Pankaj Udhas: Lesser-known facts about a unique maestro

Pankaj Udhas almost single-handedly took the ghazal to the common man. Photo: Rajiv Vijayakar

Pankaj Udhas is no more. But he was no less, for he was the man who, almost single-handedly, put the ghazal and a lot of Urdu on every man’s lips, and was also someone who touched the hearts of NRIs (and also anyone who left home and hearth even within India) with the immortal Chitthi aayi hai from Naam, all of 44 years ago.

In those days when WhatsApp, Zoom or Face Time was not even thought of and only rare international or trunk calls saw those able to connect with family, the song, which lives on even now, provided succor to souls that had moved far from their loved ones to make it in life. The pen may have been Anand Bakshi’s, the composition Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s, and the  concept Rajendra Kumar’s (who ghost-produced the film, along with director Mahesh Bhatt and writer Salim Khan, but what made it reach where it deserved and become immortal were Pankaj Udhas’ refined vocals.

Here are some lesser-known, rare or unknown facets of the owner of the velvet voice, whose own temperamental structure was as soft and friendly as his vocals.

  • Pankaj hailed from Navagarh village near Jetpur in Gujarat, and was the youngest of three sons, Manhar and Nirmal being older, born to Keshubai and Jituben Udhas. His father worked in the government and it is said that they hailed from a family of farmers.
  • The famous veena player, Abdul Karim Khan, was known to Keshubhai and taught him to play the dilruba. This was the brothers’ first exposure to music.
  • “The radio was always on in our house!” Pankaj told me. “I loved film music, especially songs with a classical bent. I was a fan of Shankar-Jaikishan, Naushad, S.D. Burman and Roshan. Later, I was witness to how Laxmikant-Pyarelal replaced S-J and became their fan too.”
  • Of his idols, Pankaj recorded for Naushad in Guddu, but the song was never retained even in its album. He sang for L-P in, besides Naam, popular songs in Dayavan (Aaj phir tum pe pyar aaya hai), Jawaab (Sabak jinko wafaa ka yaad hoga and Mitwa re mitwa), Tejasvini (Woh ladki jab ghar se nikalti hai) and Mohabbat Ki Aag (Meri zindagi mohabbat).
  • Among other composers, he also sang for Khayyam (in the unreleased Mohabbaton Ka Safar) all the way to Jatin-Lalit (Vaade Iraade) and Himesh Reshammiya in Nigehbaan and for most top composers in between.
  • The actors for whom he lent his voice incredibly began with Shammi Kapoor (!) in Pyar Ka Rog. The list spanned Jeetendra (Thanedaar), Rishi Kapoor (Ghar Ki Izzat), Sunny Deol (Ghayal and more), Govinda (Mohabbat Ki Aag), Mithun Chakraborty (Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswati) Suniel Shetty (Mohra), Salman Khan (Yeh Hai Jalwa), Chunky Panday (Gunahon Ka Faisla), Raj Babbar (Jawaab) and more, all the way to Kay Kay Menon (Maan Gaye Mughal-E-Azam) and Manoj Bajpayee (Ghaath). Without lip-synch, there also were songs for Vinod Khanna (Dayavan) and Ajay Devgan (Ek Hi Raasta).
  • But in several cases after Naam, his songs were filmed on Pankaj himself as a ghazal singer, in films like Gola Barood, Saajan, Baazigar and Yeh Dillagi.
  • His co-singers included Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar from among the stalwarts. Kumar Sanu, Mohammed Aziz, Vinod Rathod, Sukhwinder Singh, good friend Anup Jalota, Anuradha Paudwal, Kavita K. Subramaniam, Alka Yagnik, Sadhana Sargam and even Sharon Prabhakar and Penaz Masani and others sang with him.
  • Pankaj scored music as well, for Ek Hi Maqsad (1988), in which, besides Asha Bhosle and Anuradha Paudwal and himself, he also recorded with Aziz Nazan, the qawwal, in the fun song, Gadi na chal sake petrol ke baghair.
  • Pankaj learnt the basics of music from Ghulam Qadir Khan Sahab, and in Mumbai from Master Navrang Nagpurkar. Earlier, he had learnt the tabla.
  • But singing was far away from his ambition. He did his Bachelors in Science from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and had wanted to go into a related profession.
  • When elder brother, Manhar, got a singing break in Vishwas (1969), Pankaj was fascinated by the fact that composers Kalyanji-Anandji advised him to take Urdu diction classes from a moulvi (Muslim priest). Bewitched by that, he decided to make singing his profession, as he had his degree as a backup if that failed!
  • Pankaj had already developed a love for ghazals after listening to Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hasan in particular. Composing came naturally to him and he also learnt the harmonium.
  • It was in Kaamna (1972) that Usha Khanna gave him the first break with the song Tum kabhi saamne aa jaao, a song that was clearly Mukesh-like tenor—all the Udhas brothers have a Mukesh-esque tenor.
  • For this very reason, 22 years on, Viju Shah chose Pankaj to render Na kajare ki dhaar for Mohra. The song had actually been recorded by its composers Kalyanji-Anandji, Viju’s father and uncle respectively, with Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar for a film that never took off!
  • However, Pankaj decided to try his luck overseas as there was little scope then in India for ghazal He was appreciated, returned in 1979 and came out with his first album, Aahat, in 1980.
  • The 1980s saw a ghazal and bhajan boom as film music standards seemed to go down under the disco avalanche. Music lovers seemed to miss good lyrics and desi tunes and Pankaj was in the forefront of this alternative music wave alongside Jagjit Singh, Anup Jalota, Talat Aziz and others.
  • Anup, Talat and Pankaj soon formed a tight clique of friends who went on to do concerts together as well.
  • Shortly afterwards, filmmaker Ravi Tandon (Raveena Tandon’s father) requested Pankaj to sing for his new film, Jawaab. Pankaj had no time from his ghazal recordings and performances, and even littler inclination, but Tandon requested a re-think as the hero was a ghazal singer in the film. Pankaj agreed and recorded Sabak jinko wafaa ka yaad hoga and Mitwa re mitwa, both of which soon became a compulsion in Pankaj Udhas compilations on Universal Music until physical forms (cassettes and CDs) were marketed. Pankaj terms the first number “One of my better-rendered film songs.”
  • Shortly afterwards, an amusing incident occurred. Erstwhile top star and then producer Rajendra Kumar called up Pankaj and told him, “You have to act in my film!” Pankaj, then at the peak of his popularity, had no such leaning, and told him he would get back, but did not. Elder brother Manhar, who was close to the actor, asked him why he was being disrespectful to a senior composer, and when Pankaj told him the reason, suggested that he call and explain his stance. However, Rajendra Kumar laughed and apologized and said that all he wanted was the song performed by Pankaj himself on stage. And history was made, as this song was Chitthi aayi hai.
  • Pankaj had revealed to me that Laxmikant was not really happy with his nuances after three ‘takes’ at the recording and organized a ‘live’ kind of feel with the singer sitting, as he did in stage shows, at the studios. That did the magic.
  • Pankaj later sang extensively for Bappi Lahiri, Nadeem-Shravan, Anand-Milind and Anu Malik.
  • Not restricting himself to Hindi, Pankaj also sang in mother-tongue Gujarati, Marathi, Marwari, Punjabi, Bengali and even Kannada!
  • Countless non-film ghazals was what Pankaj was about. And yet, he did sing devotionals as well for films like Maa Santoshi Maa (2003) and Maalik Ek (2010).
  • The Padma Shri, with which he was honored in 2006, remains the biggest of almost 20 noteworthy awards and honors Pankaj has received in his illustrious lifespan.
  • Accused of commercializing the ghazal form (which actually is a genre in poetry, not music) by purists, he humbly took credit instead for simplifying it and taking it to the common man, maintaining this connection by making his tunes and vocals simple and modifying the orchestration and sound from the 1980s to the millennium. His credo was “You cannot really appreciate or come to love something that you cannot understand!”
  • The moulvi’s teachings had already shown that communication was also about expression. And that is why, unlike most non-film talents that ventured into cinema, Pankaj triumphed and sang close to a hundred film songs, ranging from his core expertise to romantic duets, fun songs and more.
  • Pankaj celebrated 25 years of his work with extensive concert tours including in the US and Canada under the tagline of Watan Se Chitthi Ayee Hai. This, he said, not only commemorated his bringing in the aroma of their motherland for Indians but also his most famous song, for no Pankaj Udhas concert, anywhere in the world, is complete without his singing Chitthi aayi hai.
  • And finally, as per my personal experience at one of his concerts, Pankaj himself would break down at some point while performing that timeless gem that he almost did not record!


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