Zindagi Pyar Ka Geet Hai – Usha Khanna

  • K. V. Ramesh – Shankar Iyer

Think of Hindi film music, and the names of those prolific music composers immediately come to mind. We have grown and lived with hundreds of their compositions that have seldom failed to touch our hearts. Among the many great composers were two female composers who made their mark and reputation. We are talking of Saraswati Devi and Usha Khanna.

Saraswati Devi was not only India’s first female music director but was also amongst the most prolific ones in the first two decades of talkie films (the 1930s & 1940s). On the other hand, Usha Khanna’s career started with a big bang in 1959 with the landmark score ‘Dil Deke Dekho’. Born in 1942 in Gwalior, Usha Khanna made her mark in Hindi film music, where male composers dominated. She remained active for more than three decades from the 1960s to 1990s, her last film being in 2003.

Introduced by stalwart film-maker Sashadhar Mukherjee, Usha Khanna gave some memorable and popular music in movies like Hum Hindustani (1960), Shabnam (1964), Honeymoon (1973), Hawas (1974), Aap to Aise Na The (1980), Souten (1983) and many more. Besides these hits, many individual songs did not make it to the charts but are regarded as classy compositions. E.g., Mere dil pe andhera sa chaane laga by Rafi, Mera tumhara saath to by Rafi and Suman Kalyanpur, ‘Ajnabi kaun ho tum’ by Lata, are songs that any music connoisseur would love to hear!

Though Usha Khanna often collaborated with singers Asha Bhosle and Mohammed Rafi, she gave opportunities to many upcoming singers like Anupama Deshpande, Pankaj Udhas, Hemlata, Mohammed Aziz, Roop Kumar Rathod, Shabbir Kumar, and Sonu Nigam. She sang a few songs as a playback singer, her most famous piece being a single line in ‘Pal bhar ke liye koi hamein‘ from the movie ‘Johnny Mera Naam’.

Ramesh KV and Shankar Iyer, the Swar Alaap Team, met Usha Khanna at her residence to discover more about the lady, her early days, and her lengthy career.

Would you please tell us about your childhood days? Did you learn music when you were young?

My father, Manohar Khanna, was a music teacher. He used to work at the Waterworks for the Maharaja of Gwalior. Whenever there was a function of the Maharaja, the father would go and sing there. I stayed with my father most of the time.  He would have the Harmonium inside a ‘rajaai’ and me in his arms. He told me once, “when I would start singing, you would be quiet. Else you would be crying. When you were three years old, you had started singing ‘Saa re gaa’. I think it has been a gift for me. I have never learned music formally.

How did you get initiated into film music? If we remember correctly, you had learned music from Robin Banerjee?

I had initially wanted to become a singer. My father wanted me to learn music from a formal teacher. I began to learn from Robinji for about one year. I also later learned Classical music from Padmini Kolhapure’s father.

Well-known lyricist Indivar frequently visited our house during those days. He got me into the habit of making tunes for his lyrics. He used to like the fact that I was making tunes for his words.  He one day told me, “I will take you to Sashadhar Mukherjee“. When we met Mukherjee Saab, he asked me, “Do you sing better than Lata?” I said “No”. He then asked, “Do you sing better than Asha”? I said, “No” “Then why do you want to be a singer,” he asked. I said, “At least I want to try. If you give me a chance, I can try and become a singer”. He said, “I will have to think about it”. Then, when Indivarji said, “This girl makes good tunes, do hear them”, he agreed.

This was during the making of ‘Dil Deke Dekho‘ (1959). I had made tunes on dummy words written by my father, so I sang it out to him. He got up and asked, “Who made them?” I said, “I did”. He could not believe I had made those tunes.  He then asked, “Who told you to make these tunes?” When I said, “I made them myself”, he asked me to come to his studio the next day. When we went the next day, he asked me, “Would you like to become a Music Director?” I said, “You can make me one?”

That was how I started going to Filmalaya studios. He used to pay me Rs. 1000 per month. This went on for a year. Every day he would come and listen to my tunes. He kept me in training for a year to find out whether I could make tunes or not.

You must have made many tunes in one year?

Sashadharji kept me engaged by asking me to play new tunes every day. He would choose only those songs that he felt would be successful. He understood music very well and had a good ear for music.

Usha - Dil Deke Dekho‘Dil deke dekho’ was released in 1959. You were just 16 at that time. It must have been a significant event in your life?

Yes, I had some photos of the movie premiere. I wore two pigtails with ribbons, standing alongside Asha Parekh, Shammi Kapoor. They were all wondering where this girl came from. All I would say now is it has been a gift for me. I have no idea about any Raga or Taal, but I can know and understand with my ears.

Tell us something more about the making of ‘Dil Deke Dekho?

One day when I came to the Studios, Shammiji asked, “Aye ladki, idhar aa. What tune have you made? Anything new?”  Since I had the habit of making tunes from lyrics, I got inspired by the song’s words and ‘Shaayri’. So, I sang the tune ‘Hum aur tum aur ye sama‘. “This is a perfect song”, Shammiji exclaimed and called Nasir (Hussain) Saab to listen to the tune. Nasir Saab was reluctant to include the song since the movie was already completed. Shammiji then called Sashadhar Mukherjee and made him listen to the song. Sashadharji heard the song and said, “Okay, keep this one too”. There was no place (in the movie), but he kept one Mukhda and one Antara in the film. The movie’s audio record has two Mukhdas and Antaras.

The entire Dil Deke Dekho crew was very loving, because of which I never felt I was going for a recording. One day, while I was making a tune, Sashadharji said, ‘Usha, stop. He told an office boy, “Tell Nayyar Saab that I have called him”. When Nayyar Saab came, he asked, “Who is this”? Sashadharji introduced me to him, saying, “This is Usha, Usha Khanna. She wants to meet you”.

I still remember I was trembling in front of them! When I sang the song “Pyaar ho to keh do yes“, Nayyar Saab was taken aback for a moment. Then he asked Sashadharji if he got it made from someone else. Sashadharji immediately said, “Usha is making it” Nayyar Saab was so happy that he said, “You are my ‘Putri-Paathshaala’. That’s what he used to call me. “Only she can do it in my style”, he used to say about me.

Is there any other song, the success of which you owe to lyrics?

Well, there was ‘Teri galiyon me na rakhenge kadam‘ from ‘Hawas’. The song had to be sung by Rafi Saab. Sawan Kumarji was writing it. I told him, ‘You write, and we will make a tune out of that. Thus, the song was composed, was a big hit. He later asked me why I didn’t make my tune before. I told him, “Your lyrics and expression come first; the tune will then be made”. There are very few songs in which I did the tune first, and then the lyrics followed.

Usha - Hum HindustaniBy and large, industry practice is to make the tune first. But with you, the lyrics came first, followed by the tune. Why is that?

I believe the songwriter should get a clear field to write a song. If I make a tune (hums a tune) first, that becomes a restriction for him. This ensures freedom for the songwriter, which is more enjoyable and satisfying.

Chhodo kal ki baatein‘ from ‘Hum Hindustani’ comes out as a perfectly balanced patriotic song. How was your experience working with singer Mukeshji?

He was a wonderful man. He would say, ‘Tell me what tune you have made’? I would say, ‘Is it vital for you to listen to my tune?”. He would say “, Till we learn new tunes from you, we will never be able to sing. I am no singer. I am just a ‘Chalta hua‘ singer”.  He was very interested in food. He would tell me, ‘Tell your mother to make Matti and Tea” He would come all the way from Napean Sea Road to drink the Tea and do rehearsals for my song. You don’t get to see such artists these days.

He had unique depth in his voice. What other specialty do you think he had?

It was A round voice. His word and diction were unambiguous. I would say it was straight singing without any vocal acrobatics.

Tell us about your association with Rafi Saab, who you teamed with for several memorable songs.

Rafi Saab was a simple man. He would say, “Namastey, Come, let’s rehearse”. Since he would always rehearse at home, he would be more or less ready in the Studio. At the most, maybe one or two rehearsals in the Studio to see how the song sounded on the mike. He would write down whatever I would say in Urdu. While singing, he would always ask, “Is it okay”? He was very encouraging.

Usha - Sajan Bina SuhaganWith singers like Ashaji, Rafi Saab, Lataji, how were the recordings done?

These singers like Rafi Saab, Ashaji, and Lata Didi, were all specially made by Goddess Saraswati. They would just listen to the tune, polish it and then sing it. They would never do anything extra to the tune. Lata Didi was simply outstanding. When I would start singing slowly, she would say, “Go on, Usha, sing”. She would simultaneously make notes on my pauses or any improvisations. She would listen to the song once. When I would repeat, by the third time, she would start humming along with me. By the fourth time, she would sing some part of the ‘Mukhda. By the fifth time, she would be ready with the entire song. And when she finally sang on the mike, one could never say that she had just learned the song! There are no such singers now!

Your association with Kishoreda began in the late 1960s. Probably with Haay mera dil (1968) and the song “Bas qayamat ho gayi“.

For Kishoreda, we had to send cassettes of our tunes. I have a lovely incident to narrate on Kishoreda during the making of ‘Zindagi Pyar ka geet hai‘ from ‘Souten’. While on his way to the recording, he called to tell me he was going back home. I said, “Kishoreda, we are all waiting for you. What happened?” He changed his voice and said, “I am not well. My voice is not okay”. I pleaded to him, “Dada you know Famous (studio) has a big problem in that they don’t have a track system”. He just said, “No, tomorrow pakka” and kept the phone down. Fifteen to thirty minutes had passed, and suddenly Kishoreda arrived, saying, “Take Karo, take Karo“. I asked, “Dada. You had said you are not coming”. To which he replied, “Sorry, I was mistaken. I was listening to some other tune and not yours. I heard this tune so I came back.”  He had liked the tune of Zindagi Pyar ka geet and came back to record it.

Around the same time, I told Laxmikant Pyarelal I liked the music of their movie ‘Hero’, Pyareji was surprised and remarked, “Ushaji, nowadays no music director is interested in praising someone else’s work”. I said, “Pyareji, what’s good has to be admired”.

One can hear glimpses of many music directors in your music. Sometimes SJ, Sometimes LP, sometimes Nayyar Saab?

Laxmikantji called me once, “Ushaji, I have a bet with my wife. My wife insists that “Tu Is Tarah Se meri Zindagi me Shamil hai” from ‘Aap To Aise Na The’ is by Laxmikant- Pyarelal and not by Usha Khanna”. I think that answers your question. Yes, you will find everyone’s style or color as I listen to good songs from every Music Director. But in the end, I ensure to put my own style or stamp on the songs.

I liked Annu Malik’s song “Raja ko raani se pyar ho gaya“. I used that as inspiration for music in the TV serial Kora Kagaz. Asha Parekh told me that the serial’s theme song was a hit and boosted the serial a lot.

Usha - Bin Phere Hum TereShould a composer keep in mind every other music director’s style while composing?

Yes, because you have to know the popular styles of music. But ultimately, the stamp on the song should be your own.

How much importance do you give to a song situation? 

I am more interested in the mood of the situation. If one can get the mood, it is enough. If you ask me which Raga or Taal, I don’t know anything. But I can make a song in that Raga and Taal. When I made music, I had excellent assistants like Kishore Sharma. Kishore would tell me, “Boss, how do you make tunes like this?’ My later assistant Amar Haldipur would say, ‘I have never seen such a fast music director. Ushaji gets the lyrics and right-away makes a tune”. Poet Kulwant Jani would say, “If Usha gets a newspaper, she will make a tune out of that too”.

What, in your opinion, should be an ideal mix for a successful song? Lyrics, good tune, singer’s input.

In my opinion, all three should be the same. The singer really can’t move away from the tune or the lyrics. He has to think about how and who made the tune. He has to play his role by singing well to the song situation. Most yesteryear singers stayed within the music director’s tune and gave excellent output. None of the singers – Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh, Lata, and Asha – ever asked me if they could add their bit to the tune. But, when necessary, they did contribute to boosting the song. There was a Rafi-Kishore comedy song in ‘Zamana’ where Kishoreda took my permission and added the line “Laung elachi khaane chala‘. Such singers don’t come often.

Who were your music arrangers?

First, there was Master Sonikji (Sonik-Omi). Then it was Jaykumar Parte. He arranged the well-known song ‘Shaam Dekho dhal Rahi hai‘ from ‘Anjaan Hai Koi’, which I sang with Rafi Saab. When Jaykumar Parte became a music director himself, I called Kishore Sharma. He worked a lot with me. He was a Violinist first and then became an arranger. Later, he also became a music director, giving music as duo Kishore-Mahesh. Later Amar Haldipur was also with me for a few songs.

‘Hotel’ had the sweet song “Dekho pyaar mein aisa nahi karte

It had two versions, one each by Amit Kumar and Manhar Udhas.

USHA KHANNA 1‘Aap to aise na the’ in 1981 had “Tu is tarah se meri zindagi mein“. Why were there three singers for the song?

Because of the three characters in the movie, the three singers had three colors to the same tune. Rafi Saab heard this tune and blessed me saying “Jeete rahiye, kya gaana hai“. Sadly, that was his last song for me. During the recording, he closed his eyes while singing. He even told the producer (Mohan Kumar) that the movie would be a hit because of this song. He liked it so much.

You also gave music to some Malayalam movies like Moodal Manju (1970) and Agni Nilavu (1991). How did you get a chance to do Malayalam movies?

Yes. “Nee madhu pakaru” from Moodal Manju’ by Yesudas was a hit song. Music doesn’t have any language. Yesudas took me to Kerala. When I got the offer to do Malayalam films, I told him I didn’t know Malayalam. But he just asked me to make the tunes. I had made some songs for Onam (a Kerala festival) also. They were not very popular.

What’s your opinion about Yesudas?

Excellent singer. What a voice, He should have taken more interest in working here (Hindi Films). But he spent more time in the South because he was No. 1 there. As you know, he got the Filmfare award for ‘Dil ke tukde tukde karke‘ from Dada(1979).

I read about a Malayalam song that S. Janaki, South India’s popular singer, sang for you. What was your experience working with her?

When I saw her first, I was astonished when she sang in front of the mike. The lips moved, but there was no expression on her face. Whether it was the high or low pitch, her face remained impassive. The same was with Rafi Saab and Lataji. Sometimes Kishoreda would have some expression or other on his face.

Since we are talking of the South, did you get a chance to interact with composers from there? Vishwanathan- Ramamoorthy, Illaiyaraja?

I met Illaiyaraja once; this was at Prasad studios. He had got some awards at that time. I wanted to give him a bouquet and congratulate him. He knew about me and took me to a recording of two background scores that he was then doing. I saw him make the background music – he called his assistant, took a pen and paper. Saying “Ready Reel 5”, he just looked at the screen, wrote down the notations, and gave it to his assistant. It was truly incredible. During our times, the film reel had to be played again and again. Some people are truly gifted. I think he is one of God’s special people.

Usha - SautanYou were also nominated for a Filmfare Award for ‘Souten’.

Yes. But Pancham got it. After all, he was my partner.  I used to call him Partner.

Your last movie was in 2003.

Yes. ‘Dil pardesi ho gaya‘. It was Sawanji’s movie. Sonu Nigam, the singer, was pleased about the songs but the film didn’t run. So, the songs also sank.

Did you ever feel that your songs would have been more famous had the movie been successful?

Many times. But I accept that however good a music director is, if the movie is not a hit, not many people will remember the songs. Only the real music lovers will. Take the example of the film ‘Souten’. The movie was a hit, and so were the songs. Nobody will now believe that Shaayad meri shaadi ka khayaal” started as a sentence. Sawanji wrote it. The lyric “Tumhe chai pe bulaaya hai” is meaningless. But it was a big hit in the end.

You also worked for some TV Serials.

I gave music for the popular TV serials ‘Shaktimaan‘ and ‘Kora Kagaz’.

Do you listen to your songs again?

No, it is an old habit of mine. Once I record a song, I leave it and let it be. I know I won’t be able to make another one like that.

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Comments (5)

  • Mukund Deshpande Reply

    Waah, best article

    6 March 2022 at 10:44 am
  • Harish Kalyanpur Reply

    Such a lovely article! It’s amazing Dil Deke Dekho was composed at 16! And Usha ji’s praise for other composers shows what a golden heart she has!

    6 March 2022 at 11:25 am
  • Ashok A. Jagtap. Reply

    She is one of the finest music director of the golden era.I always felt that she deserved big banars films.quality of her music was always of a high standard.
    I played many of her songs. Came to know her as a very nice human being.May God give her long healthy life.

    7 March 2022 at 12:12 pm
  • Payel Das Reply

    Wow! Such a Wonderful Article and graceful interview..

    7 March 2022 at 7:13 pm
  • एम.डी. सोनी Reply

    उषाजी के आठ दशक के सुरीले सफ़र का दिलचस्प, विस्तृत और गहन विवरण तथा संस्मरण साझा किए हैं रमेशजी और शंकरभाई ने. लेखक जोड़ी और ‘स्वर आलाप’ टीम को बधाई, साधुवाद. सबका आभार. ??????

    28 March 2022 at 6:35 am

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