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Khemchand Prakash: The man who made Mahal (1949) immortal

Khemchand Prakash's innovations in music and his contribution to the pool of some of the best voices in music for Hindi cinema have to be seen to be believed. 

Shoma A Chatterji

When we think of Kamal Amrohi’s incredibly beautiful film Mahal (1949), two names that come up at once are Lata Mangeshkar and Khemchand Prakash. The reason is obvious: the melodious music and the songs that enriched the film and invested it with an aura that has never been repeated in any ghost film in Indian cinema till now. And yet, the surprising element is that there is no ghost in the film.

However, beyond Mahal and Tansen (1943), for which, too, Khemchand Prakash had scored the music, not much is known about the music director's background or his formative years in the erstwhile Rajputana agency.

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On his 111th birth anniversary (Khemchand Prakash was born on 12 December 1907), we turn the clock back through time and space and take a closer look at one of the more talented, trained and skilled music directors in the history of Indian cinema.

The story of Khemchand Prakash's life, his rise and fall, and his music is no less exciting and intriguing than the films he scored music for. His creative talents in music were not confined to Mahal and Tansen. He had done much more than just these two films. He died of cirrhosis of the liver on 10 August 1950 at the young age of 42, leaving much before he could explore his own creative genius to its full potential.

Khemchand Prakash was born into a musical family in a little village called Khurdi within Sujangarh, a citadel in the Rajputana agency. His father, Pandit Govardhan Prasad, was a revered Dhrupad singer and Kathak dancer in the royal court of Jaipur.

Govardhan Prasad had two marriages. The first wife, daughter of another famous court singer, went back to her father’s home, never to return. She had one son, Badri Prasad, who later made a name for himself in Bombay.

Khemchand Prakash was the eldest of five children, three sons and two daughters, from Govardhan Prasad's second wife.

The family shifted to Jaipur when Khemchand was three and his training in Hindustani classical music began a year later. He trained under his father, his uncle Gopalchand, and Ustad Maula Baksh Dhavsi. He also trained in the Jaipur gharana Kathak under older brother Badri Prasad and Pandit Jailal.

Young Khemchand then shifted to Agra to learn raga Hem. But his interests also lay elsewhere in pursuits such as wrestling, exercising and kabaddi. Interestingly, he was married off to Roopvati Kanhi of Ratangarh at the tender age of seven! They had two children, a boy and a girl. But when the son died in infancy, Khemchand Prakash took his younger brother’s son as his own.

He acquired great command over Kathak and could dance on swords, on sweet candies, and on red gulal powder with such grace that a British couple, charmed by him, took him along to England when he was 18. Khemchand Prakash's father, afraid that he might take an English bride as a second wife, brought him back with the fake news of his mother having passed away.

Time made Khemchand Prakash very popular as a court singer and dancer of great talent. By then, Sujangarh had come within the state of Bikaner in Rajputana agency. Khemchand Prakash was specially invited to perform — both music and dance — during the silver jubilee of Bikaner by raja Gangasinhji.

However, when, pleased with his performance, the raja asked him to become the official artiste of his court, Khemchand Prakash refused without giving any reason. Instead, he accepted the invitation of the king of Nepal, Naresh Rudra Shamsher Singh, who had witnessed him perform at the silver jubilee. He became the official performing artiste in the king's court in Nepal and lived there for seven years.

Tiring of working on a salary in an official capacity, and sad at the ousting of the maharaja and his replacement with a new king, he sought an independent career in music, quit his job and went off to Calcutta in search of fresh pastures.

But Calcutta turned out to be both a struggle and a challenge. He managed to find singing assignments with the Calcutta station of All India Radio where he gained the experience of singing different kinds of songs removed from pure classical Hindustani music. Then, in 1935, Timir Baran, a famous music director of his time, got hold of him and brought him to New Theatres, giving him a break as his assistant.

During his Calcutta tenure, Khemchand Prakash found a lifelong friend in the actor Prithviraj Kapoor. Anil Biswas, his peer in music, had heard him sing at the Hindustan Record Company and said the man would go far.

To make ends meet, Khemchand Prakash sometimes stepped up to perform small roles in films like Street Singer (1938) and Sapera (1939) and also played the tabla for Pankaj Mulllick’s famous song 'Piya Milan Ko Jaana' from the film Kapal Kundala (1939).

But soon he was fed up of playing second fiddle within Calcutta's music world. He felt he was neither getting the price nor the importance he deserved. Prithviraj Kapoor advised him to come to Bombay, and this proved to be a milestone in his life.

The grapevine says the two famous songs of Devdas (1936) in Hindi, 'Baalam Aaye Baso Mere Man Mein' and 'Dukh Ke Din Beetata Naahin' were also Khemchand’s compositions when he was assisting Raichand Boral but he was not credited for them. Kamal Amrohi, who was also in Calcutta then, contests this claim. But the fact that Khemchand went away soon after, a disillusioned man, gives it credibility.

Khemchand Prakash began his career as an independent music director in Bombay with Supreme Pictures with the film Ghazi Salauddin (1939), directed by LA Hafisji, which had eight songs, including one creation by Mirza Ghalib.

He composed the music for one more film for this production company the same year. The film was Meri Aankhen, which contained 10 songs, most of them sung by Sitara, who was also the film's leading lady.

The other female voice was that of Khurshid and this led to a long and fruitful association between the vocalist and Khemchand who knew how to draw out the best from his female singers.

The long association between Khurshid and Khemchand began with the song 'Pehle Jo Mohabbat Se Inkar Kiya Hota' from Pardesi (1941). He set this song in the mould of the traditional ghazal which had already made its presence felt in mainstream film music by the songs rendered by Mallika Pukhraj, Begum Akhtar and Kamala Jharia.

He joined Ranjit Movietone after this and his long association with this famous production house led to 20 films and many unforgettable songs.

The split with Ranjit came after Partition. Interestingly, the story goes that one of the reasons that triggered the break was that the owner of Ranjit Movietone, Chandulal Shah, did not approve of the ‘thin’ voice of the new singer Lata Mangeshkar!

Khemchand Prakash's faith in the young lady’s potential was proved again and again when Lataji became the voice of the nation for the next six decades to earn the title of Nightingale of India, and not without reason. She became the country's singing star with her rendition of the haunting number 'Aayega Aanewala' from Amrohi’s Mahal.

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Both Amrohi and Khemchand Prakash were confident the film's songs would become big hits and they did. But Mangeshkar's first film under the musical baton of Khemchand Prakash was the Bombay Talkies production Asha (1948).

Khemchand Prakash also had a hand in creating the musical career of the great actor-singer Kishore Kumar. He introduced this new ‘voice’ in the film Ziddi (1948), which was the first hit of Dev Anand, and Kishore Kumar continued to be the ‘voice’ of Dev Anand for many more decades. The number 'Marne Ki Duayen Kyon Mangu', was rendered in filmi style, which is something not generally associated with the versatile but untrained voice of Kishore Kumar.

Khemchand Prakash's innovations in music and his contribution to the pool of some of the best voices in music for Hindi cinema have to be seen to be believed. The entire world of Rajasthani folk music ran in his veins and he invested it in many of his compositions with precision and artistry.

Most of his compositions were enriched with the flavour of folk, ghazal, dadra, thumri and semi-classical schools of music. Not only did he bank on Rajasthani folk music, but he also had the talent to simplify complex ragas and bandishes to make them enjoyable and entertaining for the mass audience.

Tansen, produced under the Ranjit Movietone banner, is said to have been the first ever musical filled with classical raga-based songs right through, composed by Khemchand Prakash and belted out by KL Saigal.

Tansen remains a milestone in the history of Hindi film music. Every song was based on a different classical raga and yet managed to pull at the heartstrings of the mass audience. For instance, 'Diya Jalao' was based on raga Shuddha Kalyan. 'Sapta Suran Teen Gram' was based on raga Hemant rendered in Dhrupad style. 'Bina Pankh Ke Panchhi Hoon Main' was composed in thumri style while raga Shankara formed the base for 'Rumjhum Rumjhum Chaal Tihari' and Bahar the foundation for 'Baagh Lagadu Sajni'.

Khurshid lent her mellifluous voice to 'More Balapan Ke Saathi Chhaila' composed in raga Des. Under the musical baton of his composer, Saigal, who had never had training in Hindustani classical music, rendered these songs with the expertise of a veteran. Khemchand Prakash did the same with another untrained voice — Kishore Kumar’s. He had the uncanny talent of using singers without formal training in any kind of music.

Khemchand Prakash also introduced the trend of festival songs which are now so popular across television and cinema with the films Holi (1940) and Divali (1940). In fact, the song 'Ghar ghar deep jale ghar ghar shobha, ghar ghar saaj saje' is said to be the first chorus number to be recorded in Hindi cinema, for Divali. Actor Motilal also sang a couple of songs in this film. The same goes for the actress Nalini Jaywant, who sang several numbers in Bombay Talkies’ Muqaddar (1950) for Khemchand Prakash.

Alas! Khemchand Prakash did not live to see and savour his success as one of the greatest music directors in Indian cinema’s first ghost film, Mahal. He passed away a few months after the film was released and went on to become a big box office hit.

Source: Khemchand Prakash Centenary Tribute, Khemchand Prakash Memorial Society, Jaipur, edited by Mohan Swaroop, 13 June 2009.