Meeting Usha Khanna

Author: Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

Remember the popular soundtracks like 'Dil Deke Dekho', 'Hum Hindustani', 'Aao Pyar Kare', 'Hawas' , 'Saajan Bina Suhagan' and 'Sautan'? Remember the chart-buster classics like Rafi's 'Hum Tumse Juda Hoke Mar Jaayenge Ro Ro Ke', Lata's 'Maanjhi Meri Kismat Ke', Mukesh's 'Chhodo Kal Ki Baatein', Yesudas' 'Madhuban Khushboo Deta Hai' and Kishore Kumar's 'Zindagi Pyar Ka Geet Hai'? All this memorable music is the creation of a practically forgotten lady called Usha Khanna. The talented artist has been only the second major female music director in the history of Hindi film music (the first being Saraswati Devi aka Khurshid Minocher- Homji) and is completing fifty years of her career. Even after making music for close to two hundred movies, Usha Khanna has not received the kind of attention and acclaim that she rightfully deserves.

Her life, her music and her unique achievement as a female composer have always fascinated me. So in my recent visit to Mumbai, I make it a point to complete the long-pending task of interviewing her. After pestering her with multiple telephonic requests, the lady finally agrees to meet me.

Getting off at Bandra station and catching a rickshaw I alight near Khar Telephone Exchange. Finding her building is not very difficult. (The landmark of a popular paneer shop guides me well!) The building's watchman seems to be oblivious to her presence but luckily his pal is knowing the address and exactly at 1.30pm, I am standing in front of her flat!
“Namashkar, main Usha Khanna'. Looking at the heavyset, middle-aged Punjabi lady that comes to greet me, I am slightly taken aback. Where is the slim, good-looking woman I had been seeing in the black-and-white photographs over all these years? Time does change everything!
Sitting on her drawing room sofa, we start our conversation. Every now and then a number of unwarranted interruptions from A) the carpenter, B) the house-maid, C) the house-maid's daughter and D) the constantly ringing telephone keep breaking the flow of the conversation. Yet the elderly lady doesn't lose her cool. She seems rather happy and eager to share her memories. Without any airs and with full candor, she answers my questions. Surprisingly she seems to have forgotten some of her best tunes, which I have to remind her by playing on my laptop. She listens to them with genuine wide-eyed surprise and asks, “Yeh gaanaa maine banaaya hai? Aur yeh bhi?” The creator's quiet pride reflects on her serene face! I am happy that at least I have made her revisit her past, when she made her own mark on the history of Hindi film music!
Here are the excerpts from the conversation.
Ushaji, your first film was Dil Deke Dekho in 1959. So you are now completing fifty years of your career. Looking back, do you think that you got what you deserved? Or could do full justice to your talent?
No artist ever feels fully satisfied with what he/she has achieved. Yes, I could have done much better but still I am happy with whatever I have achieved. So many (yesteryear) composers have been totally forgotten but luckily till today people remember me. Someone or the other keeps reminding me that they liked my one particular song or the other. Even today, I keep myself busy by composing for a few movies, TV serials and music videos.
When I came into the film-industry, I was just a girl of 16- 17 years. Nobody gave me any chance to survive- let alone make my mark. People said that she is not really composing the tunes, someone else is composing for her and her name is given just as a publicity stunt. After listening to my music in S. Mukherji's Dil Deke Dekho, even O.P. Nayyar himself was surprised to hear the remarkable similarity to his own music. When he first saw me as a shy teen-aged girl, he could not believe that it was I who had composed those songs! He very kindly gave me his blessings and called me his 'Putri Paathshaala' (daughter-student)!
Only a few big films came my way. Mostly I had to make do with B- and C-grade films. But I accepted all those offers because I wanted to show my talent. Even in such B-grade films, while composing a Mukesh- song, I used to imagine that I was composing for Raj Kapoor; for Kishore's songs it would be Dev Anand and for Rafi's numbers it would be Dilip Kumar in my mind. That way I could stimulate my creativity to come up with better tunes. I never compromised on the quality of my work and always tried to give my best.
A 16-year old girl, a total novice is selected by a picky film-maker like Shashdhar Mukherji as a composer of superstar Shammi Kapoor's film. How did that miracle happen?
My father (Manohar Khanna) used to write film-songs. As a youngster, at our home, I used to sing his songs after composing tunes for them. Lyricist Indeevar was a family friend and my father told him about my talents. Indeevar then took me to Filmalaya office. He specifically told me to wear a sari to look mature. Because in those days I was just a wafer-thin, teen-aged school-girl wearing skirts and frocks! After hearing about me, S. Mukherji almost reluctantly asked me to sing. I sang two- three songs. Then he stopped me and asked, “Do you think you sing better than Lata Mangeshkar?Or Asha Bhosle?” I said, “No sir- not at all.” Then he retorted, “Then why do you want to become a singer?” I just kept quiet.
Then Indeevar told Mukherji about my composing skills. This time also he wasn't too interested but nevertheless told me to play a few tunes on harmonium. After listening to few of my tunes, his face changed and he said,“Are these really your tunes? I don't believe it!” In front of him, Indeevar made me compose tunes for some dummy lyrics. After listening to them, Mukherji-saab asked his sons – Joy and Dev to join him. He said, “Her music just sounds like O.P. Nayyar's. Let's give her a try!” I was asked to come to Filmalaya office daily for next one year. Every day, I had to compose 4 new tunes for him. There once Dilip-saab had come for a meeting. Just when he was pulling my leg, Mukherji-saab first introduced me as the music director of his next film! Naturally Dilip-saab was too stunned to react!
Which was the first recording for Dil Deke Dekho?
It was Rafi-saab's 'Megha Re Bole Sanan Sanan'. I was very nervous. I still remember that when I first reached the recording studio with my arranger Sonik, some of the musicians had even whistled at me! But when they were told that I was the music director, everybody went silent!
In the movie, 'Megha Re Bole' is followed by 'Bade Hain Dil Ke Kaale' and 'Yaar Chulbula Hai' in quick succession. Were all these songs recorded at one go?
No, they were recorded separately. After all the songs for Dil Deke Dekho had already been picturised, Shammi Kapoor once asked me to play some new tune for him. After listening to it, he immediately told Mukherji that he wanted that song in the film at any cost. That's how 'Hum Aur Tum Aur Yeh Samaa' came into that film.
Looking back, it does seem incredible that a teenager girl could compose such a variety of film-songs. In those days, any film soundtrack needed to have a rock-N-roll song, a bhajan, a mujra, a classical song and so many different types of songs. How could you do that?
To be honest, I have not formally learned anything in music. I do not know the technicalities like the ragas, taal, maatraa, E- flat, G- minor but I somehow can create every type of tunes. I consider it Goddess Saraswati's blessing.
My father always said that I did not know anything except composing musical tunes. I was never good at studies. Leaving my school- books aside, I would always be reading the song leaflets. Today the musicians praise me for my harmonium playing skills but to teach me harmonium, my father had to write 'Sa Re Ga Ma' on the instrument keys. I learned the instrument in that way.
I made songs by listening to different types of music from different music directors. I was always particular about one aspect – melody. Without a good melody, no song sounds good. Yeah, one thing I hated was cabaret songs. I could not compose them well.
But you did compose those wonderful cabarets in Hawas.
Yes, but even there I have tried to give those songs a sweetness!
Pardon me for saying that but in your music we get the feel of the masters like Shankar-Jaikishan, O.P. Nayyar, S.D.Burman and Madan Mohan from time to time. There is no one particular identifiable Usha Khanna style. Do you agree? Do you consider it as a weak point of your music?
Yes, I agree with your observation. I did not develop my new style. But I don't consider it as a weakness. Whether it was OP, SJ or SD- I would always try and follow the winning trend. But I am not ashamed of that. I did not plagiarize any tunes, just picked up the basic style and tried to add something of my own.
I had started out by following O.P. Nayyar -style but my real inspiration was Shankar- Jaikishan's music. I always admired the way their music made the listeners remember not just the song but even the instrumental music preludes and interludes. Later I even tried following Laxmikant – Pyarelal's style. They had once worked as my assistants in Aao Pyar Kare.
I will tell you a funny thing. Once Laxmikant called me over the phone and said, “Today I won a bet with my wife. For the last so many days, she was congratulating me for composing 'Teri Galiyon Mein Naa Rakhenge Kadam' (Rafi, 'Hawas') and I was telling her that I have not composed any such song. Today we both were listening to the radio and they announced your name as the composer!” I took it as a great compliment!
Even in the late 70s, while composing Yesudas' 'Dil Ke Tukde Tukde Karke Muskurake Chal Diye', I had once again followed O.P. Nayyar's style.
You have used a lot of Arabic music, especially in your B-grade capers of the 60s.
Yes, I agree. Rather than western music, I preferred Arabic music. I felt their musical style was closer to our Indian style.
In those days, there was a cine-music-director's association, which held its regular meetings. Did you attend them? How was your interaction with other composers?
I was a small-timer so I never opened my mouth in any of these meetings. But let me tell you one thing, all the senior artistes were very sweet to me. Nobody tried to put me down or patronize me. They would always appreciate good music. Madan Mohan had called to congratulate me after listening to 'Meri Dastaan Mujhe Hi Mera Dil Sunake Roye' (Lata, Hum Hindustani). Later he even called me to sing one of his songs. I even sang for Kalyanji Anandji and Laxmikant Pyarelal.
I often used to visit Shankarji's music room. He had a unique way of composing – he and Hasrat would use the choicest swear-words as their dummy lyrics when they made their songs!
Why didn't you sing more often in films?
Composing was my bread and butter, my main profession. If I had tried to sing more songs, I would have suffered on the composing front. So I did not venture much in that direction.
How was your experience of working with Lataji?
Mukherji-saab had already spoken to Lataji about me and he told me to call her before the rehearsal. In her sweet melodious voice, she first talked to me over the phone. She was courteous but formal. The first song that she sang for me was 'Maanjhi Meri Kismat Ke' (Hum Hindutani). When she came for the rehearsal, she quietly sat before me and listened to the tune. After listening to it, she made me sing the song once more. That is her speciality. This second listen is to understand the composer's style. Once she does that, she just absorbs that style and renders it to perfection.
The greatest thing about her is that she respects the composer so much. She never tries to unnecessarily bring in her own style. She will do that only if she feels that it would add something that the original tune is lacking.
Later on, she became quite friendly with me and till today, we are in regular touch. Sometimes she would just drop in unannounced at my place if she wanted to avoid a recording. Then the composer- say Laxmikant- would call me to ask if she was at my place and I would lie through my teeth that she wasn't! Then we would spend the time at my home chatting and laughing.
After the late 60s, Lataji did not sing in your music for quite a long period. What was the reason for that?
It was because of a misunderstanding created by some nasty people. We came back together with 'Chaand Apna Safar Khatm Karta Raha' (Shama, 1978). When she came to rehearse for that song, it felt as if nothing had happened in between all those years.
How do you compare Lata and Asha?
I feel that Lataji did not want to sing particular types of songs even though she could easily do that. So she left that for the other sister!
You worked a lot with Suman Kalyanpur. How do you compare her with Lata?
In small towns they would say that Suman just sings like Lata. But any true music-lover could tell you that it is preposterous. She did a rather good job of singing like Lata but it was as if she was the 50th copy of the original! The main problem with Suman was the annoying vibration in her voice. Compared to her I would rather prefer Alka Yagnik who at least developed her own singing identity.
As compared to all these female singers, your tuning with Rafi-saab was something special. Songs like 'Maine Rakha Hai Mohabbat', 'Yeh Teri Saadgi', 'Hum Tumse Juda Hoke', 'Teri Galiyon Mein Na Rakhenge Kadam' and 'Tu Is Tarah Se Meri Zindagi Mein Shaamil Hai' proved that repeatedly.
He was a very sweet man. If the song-recording was at 9 am in Famous studio, I would reach his place at 8 am. He would be standing at the gate to greet me. After the rehearsal, he would force me to have a tea, even when I did not want it. 'Yeh special doodh se banaaya hai'- he would say!
Kishore Kumar was famous for his eccentricities. Did you experience any of that while working with him?
No, not really. Once we had scheduled Kishoreda's recording. All the musicians were ready. Then I received a phone call from Kishoreda that he had come to Mahalaxmi but he won't be able to come for the recording. He said that he was not feeling well and advised me to just record the orchestra track that day. After a few minutes, just when we were getting ready for the orchestra recording, Kishoreda walked into the studio. We were all very much surprised and delighted. He then told me that he had first listened to a wrong demo-tape from another composer and had felt that the tune was not good. So he had decided to cancel the recording. But then he had found the actual tape on which I had recorded my tune and after listening to that he felt that he shouldn't waste the opportunity to sing such a good song! That song was 'Zindagi Pyar Ka Geet Hai' from Sautan.
Usually in tandem songs, Lata is made to sing the sad sentimental version and the male singer gets the happy romantic version. In 'Zindagi Pyar Ka Geet Hai', you have reversed the roles.
That was according to the story's demand. But don't they both sound nice?
From the 60s to the current era, what changes have you witnessed in the making of music? What do you feel about the effect of advanced technology on contemporary music?
In the 80s, the disco tunes were in fashion. I hated them. The lyrics started to lose their importance. In the 90s, Nadeem Shravan and Gulshan Kumar were instrumental in bringing back melody into film music. Current era music is fairly good in terms of melody and poetry. I particularly like Rahman's music.
Thanks to technology now we can record the singers' tracks separately; we can record different instruments separately and then mix all of them together. But there is a great difference in decorating a live beautiful girl and a dead one!
In a live recorded song like 'Shaayad Meri Shaadi Ka Khayaal' (Sautan), we can feel that the singers are enjoying and interacting together. There Lataji says something like 'Are Nahi Baba Baba Nahi', which was done on the spur of moment as a reaction to Kishoreda's antics. It was not planned by me but it added so much of life to the song! This element is missing in contemporary songs.
You were instrumental in introducing so many new talents.
Yes, I encouraged and introduced many young talented artists like Vinod Rathod, Shabbir Kumar, Mohammed Aziz, Pankaj Udhas, Sonu Nigam and Udit Narayan. Since I liked Rafi-saab's voice so much, I always tried to give a chance to his voice-alikes!
Finally, one last question. Do you feel that being a woman you were discriminated against in film industry.
Being a woman music director was a definite disadvantage for me. Here the film- industry operates in a peculiar way. The makers of the film don't always prefer to work in sitting rooms. Out of the blue, they could tell the composer that let's go to Khandala or let's have a drink to get into the mood. They prefer to work in such informal settings. Being a lady, I could not do all that. It is not that I would have minded to do these things but still I had to always think that what would the press and the public say if I did work in that fashion!