He formed the formidable trinity along with Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar. Rafi largely sang for Dilip Kumar, Kishore Kumar grew to be Dev Anand’s voice, while Mukesh was alluded as being Raj Kapoor’s soul.
Dubbed as the voice of the bourgeoise, Mukesh’s fame reached far up the Russian territories with Awara hoon being recorded in 14 Russian dialects. As a cultural inclusion, Mera joota hai Japani and Ichak dana (both from Shree 420) are must-play tunes in a Russian wedding such has been Mukesh’s outreach.
His spectrum was not only limited to the Showman and Shankar-Jaikishan. Mukesh’s work with Kalyanji-Anandji and Salil Chowdhury revelled in extreme octaves – from the popular to the purist. “Each word from his lips was a pearl. No one could sing the way Mukesh did, with the right diction, inflexion and intonation. His vocal timbre was out of this world,” said Salil Chowdhury (thesongpedia.com), whose Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye owes its wistfulness to Mukesh’s similar interpretation.
Mukesh’s art reflected his heart.
Compassionate by instinct, he was generous by intent. That purity seeped into his songs. “Firstly, it’s important to be a good human being. Secondly, keep it simple… no unnecessary harkats just to show off your skills. Sing with your heart, so that it reaches the hearts of others’,” he’s known to have said.
His voice may seem to have been marinated in melancholy. But Mukesh was no brooder. In fact, given his exuberance, he was the life of a party.
His fandom comprised of an interesting mix – from commoners to sport stars. A whiff of a Mukesh number was enough to power up renowned Indian spinner Bhagwath Chandrasekhar on the cricket pitch. Sunil Gavaskar, in fact, mentioned that sometimes he’d hum a Mukesh tune on the field to inspire Chandra. That the languid Kabhi kabhie mere dil mein khayal aata hai could prove to be ‘a gamechanger’ only speaks of Mukesh’s ability to bowl over fans… anytime, anywhere…
Born in Delhi on 22nd July 1923, Mukesh Chand Mathur, was inclined towards acting and singing. Distant cousin/actor Motilal, impressed with young Mukesh when he sang at his sister’s wedding, asked him to visit Mumbai.
The debutant’s first song was Dil hi bujha hua toh in Nirdosh (1941), where he also played the hero opposite Nalni Jaywant. Dukh-Sukh (1942) and Adab Arz (1943), his other two films as an actor, were washouts.
Mukesh then gave the playback for Motilal in Pehli Nazar (1945). The Anil Biswas composed Dil jalta hai, in poignant raag Darbaari and rendered in idol K.L. Saigal’s style, won Mukesh raves. The finest compliment came when Saigal happened to remark he ‘didn’t remember recording the song’!
The Naushad composed Gaye jaa geet milan ke for Dilip Kumar in Mela (1948) was another milestone for Mukesh. Jhoom jhoom ke nacho aaj, Hum aaj kahin dil kho baithe and Tu kahe agar from Andaz (1949) were sung by Mukesh for Dilip, while Mohammed Rafi was the voice of Raj Kapoor in the film.
A string of numbers like Zinda hoon is tarah (Barsaat), Hum tujhse mohabbat karke (Awara), Aaja re ab mera dil pukara (Aah), Mera joota hai Japani (Shree 420) to Sab kuch seekha hamnein (Anari won the Filmfare Award) between 1949 -1959, sung by Mukesh for Raj Kapoor made them an inseparable combination.
Mukesh’s voice seemed in sync with ‘Raju’- Raj Kapoor’s tragic-comic tramp persona, a desi interpretation of Charlie Chaplin. In fact, when the two toured Russia, the audiences couldn’t believe that Aawara hoon was not actually sung by Raj. Raj Kapoor reportedly said on stage, “I am just a body, Mukesh is my soul!”
Recording an RK song always called for a celebration. The after-party would continue at Mukesh’s humble home Rungta House, a chawl of one-room tenements, at Napean Sea Road. Raj would drive down there in his Impala to drop Mukesh.
Word would go round in the modest neighbourhood that ‘Raj Kapoor aaya hai!’ Mukesh’s wife, Saral, would roll up the mattresses and clear up space for an impromptu dinner.
When Dost dost na raha (Sangam 1964) was recorded, Shankar (of Shankar-Jaikishan) ordered all flowers from a famous florist shop be sent to ‘Mukesh Chand’s home’. “The flowers just kept coming in and coming in and we had just one room. Rajji (Kapoor) brought the spools home and played it all night, over and over again, drinking, cheering, crying…,” shared son and singer Nitin Mukesh in an interview (Filmfare).
Mukesh’s contribution to Manoj Kumar is also remarkable. The singer won the Filmfare Awards for the Shankar-Jaikishan composed Sabse bada nadan wahi hai (Pehchan 1970) and Jai bolo beiman ki (Be-Imaan 1972) – both Manoj Kumar outings.
If Mukesh recorded around 133 songs for Shankar-Jaikishan, he recorded a hefty 99 for Kalyanji-Anandji as well. Their hits include Chhalia mera naam (Chalia), Main to ek khwab hoon (Himalay Ki Godmein), Deewanon se yeh mat pooch (Upkar), Khush raho har khushi hai (Suhaag Raat), Humne apna sab kuch khoya (Saraswati Chandra), Koi jab tumhara hriday tod de (Purab Aur Paschim) and Jo tumko ho pasand (Safar) between 1959-1970.
Mukesh also gelled beautifully with maestro Salil Chowdhury. Some of their creative gems include Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen (Madhumati), Zindagi khwab hai (Jagte Raho), Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye and Maine tere liye hi (Anand), Kaii baar yun bhi dekha hai (Rajnigandha – won the National Award 1974), Yeh din kya aaye (Chhoti Si Baat) and Naina hamare (Annadata) between the late ’50s -’70s.
A total of around 1,300 songs were sung by Mukesh. The comparatively fewer songs sung by him in the 1970s was due to a degenerative heart problem.
Deeply romantic, Mukesh fell in love with Saral Trivedi, daughter of Raichand Trivedi, a millionaire. Saral was a staunch Gujarati Brahmin, who abstained from onions and garlic. While Mukesh was a meat eating Mathur Kayasth. When the conservative family got to know of their romance, they locked up Saral in a room.
“No way would they allow her to marry a filmwallah, a meat eater and someone who drank. Papa would stand outside her house all night, drenched in the rain, just to get a glimpse of her,” shared son Nitin (Filmfare).
On July 22 (also Mukesh’s birthday) 1946, Mukesh and Saral eloped. It being a Monday, Saral was allowed to visit Lord Shiva’s mandir. She went barefoot to the temple in Kandivali, where the two got married. Motilal did the kanyadaan. The couple had five children – Rita, singer Nitin Mukesh, Nalini, Mohnish and Namrata (Amrita).
They stuck together through the peaks and the pits, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, on 22 July 1976, just before Mukesh left on the fateful US tour.
“Chand si mehbooba ho (Himalaya Ki God Mein) was the song Papa sang for Mom. She missed him sorely after he passed away. She’d say, ‘I want to meet him in my next birth too’,” shared son Nitin.
As a father, Mukesh was as devoted. While his playback career did well, his productions, the unreleased Anurag and Malhar (1951), brought about a financial crisis. The family faced rough days, which Rita and Nitin, his older children, witnessed.
The other three, Nalini (passed away in 1978), Monish and Namrata had a comfortable upbringing as times had changed by then.
Once son Nitin and daughter Rita were barred from appearing for the exams as their fees were due. The disappointed children walked home from their school at Peddar Road. “Papa was horrified to see us. He was livid at the extreme step the principal had taken. But he understood it was his mistake!” shared Nitin (Filmfare). He revealed that during their lean days, the local vegetable vendor often lent his father money.
Not wanting to deny his children anything, Mukesh borrowed money to buy an imported Philips bicycle for Nitin. He bought a Hillman from Lata Mangeshkar, in which the neighbourhood children and his own would hop in for a ride.
Whenever Mukesh’s song topped the Binaca Geet Mala, the scene in the chawl was euphoric. “Every child got a treat - ice cream, one rupee, five rupees. His songs Sawan ka mahina (Milan), Bol Radha bol (Sangam) and Main na bhoolunga (Roti Kapda Aur Makaan) remained on the top for a long time,” shared Nitin with Filmfare.
When the good times rolled in, Mukesh never let his empathy fade. Year after year, he’d drive through the wintry nights and distribute blankets to the poor.
Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar were part of the much-anticipated concert held in August, 1976 in Detroit, Michigan in the US. On 26 August, Mukesh and son Nitin Mukesh sang together on stage for the first time.
While Mukesh sang, “Saaya hi apne saath tha, saaya hi apne saath hai…,” Nitin continued with the lesser-heard verse from the song:
“Iss dil ke aashiyan mein ab unke khayal reh gaye,
Tod ke dil woh chal diye hum phir akele reh gaye,
Jaane kahaan gaye woh din… (Mera Naam Joker 1970) …
… the lines casting a sense of foreboding…
Mukesh was supposed to perform with Lata on the evening of August 27. But in the morning, he felt uneasy. Short of breath, he complained of chest pain.
While he was being taken in the ambulance to the hospital, he asked for his Ramayana and kept remembering his mother. It was his fifth heart attack. Mukesh, only 53, couldn't survive it. His mortal remains were flown back to India for the final farewell.
“When Jaikishan passed away, I felt I’d lost one arm. When Shailendra (lyricist) passed away I lost another. But when Mukesh passed away meri jaan hi chali gayi (I lost my life),” reportedly said a devastated Raj Kapoor.
Mukesh’s last recorded song was Chanchal sheetal nirmal komal for Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978). As a mark of celebration, he’d left behind a bottle of liquor to be presented to the Showman after the picturisation of the song was complete. Sadly, when the gift was given to Raj Kapoor, Mukesh was no longer around.
One of Mukesh’s last renditions include the tracks for Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie (1976). Kabhi kabhie mere dil mein… won the Filmfare Award posthumously. In that, he not only gave voice to Sahir Ludhianvi’s requiem of heartbreak but left behind his resonance forever.