The Legend

Akshay Kohli
Only Grandson
(Son of Sanjeev Kohli)

My relationship with the illustrious composer, Madan Mohan, only began eight years after his untimely demise. At the time of my birth, in 1983, Madanji was the grandfather that I was never going to be fortunate enough to meet. It was indeed a harsh reality that I was born unto, and one that I would only begin to understand a lot later in life.

As I sit back and reflect on the monumental impact that Madanji has had on my life, I can clearly identify my association with him as comprising of distinct stages in time.

In my early years as a toddler, I knew of him strictly as my grandfather - there was a large portrait of his in our living-room and I would often go and stand by the diya that my mother would light and look up at the intimidating photo frame that was larger in size than I was. I was told that this was a picture of "Dadaji". And I could detect an air of importance around his image, which occupied such a prime position in our home. I grew to learn that he used to 'make music' - in exactly those terms. I didn't know what it meant - but I would often hear melodious sounds resounding from my Chacha's radio, and my parents would tell me that those were 'made' by Dadaji. I never questioned further. I remember a time when I was playing with a football in our living room and the ball kept banging against a wooden chest that was directly beneath his photograph. I recall my mother getting increasingly annoyed with me for doing this, and telling me that the cupboard contained very precious and delicate items that belonged to Dadaji, and that I should be extremely careful when playing in the room. And this is how I knew him - as a grandfather I couldn't meet, as the royal-looking person in the large photo-frame, as the creator of 'sounds' that played on the radio, and as the owner of certain items that lay in our living-room cupboard (I later learned that these were the spools and tapes he had left behind - those very things that would one day in the future bring the two of us face-to-face).

At the age of six, our family moved temporarily to London for a three-year stint. During this period, I was most insulated from Dadaji and his music. The songs on radio and TV belonged to a different culture, and all my friends and their families were British. And even though we would often rent old classic Hindi films on weekends to watch at home, never did my parents stop and tell me, "This is Dadaji's song." Today, I understand why - for some inexplicable reason, he never had the opportunity to compose for these big films. Just as I had started to discover him, there was suddenly this void that was introduced between us - and I was too young to comprehend what it meant.

My relationship with him started its most meaningful chapter when my family moved back to India in 1991. It was during this phase that I discovered a strong passion for Indian film music in my blood. My father, Sanjeev Kohli, at the time was part of the renowned music label, HMV. And as a result, we had over 2,000 CDs of Indian film music at our residence. I was often assigned the task of cleaning the closets that contained these CDs and arranging them in a sequential order. I would look at the inlay cards and images with a sense of curiosity and intrigue. On a number of CDs, I would see his photograph. Often, I would put the CDs on and listen to his music, and thus grow familiar with his most popular songs - it was at this time that I was introduced to Madan Mohan and not my grandfather. Soon after, my father produced a musical show called "Meri Awaz Suno" together with Mr. Yash Chopra. I would attend the shooting schedules - sitting in one corner, and absorbing everything around me. I was amazed when most contestants on the show would choose to sing songs composed by him - apart from the happiness it gave me that they were singing my grandfather's songs, I also came to recognize just how much he was loved and respected by aspiring singers and audiences so many years later. Moreover, it was through this process that I discovered what he was all about - I heard and learnt even his most rare songs from films that the common man had probably never heard of. It was a truly wonderful journey - not just because of the attached emotion, but even more so because I absolutely loved every bit of what I heard! I had heard people refer to him as a maestro - a King in his own right. And to be able to actually understand it for myself was a life-defining moment - one that changed me forever. There were times, late at night, when I would try and sing his songs within the solitary confines of my bedroom - and I realized just how difficult it was! I wondered how he had composed these songs - compositions that were so technically intricate and yet that were replete with a sweet simplicity that couldn't be taught but only innately felt. It was during this period where my relationship with him subtly changed - from a grandson, I slowly joined the multitude of his most ardent fans. It was his genius that made my association with him transcend our blood relations - it made me see and love him from the eyes of the world. It was a gift that only God could have given me. I could just as well have gone through my life knowing him as my grandfather, but taking his art for granted and never understanding who he really was. But I was lucky enough to see who Madan Mohan was - and the fact that he was my grandfather became incidental.

And then came Veer-Zaara - the single masterstroke of God that changed our lives. It can only be described as a once in a lifetime occurrence. I remember that I was in college in the United States when my father called and told me that he was recording dummy tracks from some of Dadaji's unreleased tunes, and that there was a strong possibility that these could form the score of the most widely anticipated film of the modern age - a love legend by the inimitable Yash Chopra, starring the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. I don't think Dad himself could quite believe that this was happening, so the question of my being able to fathom the same sitting across the globe didn't even arise. I remember listening to the dummy tracks that he sent me. I remember each and every email he would write to me - telling me everything as it unfolded. I was so far away, almost disconnected, and yet an integral part of me was with him. Before I knew it, it was confirmed - the music of Veer-Zaara would consist of 11 songs composed by the Late Madan Mohan, and these would be recreated and produced by my father - his son. I remember trying to share the news with my close friends. They were all aware that a Yash Chopra film was the biggest of its kind, and one was due soon enough. When I told them that my grandfather's music would be in the film, they didn't react. Maybe because they just didn't understand what it meant and how it was possible. Was this for real? Something like this had never happened before, and will probably never happen again. Even the term 'miracle' falls well short in describing what this event truly was.

I was there for the first day of the recording at the Empire Studio in Mumbai. Dadaji's photograph was present at the occasion. And from the tune that he had hummed on his harmonium thirty years before, a fully executed song came to fruition. It was remarkable. As a child, I had known him through a photograph - he was my grandfather. As a teenager, I had known him through his music - he was Madan Mohan. And now, as a young man, I was there - with his photograph on one side and his music on the other - I now knew him as Madan Mohan, my grandfather. It couldn't have been more perfect.

Veer-Zaara brought Madan Mohan back to life. And this time, he was here to stay - forever. Listening to his voice on those tapes that were so old, hearing him render those tunes that would appear on the silver-screen tomorrow - it really made me pause and try to understand how his mind worked - and with it, in some oblique and obscure way, it made me come to know him as a warm, passionate, loving and brilliant human being. I had gone through my childhood knowing fully well that I would never meet him. But with Veer-Zaara, the impossible happened - I did meet him. Today, I don't feel as if he died before I was born. Yes, we haven't met face-to-face and spoken. But music was his life - and he would rather I have met him through speaking those notes than simply words. And thanks to my father, it really did happen. He gave the world a chance to meet Madan Mohan again - and he truly made his father immortal. A father gives his son a life, so how can a son give his father a life back in return? I really don't have the answer. The only thing I know is that I am the luckiest person in the world. I only have Dad to thank for that.

As I've grown, I've often heard people voice the unfortunate truth that Dadaji didn't get the recognition he so thoroughly deserved while he was alive. Even though he was widely regarded as a supreme composer by his peers and fans, the big films and the prized awards always evaded him. In our photo albums, there is this one photograph of his, sitting all alone in a row of empty seats in an auditorium, while all other rows are filled with people to the brim - this image always has a startling effect on me - it paints a picture of solitude and through it I can actually feel the pain that he must have experienced - it epitomizes the entire view of how he somehow was never in the limelight. It is one image that really makes me sad.

But then I think of the number of functions I have had the good fortune of attending where his genius has been celebrated. I reflect on the number of people I have met that talk about him with an affection that they don't seem to have for anyone else. I see the reactions of music-lovers to his songs that compositions of other composers cannot elicit. I see articles in newspapers, commemorating him, talking of books on him that have been released. And what's more - my friends know of him 34 years after his demise, while they would struggle to name not only a single other composer of his generation, but even of the current one. I have had people of my age, whom I would not have imagined to have even seen a Hindi film, tell me that "Main Yahaan Hoon" is their most favorite song. I've had the privilege of going to the Bollywood Awards Function on his behalf to collect an award for his music in Veer-Zaara - yes, a popular, commercial award for the best music - one that always seemed to escape him when he was alive. And then I really wonder - maybe this is God's way of giving him more than anyone else could even dream of. And I am convinced that wherever my Dadaji is, he is watching this - this rebirth, this recognition, and this respect that will always remain in time. Maybe life doesn't really end when a person leaves this world. Maybe there really is a new story that begins thereafter, and only through it is the story of life rendered complete. There is no other explanation for the story of Madan Mohan. It is readily apparent that the will of God has ensured that his chapter will never end.