If versatility is the yardstick of measuring the virtuosity of an artist, then the late Kishore Kumar should rank as one of the greatest artists of all times in the history of Hindi movies. Though essentially, he was a playback singer, he had had the uncanny ability to produce an entire movie virtually all by himself and carry it successfully too on his broad shoulders.

He had acquired enough skills nearly in every facet of movie making -- singing, composing music, writing lyrics, dialogues and screen play, direction, production and, of course, acting. In fact, his acting too defied a straitjacket description. He played every conceivable role – from comedian to a romantic hero and to a tragedian, a la Dilip Kumar.

Kishore together with Mukesh and Mohammad Rafi virtually ruled the roost as playback singers during late 1950s to late 1980s. The three Musketeers of the Hindi movies then formed a unique triumvirate, each regaling and mesmerizing in their own way their fans with their mellifluous melodies. What added a soulful tenor to their songs were the beautiful lyrics written by some of the greatest poets and lyricists of that time.

Mohd Rafi too was equally, if not more, versatile and was at ease in singing songs to suit every situation and mood. Both the singers could raise their voices to a falsetto pitch and then lower it with equal felicity. Likewise, Mukesh too could hold his own and had a voice that could paint a thousand shades of melancholy. In no time, he had become the voice of Raj Kapoor and sang numerous songs for him. He was considered second to no one at the height of his popularity.

Kishore Kumar was youngest of four siblings. The greatest actor of that era, Ashok Kumar was the oldest followed by sister Sati Devi and Anoop Kumar, who also acted in quite a few films. Spending time with his brothers in the filmy atmosphere at home, Kishore Kumar’s interest in movies was just natural. There, he passionately listened to KL Sehgal’s songs on radio and gramophone, and soon enough, he was enamoured by the magical voice of Sehgal and started worshipping him; he even tried to imitate Sehgal’s voice and style and succeeded to a great extent.

However, it was as an actor that he made his maiden appearance in Shikari (1946) in which his brother Ashok was the lead actor. His first break as a singer came in 1948 when music director Khemchand Prakash gave him a chance to sing “Marne ki duayen kyon mangu” for film Ziddi. The song was a hit. Three years later, he was a lead actor in the Bombay Talkies movie Andolan directed by Phani Majumdar. His next acting assignment was in Bimal Roy’s Naukri (1954). It was in that movie that its music director Salil Chowdhury gave him an opportunity; the song Chhota sa ghar hoga became an instant hit.

Despite the popularity of his songs, Kishore got more offers for acting assignments than for singing. In 1957, he starred in two movies New Delhi and Aasha. In the following year (1958), he made bold to produce Chalti ka Naam Gaadi in which all the three brothers acted and Madhubala played the female lead. Thereafter, he starred in many more movies.

However, it was music director SD Burman who gave Kishore opportunities to sing in one movie after another beginning with Dev Anand’s hit films -- Munimji and Taxi Driver (1954), House No. 44 (1955), Funtoosh (1956), Nau Do Gyarah and Paying Guest (1957), Guide and Jewel Thief (1965), Prem Pujari (1970), and Tere Mere Sapne (1971). Not only these movies became big hits but their songs too soared in popularity charts. Dev Anand’s own popularity scaled higher peaks while Kishore Kumar began to be recognized as Dev Anand’s voice.

During the following few years, Kishore Kumar sang numerous songs for music directors C. Ramchandra, Shankar Jaikishan, Ravi, Chiragupta and others. Many of those songs such like Eena Meena Deeka (Aasha 1957), Nakhrewaali (New Delhi 1956), C.A.T. Cat Maane Billi and Hum to Mohabbat Karega (Dilli ka Thug 1958) and Cheedo na Meri Zulfein (Ganga ki Lahren 1964) were chartbusters.

To cut the long story short, Kishore, by all consensus, was not only one of the most outstanding playback singers but also an acclaimed actor, director, producer et al. In his long singing career, he had won eight Filmfare awards for his songs that were declared best in that particular year. In comparison Mohd Rafi had only won six. He had had the distinction of singing duets with almost all the leading female playback singers of that time including Lata Mangeskar, Asha Bhosle, Alka Yagnik et al.

Incidentally, he also enjoyed the unique distinction of working with all the great and not so great music directors during his long singing career. Another distinction that stands out is the fact that he sang for every leading hero including Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Jitendra, Sanjiv Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Rishi Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor and several others.

In his long and somewhat chequered movie career, Kishore Kumar had produced and directed many movies and even acted in them. One of the first movies that he produced, directed and even acted was Jhumroo (1961); he also wrote the lyrics of its title song Main Hoon Jhumroo. In 1964, he produced and directed another movie Door Gagan ki Chhaon Mein. He also wrote its script and composed its music. He also produced and directed a few movies in late 1970s and early part of 1980s. Those were Badhti ka Naam Dadhi (1978), Zindagi (1981) and Door Wadiyon mein Kahin (1980).

KISHORE was a man of contradictions. He supported contradictory streaks of arrogance and humility; he had a great sense of humour, yet he was quite capable of losing temper at slightest pretext. He was also considered whimsical, idiosyncratic and even eccentric by some of the producers and directors who blamed him for being late for shooting or even playing truant. Kishore was very particular about being paid by the producers.

Once, his dues were only half paid. “Aadha paisa to aadha makeup” was his curt response when the director questioned him about makeup on half of his face. On the sets of Bhai Bhai, Kishore declined to act because director MV Raman owed him Rs. 5,000. On yet another occasion when producer RC Talwar did not pay his dues despite repeated reminders, Talwar arrived his house one morning shouting slogan of “Hey Talwar, de de mere aath hazaar”. There were many more such instances.

He had also temporarily stopped singing for Amitabh Bachchan in mid-1980s after Bachchan had refused to make a guest appearance in the film Mamta ki Chhaon Mein that Kishore had produced. However, he soon called a truce and sang for him in Toofan. He did the same with Mithun Chakraborty. Yet he was a man of strong conviction. During the Emergency (1975-77), he refused to sing at an Indian National Congress rally in Mumbai. As a result, the then information and broadcasting minister Vidya Charan Shukla had put an unofficial ban on his songs on All India Radio and Doordarshan from May 4, 1976; the ban ended only when the Emergency was lifted.

Unfortunately, the course of his personal life did not run smooth. His marriages too were by and large unhappy or short lived. His first wedding with Bengali singer and actress Ruma Guha Thakurta aka Ruma Ghosh in 1950 was the only normal one without any upheavals. Ruma also gave him his first son Amit Kumar.

His second marriage with Madhubala -- the prettiest and the most vivacious actress of that time – was most troublesome. Madhubala suffered from ventricular septal defect (hole in the heart) and wanted to go to London for treatment. It was at that point that Kishore Kumar proposed to her. In 1960, the two had a quiet civil marriage.

Kishore Kumar even converted to Islam and changed his name to Karim Abdul. His parents were enraged and refused to attend the Nikah ceremony. To placate them, the couple also performed a Hindu marriage ceremony but still the parents remained adamant and never truly accepted Madhubala as Kishore’s wife. It was under such circumstances that within a month of their wedding, Madhubala moved back to her bungalow in Bandra.

The marriage continued under all that stress and strain for the remainder of Madhubala’s life. It automatically ended with her tragic death on February 23, 1969. Kishore Kumar was left heartbroken.

His third marriage with actress Yogeeta Bali lasted less than two years.

His fourth and last marriage with Leena Chandavarkar in 1980 was relatively smooth and peaceful and it lasted until he died in 1987. Leena gave him his second son Sumit.

On October 13, 1987, Kishore Kumar died of an heart attack at 4.45 pm; he was then only 58. Coincidentally, that day was also his brother Ashok Kumar’s 76th birthday. A day before his death, he had recorded his last song Guru Guru – a duet with Asha Bhosle for Waqt ki Aawaz composed by Bappi Lahiri for Mithun Chakraborty and Sridevi.

Despite his idiosyncrasies and tantrums, he had nevertheless established a niche position for himself that no other playback singer at that time could breach. His virtuosity had then surpassed every other competition and he stood tall among his peers. No wonder that even 30 years after his demise, Kishore’s vast repertoire of immortal songs are as popular today as those were in his hey days. His songs conveyed varied emotions – a touch of poignancy as in “Dukhi mun mere sun mera kehna” or a streak of hilarity as in “Main hun jhumroo”.

(Raj Kanwar is a Dehra Dun-based columnist and freelance journalist)