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Interview Hindi

Dad’s fingers were always tapping a beat: Author Seema Sonik Alimchand

On composer and arranger Manoharlal Sonik's 24th death anniversary (9 July), his daughter, Seema, speaks about his life and career.

Master Sonik with Ameen Sayani (Courtesy: Seema Sonik Alimchand)

Sonal Pandya

Music composer Master Sonik (Manoharlal Sonik) assisted legends like SD Burman, Hemant Kumar, Madan Mohan and Roshan by arranging their compositions for them. His daughter, writer Seema Sonik Alimchand, described his method of working in an interview with Cinestaan.com conducted on telephone and e-mail.

Seema Sonik Alimchand with actor Akshay Kumar at the book launch of Deedara.
Photo: Shutterbugs Images

She explained, “[My father] used to say when somebody describes the scene, I visualize it with my music. He has to portray that vision to the audience without them seeing it. He had that advantage in a way. You close your eyes and you will be able to see the scene with the music.”

Master Sonik was born in Sialkot, Punjab, now in Pakistan, on 26 November 1923. The family were goldsmiths; thus the word sunar was turned into his surname Sonak, a name he later used as a singer. At a young age, Manoharlal lost his eyesight and was enrolled in a boarding school in Lahore by his parents. He learned Braille at the school. His daughter wrote, “When after passing his Matric, his parents did not come to take him back home, a priest in the temple close to the school, who had grown very fond of Manoharlal, took him in and thus began his tryst with music.”

At the temple, the young man mastered the harmonium, sang bhajans and learnt Indian classical music from Pandit Amarnath as part of his musical training. As he grew older, Alimchand said, Sonik became “part of a travelling musicians' troupe called 'Musicians Dance Party' headed by actor-comedian Om Prakash's older brother Bakshi Jung”.

Prior to Partition, Sonik was a singer with All India Radio's Lahore station, but afterwards, he migrated to Delhi, losing everything in the process. In Delhi, he worked with the Maniklal Theatre Group.

On the encouragement of Pandit Amarnath and his younger brother Husnlal, one half of Hindi cinema's first music director duo Husnlal-Bhagatram, Manoharlal Sonik came to Bombay in 1948, bringing his 14-year-old nephew, Omi, later to become his musical partner in the 1960s.

Manoharlal Sonik and Omi (Courtesy: Seema Sonik Alimchand)

Alimchand wrote, “Bombay was a struggle, wherein both walked hours for the far and few song recordings that came Manoharlal's way, fighting near-starvation at times. Then one opportune day Manoharlal's former student Shanti Sharma, whom he had taught singing in Lahore, invited him for her song recording. However, the male singer did not turn up for the recording and Manoharlal was roped in to sing with Shanti. He sang many songs thereafter under the name Sonak.”

Soon enough, Manoharlal Sonik got opportunities to compose music for Ishwar Bhakti (1951), Mamta (1952) and Mehfil (1957). He was given the title 'Masterji' for his knowledge and training of music.

Manoharlal Sonik with Raj Kapoor at a party.
(Courtesy: Seema Sonik Alimchand)

Sonik was a busy man during the 1950s as he was working for composers like SD Burman, Roshan and Hemant Kumar at the same time. It is said that Hemant Kumar, impressed by Manoharlal Sonik’s arrangement, gifted his personal harmonium to him.

It was around this time that he formed lasting collaborations with Madan Mohan as a music arranger and chief assistant. Master Sonik even gave the background score on films like Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) and Hanste Zakhm (1973).

Many have told Alimchand that her father played the harmonium like lightning. She also noted that his arrangement for each individual composer was never the same, differing according to their own individual styles. She wrote, “This was his sheer talent and the years of training that a man who was visually challenged built a name for himself in the world of films.”

Manoharlal Sonik at a recording (Courtesy: Seema Sonik Alimchand)

Composer Pyarelal, who was a violinist, told Alimchand, "Even when [Masterji] was conducting the whole arrangement, he used to tap on his fingers and even if one note was off, he used to stop and point at that person. He had such sharp hearing. We couldn’t go one note off."

Omi assisted composer Roshan on films like Barsat Ki Raat (1960), Aarti (1962) and Taj Mahal (1963). But Sonik and Omi became a duo with Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya (1966). The golden jubilee hit had many memorable songs, including an all-time favourite of Seema’s, ‘Yeh Dil Hai Mohabbat Ka Pyasa’, sung by Mukesh.

Sonik-Omi continued their partnership with films like Aabroo (1968), Mahua (1969), Rekha's debut film Sawan Bhadon (1970), Dharma (1973) and many more. Director Chand’s Dharma had ‘Aur Saqi Jo Kal Ko Hai Bachi’ which featured four dancers in one song — Helen, Bindu, Faryal and Jayshree T.

Seema Alimchand said, “Omiji was very practical and business minded. He was not trained [like my father] and learned on the job. They did some amazing movies together.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, they composed for a number of films but none really stood out.

Manoharlal Sonik died on 9 July 1993. He is survived by his wife Santosh and four daughters, including Alimchand. All his grandchildren have studied music and Alimchand’s son, Amman Advaita, is continuing the family legacy in films by becoming a director. Amman Advaita, who is 24 years old, has studied filmmaking in the UK.

Alimchand, who wrote Dara Singh’s biography, Deedara aka Dara Singh!, is finishing a fictional novel called Monsoon Earth and has already begun working on her father’s biography. She recalls even now that “Dad’s fingers were always tapping a beat every second of every day. For him every action, even existence had a rhythm and that was the mantra of his music.”