Mahendra Kapoor (1934-2008)

28. 10. 2008 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Ken Hunt, London] The vocalist Mahendra Kapoor, who died at home in Mumbai (Bombay) on 27 September 2008 at the age of 74, has been painted in the outpouring of obituaries at home and abroad as something of a one-trick pony or beast of burden. One claim in the good, old-fashioned Indian way to be taken with a pinch of salt is that he sang some 25,000 songs. Such figures have long since been discredited. While Kapoor was primarily known as a playback singer in Indian film – the vocalists who pre-record songs for actors to ‘sing’, that is mime to – Kapoor’s career reveals that a versatility way beyond playback singing.

Kapoor was born in Amritsar – the Sikh faith’s Golden City – in pre-Partition Punjab on 9 January 1934. Like so many of his generation – whether in India or elsewhere – the silver screen lured and hooked him. Cinema was the escape hatch from everyday life and every day’s travails. In India filmi sangeet – film song – was the great liberator. Once the talkies arrived in the 1930s, its images and catchy songs enabled people from varying ethnic and linguistic backgrounds to connect and overcome and block out the barriers of narration.

After Self-rule and Partition in 1947 many actors and singers took sides on faith grounds. Notably they opted for Bombay or Lucknow, the two main film industries, in other words between what became in effect the main Indian and Pakistani film industries. For example, the singer-actress Noor Jehan opted for Pakistan whereas Lata Mangeshkar remained in Bombay. They reigned as filmi queens in their respective domains.

Mahendra Kapoor was a singer inspired by, but also clearly under the sway of Mohd. Rafi. Alongside Kishore Kumar and Mukesh, Rafi was one of the three greatest, post-Partition male singers on the Indian side of the new border. Kapoor’s style of singing foxed many people because it walked the tightrope between tribute and clone. Many Punjabis, for example, found it hard to differentiate between him and Mohd. Rafi. Whether that is good or bad is a discussion at another time. Certainly part of Kapoor’s appeal – and earning ability – was down to his vocal similarity to Mohd. Rafi. Winning a contest gained Kapoor a breakthrough singing part in director Raja Nawathe’s film Sohni Mahiwal (1958). It was the start of a long career that included playback singing with film directors C. Ramchandra, B.R. Chopra and Dada Kondke.

In 1971 he had the title Padma Shri conferred on him. It is India’s civilian ‘lotus’ (from the Sanskrit word padma) award given in recognition to contributions in the fields of the arts, education, industry, literature, science, social services or sports and is the fourth highest civilian award after, from top down, the Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan.

That is the stuff that tributes have largely concentrated upon. Kapoor also explored the light classical world of the poet Mirza Mohammad Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) on his Ghazals of Ghalib (Gramophone Company of India, 1973) with Ghalib’s ghazal verse set to music by Khaiyyaam bedded in ragas. The liner notes refer to Kapoor as university educated and a product of St. Xavier’s College. Kapoor’s album Peedan Da Paraga (Gramophone Company of India, 1980) took as its text the writings of Shiv Kumar Batalin (1936-1975) set to music by Surinder Kohli, though in some ways it was slightly overshadowed since it was preceded by Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh’s Birha Da Sultan (Gramophone Company of India, 1978).

The best general introduction to Mahendra Kapoor is Saregama’s Evergreen Hits of Mahendra Kapoor, Vol 1 (2005). The album does not do justice to the man’s versatility or the range of language skills in song but it is available and a start.

For further information about Mahendra Kapoor (originally published in Screen dated 16 October 2009), see

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