinated by the film industry and dreamt of making a name for himself, and as we all know, he did it quite well. But not the way Ashok Kumar wanted him to do.

Struggle: Through Ashok Kumar, who had established himself as a star in the industry, it was easy for Kishore to make an entry into singing. However, like any other struggler, he started his career by singing chorus for Bombay Talkies, and did some small roles in movies to remain in the industry. And then, to not remain.

Determination: Kishore Kumar never had a formal training in music, but he was so much into singing and music that he never thought it as a hindrance in his music career. Since childhood, he idolized K.L Saigal and wanted to be like him. This was often seen in his songs, where he tried to sing like Saigal.

Novelty: Yodeling was something Indian music industry had never come across formally, but fascinated by Jimmie Rodgers, Kishore Kumar learned how to yodel and made it his style. Taking risks is something for which he would always be idolized by the coming generation.

Strong Will: Ashok Kumar, his elder brother and a reputed film actor, wanted him to become an actor like him, thinking it to be a safer option, but he was so determined to be a singer that he avoided meeting film producers. He used to mess up his lines and yodel in sad scenes so that producers kicked him out of his films and he could return to singing.

Innovation: When music director S.D. Burman visited Ashok Kumar and heard Kishore Kumar singing, he advised him to develop a style of his own, which he eventually did. Kishore made it a point to make singing his life and devised new ways of doing it.

Humanity: Even though Kishore had a strict no-money-no-work policy, evident from his half-shaved stint when he was paid half money, he was a supportive man and worked for free for people he knew and was friends with. He also helped actor-turned-producer Bipin Gupta with Rs 20,000 for his film Dal Mein Kala. After the death of his friend Arun Kumar Mukherjee, Kishore Kumar helped his family by regularly sending money to his family.

Love for Nature: Though he was a famous singer and actor, he didn't like the company of people from the industry and preferred spending time alone in his garden. On being asked about his loneliness by a reporter, he took him to his garden and showed him several trees that he had planted and named. He introduced the trees as his best friends

Kishore Kumar was undoubtedly one of the best singers of the Indian film industry. The way he sang, rather lived, his songs, is what makes people remember him years after his demise.
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