'Mere desh ki dharti': With 2500 songs to his name, Mahendra Kapoor is a Bollywood legend

Farhana Farook
·8-min read
'Mere desh ki dharti': With 2500 songs to his name, Mahendra Kapoor is a Bollywood legend

A tribute to late singer Mahendra Kapoor on his 87th birth anniversary…

The mist of the mountains in Hey neele gagan ke tale…

The scent of the soil in Mere desh ki dharti…

The promise of romance in Tum agar saath dene ka vaada karo…

The passion of patriotism in Mera rang de basanti chola…

Spiritual quest in Chalo bulawa aaya hai…

… Singer Mahendra Kapoor’s full-throated voice could convey a medley of emotions. Singing around 2500 songs in many languages, he ensured his voice was heard along with great talents like Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey.

What remains unsurpassable in Mahendra Kapoor's oeuvre is Sahir Ludhianvi’s elegy to estrangement Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabee ban jaaye hum dono (Gumrah 1963). The pain of unloving, unknowing and unlearning what was once committed to memory is heartrendingly brought out through his profound baritone.

On his 87th birth anniversary, we bring you rare nuggets from Mahendra Kapoor’s life.

The Amritsar-born Mahendra Kapoor (9 Januray 1934), inherited his love for music from his mother Shano Devi (Shanti), who enjoyed singing folk songs at weddings.

Young Mahendra was a natural entertainer as well. In his school (St Xavier’s), documentaries on British royalty would be screened in the AV (audio visual) period. Once, when the projector failed, the teacher asked the students to sing and entertain the class. Mahendra sang Noorjehan’s songs and left all enthralled.

Later, Mahendra attended St Xavier’s College, Mumbai where he acted in plays directed by co-collegian, filmmaker Vijay Anand. He also got engaged to Praveen during that time.

Mahendra was around 13 when he heard the Mohammed Rafi number Yahan badla wafa ka (Jugnu, 1947). He was mesmerized by the singer. He made desperate efforts to find out Rafi’s house in Bhendi Bazaar and met his ‘guru’ even though the area was riot- affected post the 1947 Partition.

Mahendra participated in the Metro Murphy All-India singing competition in 1957. He sang the non-film song, Ilaihi koi tamanna nahin, composed by Rafi, who helped him grasp the nuances. He won the contest judged by maestros like Naushad and Madan Mohan, which facilitated his entry in films. His first playback hit was Aadha hai chandrama in V Shantaram’s Navrang (1958).

After his rendition Tere pyaar ka aasra chahta hoon for Dhool Ka Phool (1959), Mahendra Kapoor became a favourite with filmmaker BR Chopra. He was part of his musical romances Gumraah, Waqt and Humraaz (between 1963-1967), composed by Ravi.

His chartbusters Chalo ek baar phir se (Gumrah) and Neele gagan ke tale (Hamraaz) won him the Filmfare Awards as did Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s Aur nahi bas aur nahin ( Roti Kapda Aur Makaan 1974). He also sang the title song of BR Chopra’s iconic TV serial Mahabharat (1988).

In an industry, where rivalry is the norm, Mahendra and Rafi developed a deep bond through time. The first time he travelled by plane was with Rafi for his show in Kolkata. Mahendra was part of the chorus. There they were put up in The Grand Hotel. Rafi was to perform late at night. Waiting in his room, he stepped out in the verandah.

“Looking at the stars and moon, Rafi saab told dad, ‘It’s such a beautiful night. The Creator of so much beauty has no ghamand (pride). Then how can we, who’ve just sung a few songs pride on ourselves? I’ll perform namaz, you do pooja. Let’s thank the Lord for His blessings’. And the two lost themselves in prayer,” once narrated Mahendra’s son, singer/actor Ruhan Kapoor.

In 1979, a Mahendra Kapoor Night was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London where Rafi’s sons, Khalid and Sayyed were present. When Mahendra came to know of it, he asked the organizers to get him two garlands.

“He called Khalid and Sayyed on stage, garlanded them, touched their feet saying, ‘I am not touching your feet, I am touching the feet of my guru who’s sitting in Mumbai,’” shared Ruhan. “Rafi saab would tell dad, ‘Log hamein kushti ladayenge (people will pitch us against one another). But we are brothers. We should never let rivalry come in between us’.”

Mahendra had witnessed the freedom movement hence his fervor for patriotic numbers was instinctive. He always began his shows with a nationalistic song, which would make Indian audiences abroad emotional.

Mera rang de basanti chola for Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed (1965), Bharat ka rehnewala hoon (Purab Aur Paschim, 1970) and Ab ke baras (Kranti, 1981) were his hit numbers with Manoj Kumar.

“I have lost my voice,” said Manoj at the singer’s demise.

Though Mukesh was the voice of Raj Kapoor, the Showman was highly fond of Mahendra. Once Raj Kapoor sang Mukesh’s numbers from his films at a show in Russia. Then it was Mahendra’s turn to sing. He translated the songs of Humraaz and Gumrah in Russian and sang them. The audiences were ecstatic. Raj Kapoor went on stage and said in jest, “Only a Kapoor can win such an ovation.”

Raj Kapoor promised Mahendra that he’d make him sing in his film to which the singer replied, ‘You’re a big filmmaker, you’ll forget’. Raj Kapoor pressed a burning cigarette stub on his hand and said, ‘Whenever I see this mark on my hand, I’ll be reminded of my promise to you’.” Soon enough, Mahendra sang Har dil jo pyaar karega with Mukesh for Sangam (1964).

The ’70s saw a shift in film music with the combination of Kishore Kumar and RD Burman ruling the roost. It was an unsettling phase for all singers. Fortunately, Mahendra continued doing Gujarati and Marathi playback (Mahendra Kapoor was known as Dada Kondke’s voice). “Once Rafi saab called dad home. He was sad and told dad, ‘Producers who went out of their way to greet me, turn away their faces today. It hurts me’. Dad replied, ‘It’s the way of the world’. Rafi saab then played a new song he had just recorded – Tum jo mil gaye ho (Hanste Zakhm 1973). Dad was visibly moved and so was Rafi saab, such was the mood and the moment,” shared Ruhan.

Rafi and Mahendra never sang together except once - Kaisi haseen raat (Aadmi 1968). But this song was first recorded by Talat Mehmood (for Manoj Kumar) and Rafi (for Dilip Kumar). However when the tapes were heard, Naushad realized that Talat’s voice was too soft for Manoj’s character. Given Talat’s failing health he was unable to match the throw of Rafi’s voice. Naushad asked Mahendra to redub Talat’s part. But before doing that Mahendra met Talat and shared his reservations and sang only after his approval.

Mahendra and wife Praveen were doting parents to their three daughters Benu, Anu and Purna and son Ruhan (debuted in Faasle in 1985). Praveen loved her husband’s Tum agar saath dene ka waada karo (Humraaz, 1967). Mahendra didn’t believe in pampering his children.

But the day he had a good recording, he’d order kheema matar, biryani and butter chicken from Kwality restaurant in South Mumbai. He also loved kheer and phirni.

He never smoked or touched alcohol.

It was a joint surgery that spiraled down Mahendra’s health. After the operation he developed a bladder infection, which travelled to the kidneys. He had to undergo dialysis. Mahendra was a devotee of Goddess Katyayani in the Chhatarpur temple in Delhi. A day before he passed away, he called up the priest and said, “Convey my last pranam to Maa. I’ll not be able to pay my respects again’.”

The day Mahendra passed away (27 September 2008) was his mother’s shraddh. After lunch, he listened to Shubha Mudgal’s devotional CD on Lord Mahakaleshwar. He was lost in her rendition in raag yaman. A few hours later he felt uneasy. The 74-year-old singer suffered a cardiac arrest.

He passed away peacefully, his hand in son Ruhan’s, bequeathing his memories and melodies to him and his million fans.

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