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Twilight years of saxophonist Manohari Singh through the eyes of friend Vish Shirali

Harmonica player Shirali, who played in many stage shows with the saxophonist, remembers his guru and father figure on the latter’s eighth death anniversary.

Manohari Singh and Vish Shirali. (All photos courtesy: Vish Shirali)

Blessy Chettiar

Friendships in the film industry are known to be fragile. Often tied with success, their ephemeral quality manifests itself only too quickly, sending artistes down the dark alleys of financial and personal desolation.

On the eighth death anniversary of musician Manohari Singh (he died on 13 July 2010), we stumbled across a story of friendship that was built on the foundations of music but nurtured through times of illness and hardship.

Manohari Singh was a well-known name in the world of Hindi film music from the 1960s through the 1990s for his close association with legendary composer RD Burman aka Pancham. Before composing and arranging Hindi film music, Manohari Singh had trained under the Hungarian conductor Joseph Newman as he played with the brass band at the Bata Shoe Company, Bata Nagar, in erstwhile Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Manohari Singh worked there from 1942 to 1945, following which he moved to HMV (His Master’s Voice) along with Newman. Apart from playing Hindi and Bengali songs, he honed his skills playing in the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra which played Western classical music.

He played the flute, the clarinet, and the mandolin but came to be identified the most with the saxophone.

Born and brought up in Hooghly, West Bengal, in a family of musically aligned individuals of Nepali origin, Manohari Singh moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1958. That same year, he made his film music debut with SD Burman’s Sitaron Se Aagey (1958) and went on to arrange the music for other SD Burman films like Solva Saal (1958), Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962) and Guide (1965). With the 1965 movie Bhoot Bungla, he and long-time friend and colleague Basudev Chakravarty became arrangers for Pancham.

In an interview with Shankar Iyer for the magazine Swar Aalap in 2009, Manohari Singh explained, “Though Laxmikant-Pyarelal were official arrangers for the movie, I arranged the title song.” With Chakravarty, popular in the industry as simply Basu, he arranged the music for most films scored by Pancham, including his film, Vidhu Vinod Chopra's 1942: A Love Story (1994).

While not much is known of the saxophonist after his stint in films ended, we spoke to close friend and stage associate, musician Vish Shirali, to get a sense of Manoharida as a person.

Vish Shirali and Manohari Singh at one of the many concerts they played together

Shirali is a self-taught musician who spent precious personal and professional time performing with Manohari Singh. He considered Manohari Singh a father figure in a career which began only after retirement from his day job with Indian Airlines (which was merged a few years ago with Air-India) and, more recently, a travel consultancy.

While Shirali played erratically in shows on stage, he never considered music a full-time career, until a couple of years ago. Like his guru, the sprightly Shirali is a multi-instrumentalist who can play the keyboard, guitar and harmonica. He started playing the harmonica at the age of four, but never took up music seriously. It was only after he turned 60 and retired from his airline job that he became a professional harmonica player.

Shirali reminisced about the times he spent with Manohari Singh with great fondness.

“One day I got a call from a big group called the Golden Greats," he recounted. "They said they wanted to do a show of Hemant Kumar [songs]. His most famous song was ‘Hai Apna Dil Toh Awara’ from Solva Saal (1958), which had a lot of harmonica. I didn’t even know where my harmonica was. I hadn’t played it for 30-40 years. They said I should at least try. Then and even now you will rarely find a harmonica professional live on stage. It was always played on a synthesizer. So I went and played.

"The audience was thrilled to hear a live harmonica on stage. And dada [Manohari Singh] was part of the band. We came to know each other. He told me, ‘Achcha bajata hai [You play well]’. He was very kanjoos [stingy] with his praise, like all big artistes. For a year or so, nothing much happened. I played the harmonica here and there as people had come to know I could play it.”

Shirali had three harmonicas at the time and recorded with singer Udit Narayan and RD Burman's guitarist Ramesh Iyer.

“After some months somebody thought of an acoustics-only show," he said. "Now it’s common, but those days [almost 20 years ago] it wasn’t. Again I went with my three harmonicas. There was Manoharida and also Sumeet Mitra, who was Shankar-Jaikishan’s top accordion player. The three of us played. I played 6-7 songs, Manoharida and Sumeet played a lot of songs. Then the crucial point came.

"During the interval, Dada came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, 'Suno meri baat. Bombay mein keyboard bajanewale 5,000 hai. Tumhare jaise harmonica bajanewala professional nahi hai. Tum ispe jao, tumhara bhala ho jayega. Paisa bahut nahi kamayega par tumhara naam industry mein itna hoga tum dekho’ [Listen to what I say. Keyboard players are dime a dozen in Bombay, but there is no professional harmonica player. Focus on this. You may not make a lot of money but you will make a name for yourself in the industry].

"I told him I would do it if he became my guru. And that is how my association with the harmonica and a lifelong friendship started.”

Shirali went on to play at many shows with Manohari Singh. In 2007, during a show, he got the news that Manohari Singh was being brought back from America in an air ambulance because both his kidneys had failed. “They had to put him on dialysis immediately," he recalled. "The very next day I went to see him.

"I don’t know what happened to me. I called him my guru, but what could I do for him? I was still working at my last job [in the travel consultancy].

"Then the ritual of going to meet him every Sunday started. At 9am I would go to his house in Khar, sit talking to him. At lunchtime I would come back. I became the chuha [rat] of the house. They would treat me like family.”

What happened next is firmly rooted in Shirali’s memory. For 5-6 months, Manohari Singh did not play any music. The doctors had advised him not to strain his body, and he himself was not keen to pick up any instrument.

“If he hadn’t played the sax [saxophone], it would have been tough," said Shirali. "If you take music away from musicians, they rarely live long. He was an excellent English concert flautist too. And the flute isn’t as demanding as the sax, so I told him next Sunday I would come with a track. His favourite minus 1 [without vocals] track was ‘O Hansini’ from Zehreela Insaan (1974). He slowly took up the flute and played ‘O Hansini’.

"You could see the happiness in his eyes when he was playing. Then one after the other he played a few tracks. Every Sunday he would play two-three songs. Then one fine day I told him he had enough practice to take up the sax again.

"He was taken aback. The sax was his life. When he played it again, there were tears in his eyes. His favourite tune was ‘Gaata Rahe Mera Dil’ from Guide (1965). He was famous for the sax piece in that song.”

Slowly, word got around that Manohari Singh had picked up the saxophone again. “The industry is very bad. They thought he had given up forever. So they didn’t care. Then his journey as a stage musician started, which made him more famous,” Shirali said.

According to Shirali, it was Manohari Singh's passion for music and his tremendous will power that made him take up the saxophone again.

Talking about the veteran's fondness for him, Shirali said, “We got so close, you would find this funny. He would just call me to be with him, even if I wasn’t playing with him. He just wanted me to be with him in the car when he travelled to his shows. By this time music was secondary between us. It became more of a father-son bond. He was very comfortable with me.

"The beauty of Manoharida was that he was a man of passion. He would go for dialysis in the morning and play at shows in the evening. One afternoon he had gone for dialysis. And in the evening he played with me on stage. Few musicians would do that. Especially for an instrument like the sax, which takes a lot of lung power.”

Vish Shirali on one of his visits to Manohari Singh's house. He calls Manoharida's wife Mangala 'didi'

Shirali, who still travels across the country with his harmonicas at 77, remembers Manohari Singh as a father figure. Their friendship, built on the foundation of music, has stood the test of time. “In 2010, he was admitted to Lilavati hospital [in Bandra, Mumbai]. His daughter called and asked me to come right away. By the time I reached I saw everyone crying, so I knew he had passed away. I went for the funeral... I am not ashamed to say this, but I felt more for him than I did for my own dad. He was closer to me than my dad.”

Vish Shirali with Manohari Singh's son Rajesh at their residence

Even after Manohari Singh has long gone, Shirali continues the tradition of visiting his home. “I still go to their house, but not like before. I meet his wife and his kids. Since he is not there now, I make it a point to go on his birth and death anniversaries.”

Some friendships last a lifetime. Manohari Singh and Vish Shirali knew that kind well.

Listen to Manohari Singh's saxophone melodies (up to 05:10 minutes):