Madan Mohan: Unsung in life, eulogised after death

·8-min read
Madan Mohan: Unsung in life, eulogised after death

Melody and melancholy. Rubaiyat and romance. That’s the hallmark of Madan Mohan’s music. Decades after his demise, his Lata Mangeshkar composition, Lag jaa gale from Woh Kaun Thi? has been voted the best love song of all times. In fact, the ‘cult’ refrain was used in Karan Johar’s Bombay Talkies and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. It played in theSaheb Bibi Aur Gangster sequels and also an ad, such is the preoccupation with the elegy.

In a generation that roots for pop, jazz, rock, electronic rap… Madan Mohan's khyal-based ghazals and thumris have a life of their own. His complex tracks like Aaj socha toh aansoo bhar aaye, Nainon mein badra chhaye… serve as a barometer of proficiency in music competitions.

In a tragic way, Madan Mohan won more recognition after his demise than in his lifetime. “He would not pander easily to commercial demands or unfairly try to win awards.... Neither would he market himself with producers for big banner films... His self-respect and dignity, possibly, were the reasons why he may not have enjoyed as much commercial success in his lifetime,” reflected son Sanjeev Kohli to

But the side-lining of his work hurt him deeply. The wrench seeped into his tunes. Cirrhosis of the liver was said to have cut his life short at 51. But it was the dejection and his seeking succour in alcohol that perhaps precipitated it.

“He went before getting redundant. Had he had lived for more years he would’ve got more embittered…,” said son Sanjeev (Filmfare). Little did the maestro know while composing Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics for Baghi in 1953, that decades later they would serve as an epitaph for him…

Hamare baad mehfil main afsane bayan honge (Tributes will be paid to me in august gatherings)

Baharen humko dhoondengi, na jaane hum kahan honge... (The spring will search for me but wonder where I will be)

Madan Mohan was born on 25 June 1924 in Baghdad, where his father Rai Bahadur Chunilal Kohli was an Accountant General with the Iraqi Police forces (part of British territory).

Later, the family moved to Lahore and then to Marine Drive in Mumbai. Their neighbour was singer/producer Jaddanbai (actor Nargis’ mother). Madan would stand below Jaddanbai’s window in Chateau Marine and hear her sing.

With time, Chunilal became one of the co-founders of the prestigious Bombay Talkies and later Filmistan. But Chunilal didn’t encourage his son’s ‘filmi’ dreams and sent him off to the army.

Madan joined the Army as a Second Lieutenant in 1943. Two years later, Madan quit the army and worked as a music producer/coordinator at All India Radio, Lucknow.

There he met musicians Begum Akhtar, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan, Fayyaz Khan, Talat Mahmood and various poets, whose mastery over Urdu shayari influenced him.

Back in Bombay, Madan told his father he wanted to become a composer. The suggestion was shot down. Eventually, he moved out and lived in a chawl in a bid to chase his dreams.

He began as an assistant to music director to C. Ramchandra. 

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Ashok Kumar-Kishore Kumar starrer Bhai-Bhai (1956) brought him some success. Kadar jaane na from Bhai-Bhai, sung by Lata Mangeshkar, is a ghazal-inspired melody, based on Raga Bhairavi (tending towards Mishra Bhairavi). Begum Akhtar loved the thumri-based number so much that she asked Madan to sing it on loop over the phone. 

Mention must be made of Madan’s score for Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat (1964) based on the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Mohammed Rafi’s Kar chale hum fida, Main yeh soch kar, Lata’s Zara si aahat hoti hai, the Rafi-Talat-Manna Dey-Bhupendra chorus Hoke majboor mujhe usne remain landmarks.

Madan’s hits with Talat Mahmood comprise Phir wahi shaam and Teri aankh ke aansoo from Jahan Ara (1964), and Meri yaad mein tum na from Madhosh (1951).

Some of his Rafi bestsellers are Aap ke pehlun (Mera Saaya), Ek Haseen shaam (Dulhan Ek Raat Ki), Meri awaaz suno and Tumhare zulf ke saaye (Naunihal), Teri aankhon ke siva (Chiraag), Ye duniya ye mehfil (Heer Ranjha), Tum jo mil gaye ho (Hanste Zakhm) and Tere dar pe aaya hoon (Laila-Majnu) between 1964-1976.

The few songs that Kishore Kumar sang for him include Mera naam Abdul Rehman (Bhai Bhai), Aai hasino naazanino (Chacha Zindabad), Zaroorat hai zaroorat hai (Man-Mauji), and the title song from Ek Mutthi Aasmaan between 1956 – 1976.

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But nothing could surpass his sublime chemistry with Lata. The singer was known to have never taken any remuneration from ‘Madan bhaiyya’.

Early in his career, Lata’s Unko yeh shikayat hai, Yun hasraton ke daag and Jaana tha humse door for Adalat (1958) won Madan the title of ‘ghazal king’. Maestro Khayyam once told Madan, ‘I love you but I’m jealous of you. When Lata sings for you she sounds like someone else’.

Stalwart Naushad loved the ghazals Aap ki nazron ne samjha and Hai isi mein pyar ki aabroo from Anpadh (1962) so much that he’s known to have told Madan, ‘Give me these ghazals and take all my compositions’.

Story goes that once Madan was driving in his turquoise-white Studebaker. The children, daughter Sangeeta and sons Sanjeev and Sameer, urged him to ‘drive faster’. “Soon we heard police sirens behind us… The police officer came and said, ‘Madanji Aapki nazron... kamal ka gaana hai’. Dad looked at my mother (the late Sheila Dhingra) and said, ‘Yeh mera award hai’!” recalled son Sanjeev Kohli in a throwback interview.

Naina barse rimjhim, Lag ja gale, Jo humne dastan apni sunayi… the haunting melodies of Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Raj Khosla’s version of Woman In White, won Madan a Filmfare nomination. But the award was bagged by Shankar-Jaikishen for Professor.

Later, the Madan-Lata tracks for Raj Khosla’s Mera Saaya (1966) including the title song and Jhumka gira re (Asha Bhosle) were chartbusters. 

While recording the classical Nainon mein badra chaye (Mera Saaya), it’s said that the musicians kept making mistakes. Lata Mangeshkar was getting tired. Madan Mohan lost his temper, banged his hand on the glass and was left bleeding. But he refused to be treated till the recording was complete. Within 15 minutes the song was recorded.

In the ’70s, when modern sounds were a rage, Madan’s classical score for Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak (1972) stood out. Ham hai mataaye koocha-o-bazaar ki tarah, Mai ri, Baiyaan na dharo showed his mastery over the genre. For the erotic Tumse kahoon ek baat, he used whispers and street sounds.

As the popular awards had always evaded him, Madan remained unmoved when Dastak won the National Award for music. But Sanjeev Kumar said, ‘If you don’t attend, we’ll (co-star Rehana Sultan and himself) also not go’. The two men wore identical suits for the function.

Madan not only had a grip over music, he also had a grasp over words. Like he used the technique of theraav for the poignant ghazal Aaj socha to aansoo bhar aaye (Hanste Zakhm 1973) based on Raga Shivaranjani. It’s said when Madan sang it for Lata, she broke down. The recording had to be cancelled that day.

Rasm-e-ulfat ko nibhaein from Dil Ki Rahen (1973) remains another Lata-Madan gem. Just as Ruke ruke se kadam and Dil dhoondhta hai from Mausam (1975) celebrate the same melancholy of thought and tune.

The man behind such heart-breaking melodies was full of life though. On a holiday, he’d take his children to shop for the choicest meats at Null Bazaar. Then he’d visit Crawford market to pick up vegetables.

He’d treat the kids to Badshah’s (famous cold drink house) falooda. Back home he’d combine the strangest of vegetables with mutton and whip up bhindi mutton, baingan mutton… and call his industry friends over.

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Fond of dressing, the handsome Madan was known as the ‘Saab’ of the industry. He’d go to the races every Sunday suited. For classical concerts he’d choose kurtas. A fitness freak, he enjoyed watching Dara Singh’s wrestling matches. Dara Singh often remarked, ‘Mere se zyaada Madan Mohan ki muscles hai’.

Towards the end of the ‘60s, the new brigade - RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyandji- Anandji - took over. At times, it was difficult to get studios and singers for recording as they were booked by the big banners. “This aggravated his bitterness and insecurity and he started drinking a lot. Being frustrated, he’d get into arguments,” shared son Sanjeev Kohli (Filmfare).

“The hurt was deep. He won appreciation but commercial success eluded him. Those days the barometer of success was that you compose music for big banners, with big stars, the film had to be a silver jubilee and your song had to top the Binaca Geetmala... And dad never had any of these,” lamented son Sanjeev Kohli (Filmfare).

One night he’d visited Chetan Anand for discussing the music of Salim Anarkali. “There he drank a lot and vomited blood. He was taken to the hospital,” revealed Sanjeev. He died of the cirrhosis of the liver on 14 July 1975.

Uncannily, Madan Mohan’s popularity augmented after his demise. His compositions for Mausam, released a few months later, and Laila Majnu (1976) were bestsellers. Koi patthar se na maaro topped the Binaca Geetmala for 11 weeks.

Friend and composer Jaidev said, "I cannot help feeling that Madan... drank himself to death... just three music directors cornering all assignments, troubled him greatly... Other music directors were no patch on him. The moment he entered the place, they would go their different ways because they knew he was better than all of them." (an excerpt from the book Madan Mohan - Ultimate Melodies by Vishwas Nerurkar as appeared on

Uncannily, Madan Mohan’s popularity augmented after his demise. His compositions for Mausam, released a few months later, and Laila Majnu (1976) were bestsellers. Koi patthar se na maaro topped the Binaca Geetmala for 11 weeks.

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The crowning glory was that his compositions were used for Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (2004). The Billboard magazine (US) wrote it was unprecedented that 30 years after the demise of a musician his tunes were so honoured. 

Madan Mohan’s name appeared at the Empire in Leicester Square and at the Loews on Broadway… just as a revival of his music gathered momentum. As Lata Mangeshkar once reportedly said, “Some people’s kundli (destiny) opens up after their death.”

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