The Much-Misunderstood Mukesh

Sandeep Krishnamurthy, Feb 24 2003


For the longest time, I belonged to the group of elitists who derided and mocked Mukesh for his plain singing. In mehfils and guppa sessions in my college hostel, I was among those who pointed out the obvious limitations in his singing. Yet, when I had to choose a song for a college event, I instinctively veered to a Mukesh song. A supporter of Mukesh asked me after I finished, “If you don't like his singing so much, why did you pick one of his songs to sing for the function?”


Since I had chosen the song without great cognitive processing, I was at a loss for words. I could not clearly articulate why I had chosen that song.


Mukesh was not the technically greatest male film singer of his time. No way. Manna Dey could belt out taans that Mukesh could not even conjure. He did not even have the greatest vocal range. Rafi could hit the high notes that few of his peers ever came close to -- the Baiju Bawra songs should be evidence enough for this.


Yet, it is Mukesh who stood out as the most soulful singer of all time. He communicated emotion -- especially the sadder overtones -- in a way that was unparalleled. He passed on the blues, the dard, to his listening audience.


This became clear to me once again when I recently visited Holland. The Ryksmuseum in Amsterdam is home to many paintings, notably some of Rembrandt's masterpieces. However, the incident I want to tell you about took place in one of the smaller rooms where the foot traffic was not as much as the main exhibits. Here, a museum attendant of Indian origin was lost in this own world. With his eyes closed and head taking off in all directions, he was belting one Mukesh number after another. It was striking to see Indian music in a European museum. It was even more amazing to see that he had chosen Mukesh's songs to give voice to his emotions.


Mukesh's songs were invariably simple, making them accessible to a general audience. Most popular songs are simple, anyway. His nasal tone, an apparent technical weakness (ask any music teacher), became a charming trademark that drew people to him. Initially, Mukesh tried to imitate Saigal in his singing (Dil Jalta Hai is an obvious reference here) -- but he quickly realized that he had to have his own style if he was to make it big. The nasal singing style then became all his own and actually differentiated him from his peers making him memorable.


The layman always felt like he could hum a Mukesh song -- a feeling that did not always arise for other technically adept singers. Mukesh's simplicity of presentation communicated a sincerity of spirit that touched people in ways others could not. When others sang, the presentation was perhaps technically superior. But, this created a sense of distance between the listener and singer, making their songs less accessible.


Interestingly, attempts at imitating Mukesh's singing typically fall short. For instance, even Mukesh's son, Nitin has not been successful. In my opinion, the reason for this is that many people think that Mukesh's music is not just simple, but simplistic. It is as though people are able to sing in a similar style and yet, not be able to communicate the same emotions.


The role of Raj Kapoor in making Mukesh a star is not to be underestimated. Raj celebrated the impoverished simpleton and the sentiment that is best articulated in a Mukesh song: “mana apna jeb se fakir hain, phir bhi yaaron dil se hum amir hain.” He saw the world as a place where the innocent were sure to get hurt because their simple values clashed with the harsh hurly-burly of reality. This worldview meant that somebody had to give voice to the sadness caused to the simpleton and Mukesh was the man for the job. Mukesh's singing voice resembled Raj's voice. This appealed to Raj who rejected the unnatural system of expert singers singing for expert actors. He wanted the music to be fresh and as close to how it would be if he himself sung the piece.


Mukesh was the rare singer who completely internalized the words of the songs he sang. As a result, he became the instrument to communicate the words of the poets. He provided the simplest of packaging to the words so that they stood out in the minds of the listeners. While this simplicity can be scoffed at by the elites, it served the purpose of the poet and the music director well.


Mukesh was the right singer for his time. The role of dard in Indian cinema has certainly receded. The familiar theme of youthful love has taken over the social focus of directors such as Raj Kapoor (early films only) and Guru Dutt. Today, the hero is proactive and fights to get back the girl rather than sing about his sadness. Much like Western cinema, Indian movies now focus more on happy endings rather than on the hurt that is memorialized in many Eastern traditions. Raj Kapoor's poor simpleton is considered a loser in an increasingly materialistic society that judges people on their net worth rather than their values. This changing milieu made Mukesh less relevant. His later songs with a happy undertone (notably "ek din bik jayega") seemed incongruous to his older fans and not zippy enough to the younger crowd. Mukesh was a creature of the less hurried, idealistic and empathetic times where sentiment ruled. In his day, Mukesh helped shape these times as much as the times defined him.


The bottom line is Mukesh was not simply lucky. He was good at what he did. There was a niche for a singer like him at his time. He was appreciated and in demand from those who understood him.