And How Kishore Kumar Sings

Written by Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan on 12 August 2021

Shankar Mahadevan decodes the Kishore Kumar way of singing.

Kishore Kumar was born, this day, August 4, 92 years before. His voice, his songs, his music, his moods, his antics on screen, his feel for life—all of these remain with us, even to this day.

For lifelong learners of music, and for followers of film music, the works of Kishore Kumar are a lifetime of lessons: on playback singing, on the exploring of emotions through song, on the peeking inside of these songs to find a way through the thick and thin of personal life. Because nothing carries a songwriter’s message on life than a song sung by Kishore Kumar.

On August 8 2021, SMA Tributes presented a tribute to Kishore Kumar. This program was our small attempt as an Academy to break down and decode the Kishore Kumar way of singing songs. 

And who better to do this than Shankar Mahadevan, who, himself, is a composer of film (and classical) music, a playback singer, a keen observer and lifelong learner of music, life, living. Here is a transcript of that conversation with Shankar Mahadevan.

When you first heard a Kishore Kumar song, what were the things about his singing that stood out for you? 

Shankar Mahadevan: When I heard Kishore Kumar for the first time, the impact his voice had on my life cannot be described by way of a few words. It just opened up a new dimension in singing, in voice quality, in projection, emotion and overall, I realised that this is the voice of the Indian film hero. So that was my first reaction.

Songs written for other playback singers would have intricate vocal variations running through the melody. Though Kishore Kumar portrayed variations brilliantly, why would most of his songs tend to have mostly straight notes with lesser variations? 

Shankar Mahadevan: Well, that's an interesting question. You are right that, more than often, Kishore Kumar does—his songs were sung with straight notes and he would not get into very, very complex patterns in the way he rendered it. But there are a few songs where he has sung some intricate melodies. For example, Kuch Toh Log Kahenge (Amar Prem) which is an intricate melody. 

It was the way he approached a melody which is what is interesting about Kishore Kumar. For example, a song like Is Mod Se Jaate Hain (Aandhi) the way Lataji has sung, with intricate variations to that opening line, is beautiful. But so is the way Kishore Kumar sings that line—Is Mod Se Jaate Hain—with a minimal variation. 

So it is about the confidence with which you put your style out there very strongly and you know that it is going to be effective. That is the confidence that Kishore Kumar had. So many songs—Humein Tumse Pyar Kitna (Kudrat)—Begum Parveen Sultana ji has sung it so intricately with all the harkats and everything. But Kishore Kumar has sung it so simply with minimal inflections and keeping the notes straight. 

The beauty about Kishore Kumar is when he used to hit a note... I always discuss this with a few of my colleagues that... if the spectrum of the note Ma (Madhyam) is this wide his pitching used to be in the center of that. So that’s how it used to be so bang-on perfect. 

And, then there is something about his singing which is beyond music, beyond lyrics, beyond rhythm, and beyond the technicality of music; something that goes straight into your soul— and that quality Kishore Kumar had, which you can only get from above.

Let’s talk of romantic songs, as they formed the vast majority of Hindi Movie songs. We can sense that the romantic songs sung by Mohammad Rafi had a soft, gentle, even pleading quality. What is the unique feel that Kishore Kumar would bring in his romantic songs? 

Shankar Mahadevan: Kishore Kumar's contribution to a romantic song, his own contribution, his interpretation of a song—is amazing. He used to take a simple melody and just raise it to the next bar, and totally what the melody demanded. He used to mould his voice. He could make the song sung in a complete whisper, for example, a song like Chookar Mere Man Ko (Yaarana). The whole song he sang in a whisper. And if you'll see a mastiwala (mischievous) romantic song, like, Hey Jawani Hai Diwani (Jawani Diwani), it is full-throated masti. And, if you see a song like Hum The Woh Thi Aur Sama Rangeen Samajh Gaye Na (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi)—it has different voice modulations, different words, textures—you cannot believe it's the same person singing all these songs. Or for that matter, a song like Chingari Koi Bhadke or Kuch Toh Log Kahenge (both, Amar Prem) or Kehna Hai (Padosan)... The list is endless. 

So depending on what the song demanded, he used to just mould his voice accordingly. It's a magical voice. I mean, it was pure magic. Nothing else.

Kishore Kumar is able to instinctively create in his songs an atmosphere of joy, melancholy, sadness, loneliness, introspection, mischief... How could he accomplish this? What was in the way he rendered these songs that brought out this breadth of emotions? 

Shankar Mahadevan: Kishore Kumar was not only a singer, he was an actor, he was a producer, he was a director, he was a music composer. So all these facets of filmmaking were part of his repertoire. And all of these—an actor's emotion, a lyricist’s depiction of a song, what the scene demanded—all of those things he used to enact in a song. He was an actor in a song. 

That's why all these various emotions of sadness, happiness, craziness, inspiration, melancholy—everything was part of Kishore Kumar, and he used to just render them effortlessly. Just effortlessly. And you could see that it was a natural phenomenon for him.

He need not have to think too much. I remember somebody telling me that in one of the songs where he sang the mukhda, and then there was a long music part. When the entire orchestra (you know a hundred musicians used to play in the entire orchestra) was playing— he would get out of his cabin, come and dance with the musicians over there, and in time go running back into this cabin, shut his door, and he was ready for the antara. In a song like Khaike Paan Banaras Wala (Don), he requested that everybody eat paan, and come dressed in a Banarasi outfit.

He had that craziness in him and passion towards the music because he was fully into the music. And that showed in his songs.

If you were a music director in the times of Kishore Kumar, what kind of songs would you choose for Kishore Kumar? 

Shankar Mahadevan: You know, there is one regret in my life that I could not meet Kishore Kumar. And for me, Kishoreda was one of the biggest inspirations. And I think singing-wise, if you want the top 10 singers, I would rate him to be the top 10 itself, and then, all others would follow. For me, he was that great.

Just because he was a natural, his singing was sincere, with no pretence. He just did it very naturally. In fact, even if it was a sad song, he used to—if you carefully listened to his songs—never over-emote. He used to just render it straight and the emotion used to come from the heart, not through gimmicks used in the voice. And you just hear Zindagi Ka Safar Hai Ye Kaisa Safar (Safar), Mera Jeevan Kora Kagaz (Kora Kagaz)—all these songs when you hear, just the emotions that it evokes in every person, it's just unbelievable. 

If I would have had a chance to work with Kishoreda, I think I would have made him sing a zillion songs. And that’s for sure.