His virtuosity was in his simplicity. Unlike classically trained playback singers like Mohammad Rafi and Manna De, he had a straightforward and simple singing style that instantly appealed to his listeners. Just about anybody could sing his songs, anyone could hum along with him. But no one could reproduce the sincere pathos that defined the unique voice of Mukesh Chand Mathur.
Mukesh began his singing career as a clone of the legendary KL Saigal. In his first song for a Hindi film, Dil jalta hai, from the film Pehli Nazar (1945) that was filmed on his mentor Motilal, he sounded so much like Saigal that Saigal himself was deceived and remarked that he did not recollect singing that song!
Two music directors, Naushad Ali and Anil Biswas, encouraged Mukesh to develop his own singing style, and prove that he was Mukesh, not a clone. Mukesh did that through the early fifties, and became the screen voice of Dilip Kumar, in movies like Yahudi, Andaz and Madhumati. Remember the evergreen, “Suhana safar aur ye mausam haseen“, from Madhumati?
However, the songs he sang for Raj Kapoor in Aag, Awara, Shree 420 and Anari were far more popular. With the song ‘Zinda hu is tarah‘, from Aag, Mukesh became the official voice of Raj Kapoor, while Dilip Kumar moved over to Rafi. Except for a few songs rendered by Manna De and Rafi, Mukesh sang playback for Raj Kapoor throughout his career, right upto his very last recorded song, for Raj Kapoor’s Dharam Karam, just before his death in 1976.
Mukesh, in fact, sang for all the leading stars of his time, including Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. Mukesh was considered unfit to sing playback for the deep-voiced and macho ‘angry young man’ Bachchan, but he proved his detractors wrong with his superb rendition of ‘Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein‘, from Kabhi Kabhie in 1975.
A notable feature of his voice was the clarity of his diction. No one could match Mukesh for his correct enunciation of lyrics and the sheer emotion he infused into each song he sang.
Mukesh was a modest, soft-spoken man. A benign smile always played on his face, and he never spoke harshly of anyone. A man of the masses, he was quite frank in admitting that he could barely understand English. When he was announced to audiences during his concerts abroad, he would invariably ask the compere to translate his introduction into Hindi.
Although he sang not more than 1300 film songs, Mukesh received innumerable awards through his career, including four Filmfare awards and finally the National Award from the Indian government in 1974, for his rendition of “Kai baar yoon bhi dekha hai“, from Rajnigandha.
When we got the news of his sudden death due to cardiac arrest, on August 27, 1976, at Detroit, we reacted with total disbelief. Raj Kapoor’s immediate shocked reaction was, “I have lost my voice”. And so did Indian cinema. Till date, no satisfactory replacement has been found for this modest singing genius from Ludhiana – and I don’t think there ever will.
Here’s a rare song from Saranga (1961). Mukesh rated this classical song as the most difficult song of his career. A short version of this song was recorded by Mohammad Rafi. But for the full version, the music director Sardar Mallick insisted on Mukesh. Listen to the song, and you will understand why.
Cheers … Srini.