A MALAYALI CHILD, BORN and brought up in Delhi, who sang English jingles, got into Kirori Mal College on the extra-curricular activities’ quota and switched to singing in Hindi to gain a wider audience. That is the country most Indians live in, a country that celebrates assimilation while also recognising diversity.
It was the story of Krishnakumar Kunnath or KK, who excelled in singing across genres, whether it was advertising jingles (from Hero Honda’s Desh ki dhadkan to Pepsi’s Dil maange more), independent pop songs in a new and nascent industry, and soulful Hindi film ballads. Singing literally till his last breath, he leaves a legacy not merely of some iconic songs but also of possibilities of being a performer, of a low-key private life, and a thoroughly professional public life. From the generation of indie rockers such as Euphoria’s Palash Sen, Silk Route’s Mohit Chauhan, and Lucky Ali, he was equally adept at being the voice of Shah Rukh Khan or Emraan Hashmi.
For millennials who have become accustomed to listening to disparate music, from Punjabi pop to American rap, from retro heavy metal to Hindi film ballads, it is difficult to imagine a world where there were a mere three genres: Western music, classical Indian music, and movie songs. The post- 1991 MTV generation, which was weaned on music videos and accented veejays, suddenly had more than Chitrahaar to tune in to for good music. KK’s ‘Pal’ and ‘Yaaron’ competed for our ear space with Euphoria’s ‘Maeri’ and Lucky Ali’s ‘Dekha hai aise bhi’. Hindi was no longer uncool. You could think in English and sing in Hindi, and still be called a rockstar.
The Hindi or indie pop music industry, which kicked off in 1981 with Nazia and Zoheb Hassan’s ‘Disco Deewane’, arranged by Biddu, was petering out by the early 2000s because of new technology but the singers found a new home in the movies. KK collaborated with Vishal Bhardwaj to sing ‘Chhod aaye hum woh galiyan’ in Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) and with AR Rahman to sing ‘Kalluri Salai’ for the 1996 Tamil blockbuster Kadhal Desam. The trend took off. KK was then used for Salman Khan’s voice in ‘Tadap Tadap’ in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam in 1999, and Rakesh Roshan picked Lucky Ali to sing ‘Ek pal ka jeena’ in the monster hit from 2000, his son Hrithik’s debut.
KK sang across languages, whether it was the super popular ‘Strawberry Kannae’ picturised on Prabhu Deva in Minsara Kanavu in 1997, or the dance favourite ‘Appadi Podu’ picturised on Vijay and Trisha in Ghilli in 2004. KK’s voice was quicksilver. It could be romantic, energetic, or even emphatic. He could sing ‘Aankhon mein teri’ for Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om (2007); equally, he could be Ranbir Kapoor’s voice in ‘Khuda Jaane’ from Bachna Ae Haseeno in 2008.
Playback singing in India is a tough genre to crack. There are established and mint-fresh voices emerging from countless reality shows. There is also, increasingly, a marginalisation of the song-and-dance from Hindi films altogether, with songs either reduced to the background or limited to item numbers. So, concerts become a good way to earn income but as one saw in the case of KK’s last performance, conditions are often far from ideal.
But KK’s voice will remain forever, especially, the prescient ‘Pal’ with its lyrics:
‘Hum, rahen ya na rahen kal/Kal yaad aayenge ke ye pal; Pal, ye hain pyar ke pal/Chal, aa mere sang chal; chal, soche kya/Chhoti si, hai zindagi; Kal, mil jaaye/ to hogi khush-naseebi (Whether we live or not/We will remember these moments; These moments of love/ Come walk with me; Don’t think/life is short; If we meet tomorrow/we will be lucky.)’
It’s a pity that it takes a death for friends and associates to recall an icon’s greatness. But in an industry that values self-promotion above talent, it is now common. KK’s death sparked many stories over the years of his kindness and generosity, from lending his song to Nupur Asthana when she was a rookie director for her TV series Hip Hip Hurray or introducing Shantanu Moitra to the joys of late-night paranthas.
Always a quiet artist, he let his songs speak for him.