“Chor aaye hum wo galiyan…..chor aaaye hum….wo galiyaaan….” I first heard his voice as the haunting solo prologue in this legendary composition from “Maachis” before the chorus joins in. At that time I didn’t know who the singer was, it was 1996 and exuberant romantic melodies of Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan were the order of the day, but this deep voice full of lament flowing into previously unattempted vocal ranges guided by the genius of Vishal Bharadwaj and the angst of a lost generation oozing from the pen of Gulzar was the “maachis” or trigger for a new kind of music in Indian cinema. The singer as I learned much later with a pleasant surprise was Mr Krishnakumar Kunnath, or as he is popularly known by his stage name – KK
KK is one of the finest and most popular singers of Bollywood, mostly active from 1999-2015, though he continues to give live performances. He is from Kerala and an alumnus of Delhi University. I won’t go into many details as they are readily available, moreover this story is about my perception of KK, his songs and how they influenced my music and my life.
The first time I really noticed KK was when he came out with his private album “Pal”. The title song “Pal” was telecast on MTV with a nostalgic montage video, and I found myself paddling off on my bicycle and buying the audio cassette for Rs.45 (Yes it was 1999 and we used to pay for our music back then!). The album had a very refreshing feel with its youthful lyrics, pitch variations and guitar plucking interludes, but what I could relate to the most was KK’s bass voice and raw singing style.
“Pal” made me believe that I could sing too…being from a family of singers, I knew I could sing in tune, but I refrained from public singing since my voice was too heavy to suit Bollywood numbers. Also my tendency to sing with an open vocal range meant that I was invariably shouting as my voice touched the high notes, that kind of style was disastrous for drawing room singing!! However, when I heard KK scream “Aap ki Dua Dil haar gaya…” he was unabashedly loud at the high notes and not trying to keep it down. That night as I played that audio cassette on loop and tried to match his voice (I smothered my face with a pillow on the high notes so as not to wake the neighbours!), for the first time I felt a spark inside me. The album went on to become a chartbuster among youngsters and “Yaaron Dosti” became a friendship anthem which you can hear even today in college fests.
The second time I really sat up and noticed KK was in the early 2000’s when I heard the song “Main Khuda” from Anurag Kashyap’s debut movie “Paanch”. Again it took the genius of composer Vishal Bharadwaj to truly get the best out of KK. The song has a dark gothic setting as it begins with his namesake actor Kay Kay Menon in spiked hair and a black vest taking the stage…he starts with a hoarse “Ek din…bas ek din…apne saare zakhm gin” and then the song rises…and it keeps on rising like a crescendo…you think the pitch would come down at some point but it just keeps getting higher and higher till it reaches the climax when Kay Kay Menon jumps wildly on stage and our KK screams “Main Khuda…” from playback to a frenzied head banging crowd. Unknowingly I also found myself abandoning my seat and exulting “Main Khuda…” from atop a table to an imaginary crowd. Imagine my disappointment when the cassette of “Paanch” never came out as the movie got shelved. I found the song on youtube many years later and till date it remains one of my favorites.
KK’s big break in Bollywood happened with “Tadap Tadap ke” from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, a powerful song of heartbreak and longing followed by songs of similar genre like “Sach keh raha hai deewana” from RHTDM. His youthful voice was well utilised in disco numbers like “Koi Kahe Kehta rahe” from Dil Chahta hai and “Its the time to disco”. Even though everyone loved these songs, KK was yet not a household name as he was still not singing love songs for the mainstream hero, it needed a transition of the Bollywood hero from a straitjacket lover boy to a more complex character for KK’s voice and singing style to become acceptable.
That happened when Vikram Bhatt cast Emraan Hashmi and Shiney Ahuja as grey characters in his 2006 tragic romance Gangster, here the hero didnt need to run around exotic locales to profess his love, he could do it singing at the local bar with the incumbent band. Gangster gave us memorable numbers like “Ya Ali” and “Bheegi Bheegi Si” but the song that caught everyone’s imagination was KK’s “Tu hi meri shabh hai subah hai…tu hi meri duniya….”. It was a true rock ballad full of guitar riffs and scale variations culminating in a highly addictive Pop Alaap ( A western style alaap with straight notes that forms the main hook of the song) . The Pop Alaap became the trademark of KK-Pritam partnership that went onto give us some of the greatest hits of our generation like “Zara si dil me de jagah”, “Dil Ibadat”, “O Meri Jaan”,“Alvida”,“Labon ko labon se churao” , “bas ek pal”etc.
It will be difficult for me pick my favourite KK song but there is one that I love above all others – “kya mujhe pyaar hai” from the movie Woh Lamhe. That song came to me in the unlikeliest of places, when I was travelling in an autorickshaw on a hot afternoon to my college in Delhi (Himesh Reshammiya had not monopolized autowallahs playlist yet). As soon as I heard the opening vocals I was hooked, I don’t know what came over me but decided to sing along “Kyun aaj kal neend kam khwab zyada hai, lagta khuda ka koi naik irada hai”, passersby gave bemused grins but I sang the high notes with carefree abandon “Kya mujhe pyaar hai yaar, kaisa khumaar hai yaar” and finished with the pop alaap. Well, nobody clapped, but the generous autowallah did offer me some water
Few months later, it was college fest season in Delhi University and my dream got fulfilled when Hindu College decided to host KK for music night. He sang all his hits from “Yaaron” to “Tu hi meri shabh hai” and I sang along, I didn’t dance like everyone else, I was concentrating too hard on his improvisations. Until then, that is my second year of college, I had never before expressed any desire to sing in public, but 2 days after KK’s performance, I decided to audition for the college band and made the cut.
I had the time of my life performing KK’s rock ballads with our small band at various college functions, but the real test came when we decided to participate in the intercollege music competition. We prepared for weeks and finally the day was here, we heard the crowd cheering to some amazing performances from the green room backstage, I was nervous and sweaty. After what seemed like an age, we heard our band getting announced. I entered the stage self-consciously and immediately felt numb, the stage was so glitzy, so many lights, such a large crowd had gathered from so many colleges. There was an expectant silence, then my guitarist started strumming and blood flow resumed in my body, my drummer joined in and my pulse quickened, I looked at the crowd, I knew my friends were there somewhere, I closed my eyes, threw my head back and sang “Kyun aaj kal neend kam khwab zyada hai…lagta khuda ka koi naik irada hai”, and then I heard the most pleasing sound in the world, the roar of the crowd… adrenaline surged through my body as I hit the high notes “Kya mujhe pyaar hai…kaisa khumaar hai” and they sang along with me, I pumped my fist exultantly as I finished and this time they clapped !!
The late 2000’s was the golden era for KK, he was singing for all the top music composers and was the voice of megastars like Hritik Roshan in “Zindagi do pal ki”, Ranbir Kapoor in “Khuda Jaane”, Salman Khan in “Laapata” and Shahrukh Khan in “Aankhon me teri ajab si adaayen hain”. Now he was a household name, a reality show judge and a highly sought after stage performer. He also won the best male playback singer award for “Khuda jaane”. I attended several more of KK’s concerts during this period, and loved him every time.
KKs contemporaries during the first decade of the 21st century were Sonu Nigam, Shaan and Atif. Sonu ji has a completely different style and voice and he dominated the soft romantic numbers. Shaan on the other hand was a very versatile singer, in fact both KK and Shaan trace their roots back to Indipop. They have also sung some memorable songs together like “Dus Bahane”,”Its the time to Disco” etc. I vividly remember their camraderie from a fest called NEXUS in Delhi where both KK and Shaan were scheduled to perform back to back. I remember Shaan signing off to an applauding crowd and KK walking in, then he said “Shaan ruk na, let’s do a song together”, and to our amazement, Shaan came back on stage and they did an impromptu live jig of “Dus Bahane” together.
KK came out with his second album “Humsafar” in 2008, it had some amazing tracks like “Yaar se mila”. He also successully experimented with softer songs most notably “Beete lamhein” from the movie Train and the ghazal style “Maine dil se kaha dhoondh laana khushi” proving his versatility. His Bollywood song appearances started reducing after 2010 as he focused more on live shows, but he kept delivering consistent hits like “Desi Boys”, “Mat Aazma Re”, “Tune Maari Entriyaan” etc until his successor Arijit Singh arrived in 2013. KK came back strongly with the emotional track “Tu jo mila“ from the movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan in 2015, and keeps coming up with more such gems from time to time…
Meanwhile KK’s songs continue to influence my life. I distinctly remember the day of my marriage tilak function, dressed in a crisp red kurta and jacket, I had been preparing to sing a traditional song to impress the family of my would be bride, but when I actually went on stage, I forgot everything else, I knew what i had to do, I told my musicians to play “Kyun aaj kal”. They werent amused but complied anyway, and there I was, throwing my head back and singing with a smile “Kya mujhe pyaar hai….” and replying to myself “haan mujhe pyaar hai”.
Few days back we had a karaoke party in office, I had not sung for a long time and decided to opt for a safe 90’s romantic number. However when my turn came, I found myself reaching out to my go-to song on youtube, the track started with a familiar guitar rhythm, I smiled, threw my head back and sang “Kyun aaj kal neend kam khwab zyada hai…lagta khuda ka koi naik irada hai…”. I had gained weight, my breath was short, my high notes were a little off, but I continued to sing anyway, because at that moment I wasn’t just the portly marketing manager entertaining his colleagues over tea and snacks, I was also the carefree boy singing loudly in the auto straining to match KK’s pitch, I was also the adrenaline pumped performer singing for the live audience, I was also the husband to be singing for his bride, it was then at that moment that I realized that while the world can and will move on to the new age rockstars like Arijit Singh, I will always be a KK fan because my life’s most memorable moments have been defined by his songs.
In the end all I want to say is, Mr Krishnakumar Kunnath , thank you… for everything!!
PS – Thats me, performing at my brothers wedding, no prizes for guessing the song 🙂