New Delhi: ‘Yeh nayan dare dare, ye jaam bhare bhar…’. A wind-blown mansion and a haunting melody. Inside, a slick Biswajeet Chatterjee beckons the shy Waheeda Rehman in this 1964 song from the film Kohraa. Fifty years since, this song still resonates in the hearts of people and recreates a kind of carefree romanticism that belongs only to lovers. Hemant Kumar’s sonorous voice lends nothing less than magic to it and at once catapults before us his tall, dhoti-shirt clad figure.
Kumar was among a handful of artists in the capacity of a singer, music director, composer and a film producer who straddled both the worlds of Bengali and Hindi films with elan. Also known as Hemanta Mukhopadhyay in West Bengal, Kumar is an exponent of Rabindra Sangeet too and has left behind a rich legacy of soulful music.
Melody queen Lata Mangeshkar had once said, “Listening to Hemanta da, I feel as though a sadhu is sitting in a temple singing bhajan”.
On his 99th birth anniversary, on Sunday, ThePrint remembers this legendary cultural icon.
Kumar was born in Benaras (Varanasi) on 16 June 1920. His family soon moved to Calcutta and Kumar pursued his primary, secondary and college education in Bengal. He began studying engineering but dropped out of Jadavpur University to pursue a career in music.
Kumar’s first brush with recorded music was at the All India Radio, Calcutta, in 1933 as a 13-year-old boy. He had trained under Sailesh Dasgupta and also learned Rabindra Sangeet, a collection of songs written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore, under Anadi Ghosh Dastidar. Later, he also received classical music training under Ustad Faiyaz Khan.
Prior to his tryst with commercial music, Kumar had only recorded Bengali non-film songs. In 1937, he first recorded two songs on a disk – ‘janite jadi go tumi’ and ‘bala go balo more’.
Kumar’s career got a jump-start when he got a chance to do playback singing in the Bengali film Nimai Sanyas in 1941. Three years later, in 1944, he recorded his first Rabindra Sangeet in the Bengali film Priya Badhabi and another non-film song from the same genre.
His first debut as a playback singer in the Hindi film industry was in the movie Irada in 1944.
Kumar wore the hat of a music director for the first time in 1952 for the Hindi film Anand Math. The song ‘vande mataram’ from this film, rendered by Mangeshkar, hit the patriotic chords of people, and became extremely popular.
Even though things looked brighter for Kumar and he had established his mark in the Bengali film industry, the man was yet to get his first big break in Mumbai. One that would introduce this singer and composer to a larger audience.
It finally came in 1954, when Kumar composed songs for the Hindi film Nagin, brought out by the company Filmistan which was helmed by Sashadhar Mukherjee. The movie starred actors Vyjayanthimala and Pradeep Kumar in the lead roles.
In an interview reproduced in The Quint, Kumar narrated how he had composed music for this film which resolves around a conflict between two tribes: “My problem was…I did not want to use the ‘been’ (a winged musical instrument, also called the pungi). Kalyanji Virji Shah was my assistant. Finally, we imitated a tune similar to one produced by a been with the help of a harmonium and clavioline. Both the film’s director and producer liked it and asked me to use it in the songs of Nagin.”
The music of Nagin was a sleeper hit with songs such as ‘mann dole tan dole’ being counted as one of the chart busters at the time. Kumar also received the Filmfare award for best music in Nagin.
His career climbed newer heights thereafter and saw him gain recognition for his compositions in Hindi films such as Jagriti, Bees Saal Baad and Khamoshi (1969), among others. Kumar worked on at least two other films produced by Filmistan – Shart and Samrat.
Many of Kumar’s memorable compositions in Hindi are remakes or improvisations of their Bengali versions. The Hindi song ‘na jao saiyan chhuda ke baiyan’ featuring Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was a remake of the Bengali original ‘oliro kotha shune bokul haashe’ which Kumar himself sang.
Kumar also met fellow songwriter, composer and poet Salil Chowdhury through the Indian People’s Theatre Association and together they composed several sour-stirring Bengali songs such as ‘kono ek gayer bodhu’, ‘path harabo’ and others. He also worked with other renowned composers, including S.D. Burman, Anil Biswas, and the famous Lakshmikant- Pyarelal duo.
Kumar married Bengali singer Bela Mukherjee in 1945. Together they have two children – son Jayanta and daughter Ranu.
Stint as film producer
Kumar produced his first film under the banner Hemanta-Bela Films, only to later rename it as Gitanjali Films. He produced a Bengali movie called Neel Akshar Neechay in 1959 which was directed by the legendary filmmaker Mrinal Sen. It is also pertinent to mention here that it was among the first films to be censored and banned, although for two months only, by the government. Ironically, it went on to bag the President’s Gold Medal award later.
Some other films that Kumar produced were Bees Saal Baad, Kohra and Khamoshi.
Kumar was nominated for both Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, both of which he politely refused.
Last years and death
The trajectory of his career began declining after the 1970s. His health started failing during the 1980s and this doyen of music finally passed away on 26 September, 1989 in Calcutta after succumbing to a heart attack.