A multifaceted musical legend

It became a huge hit, due largely to its songs, which topped the charts for two years and also brought him the Filmfare Best Music Director Award.

A multifaceted musical legend


Agentle genius, Hemanta Kumar Mukherjee, the legendary music director and reputed singer would have been a hundred years old today. Hemanta-da had a special place in the hearts of lovers of Rabindra Sangeet, of which he remained a life-long exponent, ever since he recorded a song “Pather Sesh Kothaye” for the Bengali film Priya Bandhabi (1944), at a young age of 24.

Gramophone Company of India released a commemorative disc featuring Rabindrasangeet by Hemanta- da during the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore in 1961.

Hemanta-da shifted from Kolkata to Mumbai in 1951, and over the years became different things to different people – a mentor to several budding film musicians, who went on to become famous music directors themselves; a music director of numerous Bengali and Hindi movies, and a singer chosen by several contemporary music directors, due to the depth in his voice.


He is remembered for the nationalistic songs he sang, which remain popular even today. In the 1961 hit film, Ganga Jamuna, when a school teacher was to be shown singing to his class a song of righteousness, ‘Insaaf ki dagar pe, bachcho dikhao chalke’ the voice of the playback singer had to carry conviction, and Naushad’s choice was Hemanta Kumar.

Kabuliwala, released in the same year, too, had Hemanta Kumar singing ‘Ganga aaye kahan se Ganga jaaye kahan’ set to music by Salil Chowdhury. On every Republic Day and Independence Day songs from the film Jagriti (1954) are played for schoolchildren – ‘Aao bachcho tumhen dikhayen’ (sung by Kavi Pradeep), ‘Hum laaye hain toofan se’ (sung by Mohammed Rafi), and ‘Sabarmati ke sant tune’ (sung by Asha Bhosle), which were set to music by Hemanta Kumar.

Special shows of Jagriti were organized at the local cinema theatres for schoolchildren, including by my school in 1954-55. And, who can forget ‘Vande mataram’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar, with a marching tune set by him for Anand Math (1952)? Hemanta Kumar won quick recognition in Mumbai as a playback singer not only in his own films but in films which had other music directors.

Examples are ‘Jaag darde ishaq jaag’ from Anarkali (1953), ‘Nain so nain naahi milao’ from Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955), and ‘O raat ke musafir’ from Miss Mary (1957). Hemanta-da also produced several films under his own banner, Geetanjali Productions, with lilting music by him. Notable hits among them were Bees Saal Baad (1962) and Khamoshi (1970).

A friend of mine, Vijay Sabharwal, soulfully sang ‘Na tum hamein jano’ by Hemanta-da from Baat ek Raat ki (1962) and won the singing competition at our college. He sings it with fervour even now, nearly six decades later. Numerous die-hard Dev Anand fans like him hum songs sung for him in the 1950s by Hemanta-da, such as ‘Hai apna dil to awara’, ‘Ye raat, ye chandni phir kahan’, ‘Teri duniya mein jeene se’, etc. with music by S.D. Burman; and ‘Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum’ set to music by Shankar Jaikishan.

He generally shunned awards including Padma awards but accepted the 1985 Honorary D.Litt. from Visva- Bharati University, possibly due to his soft corner for Shantiniketan. Caring for others, he set up a homeopathy hospital in memory of his late father in West Bengal. He helped, anonymously, many families in financial hardship, a fact known only after his death in 1989.

Biggest mainstream acclaim came to Hemanta Kumar from the unprecedented popularity of the film Nagin (1954). It became a huge hit, due largely to its songs, which topped the charts for two years and also brought him the Filmfare Best Music Director Award.

The film had several songs, but the one to gain universal appeal was ‘Man Dole Mera Tan Dole’, whose ‘been’-music was created by Kalyanji on the clavioline (forerunner of an analog synthesizer) and by Ravi on the harmonium, both of whom became successful music directors, subsequently. Nagin can be called the biggest Hindi film hit of all times.

When the present- day producers claim to shatter box-office records every week for their just-released film riding on digital media-hype, they have no yardstick to compare the earnings of a film released today in hundreds of multiplex theatres across the county with a film released then in far fewer single-screen theatres, with miniscule advertising.

Nonetheless, Nagin celebrated jubilees across India and ran for two years continuously at a Calcutta theatre. It would not be logical to compare the earnings for a film then and now with the price of gold as a yardstick, or by comparing the per capita income in India, which was below Rs. 400 a year in 1954, because even if one could spare about half a rupee for a ticket then, one had to travel to a large town to see the film, simply because there were hardly any movie theatres in the countryside.

The claim that Naginwas the biggest Hindi hit film ever can be made on the premise that a large part of rural North India was converted from folk, the only music which they were exposed to till then, to Hindi film music by the song ‘Man Dole’. For a full decade, this song ruled and also became the perennial signature-tune of ‘been’-playing snake-charmers who visited the countryside for their livelihood.

The sight of a cobra standing alert to the ‘been’ music lured crowds. On festivals like Dussehra, theatres would have re-runs of Nagin in the 1950s-60s, to cater to droves of farmhands in festive mood, who descended on the town nearby to see Nagin, its dance numbers by Vyjayanthimala, and re-live the magic of ‘Man Dole’.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that through this ‘been’ song, Hemanta-da provided an enduring source of livelihood to thousands of snake charmers, which continues still.

On the birth centenary of Hemant Kumar, the film industry owes him the credit for making the first ever Hindi film song, ‘Man Dole’, which penetrated rural India, with a popularity rivalling folk-music, thus winning over vast rural viewers from the northern Indian planes, and helping Bollywood to rake in huge earnings from their films, ever since.

(The writer is Chairman, Atomic Energy Education Society (DAE), Mumbai, and Associate Director (Retd.), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre)