The Legend

Sanjeev Kohli
(Eldest Son)

Madan Mohan - the father, is more etched in my memory than Madan Mohan - the composer. The composing legend, that he has now become, was something I discovered only after he was gone.

Of course, this was largely because he died too soon - while my sister, brother and myself were still too young to realize his redoubtable talent. Today, 34 years later, I am flooded with a myriad of memories - mostly those of the father that I miss so much. As a composer, he will always remain with us through his songs, through his fans and through the many commemorations of his music such as this website.

It is the father, whom I lost very early, who will be an indelible part of my life. And it is this memory I would like to cling to...of course, his songs only help in such moments.

He was a very affectionate father and an intensely emotional person. He showered us children with a lot of love and always said he would like to be more a friend to us than a father. I remember my mother telling me that he considered me very lucky for him, since his first commercial hit, Bhai Bhai (1956), released in the same year that I was born.

It was obvious that, as we grew, our affinity to music was strong - he did not completely shut us out from the musical environment but was very keen that we complete our education - that was his topmost priority. Thus, though we were allowed our forays to the occasional recording, he preferred that we did not bunk school for this purpose - of course, we would sometimes feign illness on early mornings to skip school only to 'feel better' later in the day so that we could go to a recording - particularly of a song that we had watched him rehearse.

I can never forget some of the recordings of Heer Ranjha and Chirag that I attended, only to marvel at the complete respect he commanded from the fraternity - musicians, recordists, singers, poets and even his peers. I recall other major composers sometimes dropping in to his recordings and hugging him for a well-composed song - it was a wonderful camaraderie that was the hallmark of those times. My fascination at the recordings was always to watch Lataji and Rafisaab through the thick glass windows of the control room - their expressions, their emotions and their mellifluous voices and infallible renditions, reverberating on the loud speakers - a truly unforgettable experience!

Being the eldest son, I had my share of responsibilities, and his concern and interest in my academic performance was evident. Of course, I never let him down, as I did well in school and he attended our school award functions as a proud father, applauding me the loudest during my special moments. He was never 'Madan Mohan - the film personality' - he was just the father at such events.

In fact, very few people through school and college even knew that I was Madan Mohan's son - largely to do with the surname 'Kohli.' He never used the surname 'Kohli' in his film career. In fact, some of the school teachers often thought that I was the son of a lesser-known composer, who had the same last name.

All through school I craved to have my friends be aware of the hits that he had created. But obviously, they were all too young and patronized the more commercial, lighter and easier songs. In fact, due to this reason, even I would end up singing other composers' songs at school functions. When this extended to a small getogether at home, he was of course disappointed when I would end up singing 'Baharon Phool Barsaon' instead of 'Aapke Pehloo Mein' - both released in the same year!

I realized later that it was the lack of mass adulation that always caused him anguish and, over the years, embittered him. The man who was acknowledged as a genius by people who understood and appreciated music was never at the top rung in the hit parades or with the big banners or the big stars. One of the few times he made it to number one on the Geetmala was with 'Jhumka Gira Re', which even though a very popular song, was probably one of his lesser compositions.

His films were rarely successful and often only remembered for their songs. Films that he worked hardest for, often ran only for a week at the box office and this harsh reality broke his heart - this was true for Jahanara, Dulhan Ek Raat Ki and even Chirag. He never got to work with the biggest stars - he never did a Dilip Kumar film, and only did a couple of films of Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand with small banners that are not even remembered today. His biggest hits are not visually remembered - but the songs have indeed endured the test of time.

One of my most memorable experiences as a child was when he suddenly told me that he wanted me to take a week off from school and go with him on a holiday - I think it was in the late 60's, when I was in my teens, and he probably felt that he needed to bond with his growing son. We went to Pune and Mahableshwar with him driving the car - just the two of us! We walked, we talked, played games, and ate all our favourite meals at the best of places - he even taught me how to row a boat on this trip.

Of course, the composer in him always peeped through - in the most uncanny moments, I remember him suddenly humming away - whether it was in the swimming pool with us or even in a hotel lobby - of course it was a new tune striking him, which he had no means of recording at that point in time. To us children then, what appeared strange is now clearly the genesis of one of his great songs.

Another proud moment for me was, when in college, the Music Society contacted him directly to be the Chief Guest at a function. I learnt of it later and was indeed nervous, as very few people knew that I was his son. He however came on time and endeared himself to the entire audience, making me a very proud son - suddenly I was better-known, even among my professors from the very next day - all of them were Madan Mohan fans and could not believe that I had never made known to anyone that he was my father.

Cooking was his passion. And, if we can now say that a composition is 'typically Madan Mohan', I can vouch that his cooking was even more typically so! The only problem - he would wake me up at 6am on a Sunday morning to go shopping for the ingredients. We would go to Nullbazaar for the meats, all chopped under his supervision, while I stood by, not particularly thrilled by the visuals and odours! We would then go to Crawford Market for the vegetables. And as a finale, to compensate for the lazy Sunday morning that I had missed, I would be treated to the Royal Falooda at the Badshah drink house - his favourite.

But then, after the entire day spent in the kitchen, when we sat to eat the meal, it was the most delectable taste one could ever imagine - as delicious as his compositions!

Once, when he won the Music Director's Association Award (selected by the composers themselves), he insisted on having a party at our house, for which he personally cooked the entire meal, while every composer of the industry participated in the celebration at our home, each wondering whether the food was better or his award-winning song!

Lunches on Saturday at the Wayside Inn, a perennial favourite of his, and morning swims at the NSCI Club on holidays with sumptuous breakfasts and snacks, and sometimes even long drives to the Sun 'N' Sand pool in Juhu - these were some of the wonderful times our father spent with us. He would personally organize great birthday parties for us when we were children, including blowing the balloons himself, while shopping for crackers and fireworks was always a Diwali ritual.

Visiting the Sunday races was a high point for him. It was like his relaxation after a week's hard work. He would plan his suit well in advance and accompanied by my mother, in her finest saris, would always make it a Sunday to remember.

I also remember great evenings spent at our residence with his colleagues - most often, Chetan Anand, Priya, Kaifi Azmi, at other times Rajinder Krishan and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, and of course, Lataji - he would cook for them and play them a song he had recorded earlier in the day, while we children, way past our bedtime, would sit outside the room and listen.

What made him stand out from his other colleagues was his very western personality. While he was totally an Indian at heart, and of course at music, his command over the English language was amazing. He was indeed a sahib among his colleagues, in his demeanour, the clothes he wore and his knowledge of global affairs. His passion for sports - whether cricket, hockey or football - led him to be at every possible match happening in the city. He played billiards and snooker like a professional. We would sometimes accompany him to wrestling matches where he would always tease Dara Singh that he had better muscles than him. One could hardly imagine that behind his tough exterior was the man who created such sensitive and emotional music!

Of course he enjoyed his evening drink - always the best Scotch whiskey for him, which he would pour for himself and his friends in the most expensive cut glasses. A particular musical decanter with a couple waltzing to music was his favourite and used to fascinate me as a child - and I would watch him drink, for the style with which he did it. I, of course, remember, that he would always make an exception, at the behest of my mother, to abstain on important religious occasions and also on the day of karva chauth.

His pride possessions were his Grundig and Akai spool recorders - very few people in India, at that time, had them, and of course he treated them like jewels. His master spools played on them. It was only very much later that he would ask me to put on one of the spools, which I learnt to do with meticulous care - I was fascinated with those spools and the sound that emanated from them! Little did I know what role those spools would play many years later!

His other joy was his Studybaker car - which he would wash himself. He would call it his 'baby.' One could spot it a mile away because of its unusual colour - so often, with him at the wheel and us behind, I would see neighbouring car owners wave out to him as his car was recognized by them even before they saw him.

His favourite pets were his dogs - Sugar, an Alsatian, and Romeo, a collie - when they died we were little children. He was so attached to them that he refused to let us have any other pets because he could not bear the pain of losing them and did not want us to go through the same experience.

I remember him being dejected most often when he would not get an award he was nominated for. Sometimes if it was for a song of lesser calibre, it would hurt him deeply.

I recall that when he won the National Award for Dastak in 1970, it was after having lost many opportunities of winning the popular awards earlier. He almost didn't want to go to New Delhi to receive his award. He agreed only when Sanjeev Kumar, who also won for the same film, cajoled him.

He was a man of conviction and stuck to his principles. While he was convinced that Talat Mahmood was the right singer for some of Jahanara's songs, the director was insistent that Rafisaab be given all the songs. My father did not budge and was willing to give up the film. The same thing happened when he chose Rafisaab over Kishore Kumar for the songs of Laila Majnu. The directors finally gave in and these films became musical landmarks for all concerned.

The sitar was the key instrument in some of his memorable songs. Rais Khan and he tuned so well together - however, in the early 70's when they had some misunderstanding, he extended the misunderstanding to the instrument itself - in his last few films, the sitar was never used. Such was his emotion, and yes, his strong ego.

Maybe, at times I wonder if his principles and his self-esteem became bottlenecks in his commercial success. Since he would not compromise with his melody, maybe he would choose to discontinue working with some filmmakers and this led to him losing out on some banners. In his last few years, while he did have a few good films, including Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi, Gulzar's Koshish and Mausam, Chetan Anand's Hanste Zakhm, and H.S. Rawail's Laila Majnu, he even found it difficult to get recording dates in studios. The young guard had arrived in the late 60's and was dominant in the early 70's. The number of films these composers were doing were many, and hence the few recording studios available, were booked by them for months consecutively. The Famous Tardeo Studios, Film Center, and the Mehboob Studios, where most of his gems were recorded, now had no dates to give him. This delayed his recordings and films and added to his bitterness, which remained in him till his sad and untimely demise.

At his funeral, while I as a young teenager, performed the last rites, I was amazed at the grief-stricken people from the industry. I saw the top singers sobbing uncontrollably, the top stars of the day helped in the last rites - it was almost as if they were mourning the fact that they would never be able to work with him again.

After his death, when I joined the music business, I realized his worth even more. Everywhere that I went I got more respect from the industry professionals because I was Madan Mohan's son. Madan Mohan compilations were among the bestsellers of HMV, younger music directors always considered him as their idol when they were interviewed, young singers would sing his songs in contests - I even remember the thunderous applause that a Madan Mohan song would get in Lataji's concerts.

Even Lataji has said to me that some people's horoscopes (kundli) really start after they are gone. Of course she meant her Madan Bhaiya.

It is indeed true that the industry realized his worth when he was suddenly gone. His fans have multiplied in large numbers after his death. Events and concerts are held in his memory. Some admirers have even done a thesis on him and his works. And he is now always mentioned among the greatest composers of India. His fame and recognition has only increased since and he will now forever remain in people's hearts through his music.