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Hemanta Mukhopadhyay (16 June 1920 – 26 September 1989) was an Indian singer, composer/music director and film producer, who sang in Bengali, Hindi and other Indian languages. He won two National awards for the category Best Male Playback Singer.
Hemanta was born in the city of Varanasi, India. His family originated from Baharu village in West Bengal. They migrated to Kolkata in the early 1900s. Hemanta grew up there and attended Nasiruddin School and later Mitra Institution school of Bhawanipore area. There he met his longtime friend Subhas Mukhopadhyay who later became a Bengali poet. During this time, he developed a friendship with the noted writer Santosh Kumar Ghosh. At that time, Hemanta wrote short stories, Santosh Kumar wrote poems and Subhash Mukhopadhyay sang songs. After passing the intermediate examinations (12th grade), Hemanta joined Bengal Technical Institute at Jadavpur to pursue Engineering. However, he quit academics to pursue a career in music, despite parental objection. He briefly tried literature and published a short story in a prestigious Bengali magazine called Desh, but by the late-1930s he was committed entirely to music.
Early music career
Under the influence of his friend Subhas Mukhopadhyay, Hemanta recorded his first song for All India Radio in 1935. The first line of the song was “Amar Ganete Ele Nabarupi Chirantanii.” Hemanta’s music career was primarily mentored by the Bengali musician, Sailesh Duttagupta. In an interview on television in the early 1980s, Hemanta had mentioned that he had also received classical music training from Ustad Faiyaz Khan’s student Fanivusan Gangulee, but his tutelage was cut short by Ustad’s untimely death. In 1937, Hemanta cut his first gramophone disc under the Columbia label. The songs (non-film) on this disc were “Janite Jadi Go Tumi” and “Balo Go Balo More” whose lyrics were by Naresh Bhattacharya and music was composed by Sailesh Duttagupta. Thereafter, every year Hemanta continued to record non-film discs for the Gramophone Company of India (GCI) till 1984. His first Hindi songs were “Kitana Dukh Bhulaya Tumne” and “O Preet Nibhanewali,” released in 1940 under GCI’s Columbia label. Music for these songs were composed by Kamal Dasgupta; lyrics were by Faiyaz Hashmi. Hemanta’s first film song was in the Bengali film Nimai Sanyas released in 1941. Music was scored by Hariprasanna Das. Hemanta’s first compositions for himself were the Bengali non-film songs “Katha Kayonako Shudhu Shono” and “Amar Biraha Akashe Priya” in 1944. Lyrics were by Amiya Bagchi. His first Hindi film songs were in Irada in 1944 under Pt. Amarnath’s music direction. Lyrics were by Aziz Kashmiri. Hemanta is considered a foremost exponent of Rabindra Sangeet. His first recorded Rabindra Sangeet was in the Bengali film Priya Bandhabi (1944). The song was “Pather Sesh Kothaye.” He recorded his first non-film Rabindra Sangeet disc in 1944 under the Columbia label. The songs were “Aamar Aar Habe Na Deri” and “Keno Pantha E Chanchalata.” His first movie as a music director was the Bengali film Abhiyatri in 1947. Although many of the songs Hemanta recorded during this time received critical acclaim, major commercial success eluded him until 1947. Some contemporary male singers of Hemanta in Bengali were Jaganmay Mitra, Robin Majumdar, Satya Chowdhury, Dhananjay Bhattacharya, Sudhirlal Chakraborty, Bechu Dutta and Talat Mahmood.
Hemanta had three brothers and a sister, Nilima. His elder brother, Tarajyoti, was a short-story writer in Bengali. The youngest brother, Amal Mukhopadhyay, composed music for some Bengali movies, most notably Hospital and Abak Prithibi. He recorded a few Bengali songs in the 1960s. In 1945, Hemanta married Bela Mukhopadhyay (died 25 June 2009), a singer from Bengal. Although Bela had sung some popular songs in a Bengali movie, Kashinath (1943), with music by Pankaj Mullick, she did not actively pursue her musical career after marriage.They had two children: a son, Jayant, and a daughter, Ranu. Ranu as Ranu Mukhopadhyay pursued a music career in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with somewhat limited success. Jayant is married to Moushmi Chatterjee, an Indian film actress who was popular in the 1970s.
Success and migration to Mumbai
In the mid-1940s, Hemanta became an active member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and started an association with another active IPTA member — songwriter and composer Salil Chowdhury. One of the main driving forces behind the establishment of IPTA was the Bengal famine of 1943 and the inaction of the British administration and wealthy Indians to prevent it. In 1947, Hemanta recorded a non-film song called “Ganyer badhu” (“The rural bride”) that had music and lyrics by Salil Chowdhury. The six-minute song recorded on two sides of a 78 rpm disc was sung at a varying pace and lacked the conventional structure and romantic theme of a Bengali song. It depicted an idyllic, prosperous and caring rural woman’s life and family and how it gets ravaged by the demons of famine and ensuing poverty. This song generated an unforeseen popularity for Hemanta and Salil in eastern India and, in a way, established Hemanta ahead of his male contemporaries. Hemanta and Salil paired again in several songs over the next few years. Almost all these songs proved to be very popular. Around the same period, Hemanta started receiving more assignments for music composition for Bengali films. Some were for directorHemen Gupta. When Hemen moved to Mumbai a few years later, he called upon Hemanta to compose music for his first directorial venture in Hindi titled Anandmath under the Filmistan banner. Responding to this call, Hemanta migrated to Mumbai in 1951 and joined Filmistan Studios. The music of Anand Math (1952) was a moderate success. Perhaps, the most notable songs from this movie is ‘Vande mataram’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar, which Hemanta set to a marching tune. Following Anandamath, Hemanta scored music for a few Filmistan movies like Shart in subsequent years, the songs of which received moderate popularity. Simultaneously, Hemanta gained popularity in Mumbai as a playback singer. His songs playbacked for actor Dev Anand under music director Sachin Dev Burman in movies like Jaal, House No. 44, Solva Saal and Baat ek raat ki became quite popular.
By the mid-1950s, Hemanta had consolidated his position as a prominent singer and composer. In Bengal, he was one of the foremost exponents of Rabindra Sangeet and perhaps the most sought-after male singer. In a ceremony organised by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay to honour Debabrata Biswas (1911–1980), the legendary Rabindra Sangeet exponent, in Calcutta in March 1980, Debabrata Biswas unhesitatingly mentioned Hemanta as “the second hero” to popularise Rabindra Sangeet, the first being the legendary Pankaj Kumar Mallick. In Mumbai, along with playback singing, Hemanta carved a niche as a composer. He composed music for a Hindi film called Nagin (1954) which became a major success owing largely to its music. Songs of Nagin remained chart-toppers continuously for two years and culminated in Hemant receiving the prestigious Filmfare Best Music Director Award in 1955. The very same year, he scored music for a Bengali movie called Shapmochan in which he played back four songs for the Bengali actor Uttam Kumar. This started a long partnership between Hemant and Uttam as a playback singer-actor pair. They were the most popular singer-actor duo in Bengali cinema over the next decade. In the latter part of the 1950s, Hemanta composed music and sang for several Bengali and Hindi films, recorded several Rabindra Sangeets and Bengali non-film songs. Almost all of these, especially his Bengali songs, became very popular. This period can be seen as the zenith of his career and lasted for almost a decade. He sang songs composed by the major music directors in Bengal such as Nachiketa Ghosh, Robin Chatterjee and Salil Chowdhury. Some of the notable films Hemanta himself composed music for during this period include Harano Sur, Marutirtha Hinglaj, Neel Akasher Neechey, Lukochuri, Swaralipi, Deep Jwele Jaai, Shesh Parjanta, Kuhak, Dui Bhai, and Saptapadi in Bengali, and, Jagriti and Ek Hi Raasta in Hindi.
In the late 1950s, Hemanta ventured into movie production under his own banner: Hemanta-Bela productions. The first movie under this banner was a Bengali film directed by Mrinal Sen, titled Neel Akasher Neechey (1959). The story was based on the travails of a Chinese street hawker in Calcutta in the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle. The movie went onto win the President’s Gold Medal — the highest honour for a movie from Government of India. In the next decade, Hemanta’s production company was renamed Geetanjali productions and it produced several Hindi movies such as Bees Saal Baad, Kohraa, Biwi Aur Makaan, Faraar, Rahgir and Khamoshi — all of which had music by Hemanta. Only Bees Saal Baad and Khamoshi were major commercial successes. Back in Bengal, Hemanta scored music for a movie titled Palatak in 1963 where he experimented with merging Bengal folk music and light music. This proved to be a major success and Hemanta’s composition style changed noticeably for many of his future films in Bengal such as Baghini, and Balika Badhu. In Bengali films Manihar and Adwitiya, both of which were major musical as well as commercial successes, his compositions had a light classical tinge. In 1961, for commemorating Rabindranath Tagore’s birth centenary, Gramophone company of India featured Rabindrasangeet by Hemanta in a large portion of its commemorative output. This too proved to be a major commercial success. Hemanta went on several overseas concert tours including his trip to the West Indies. Overall, in the 1960s decade he retained his position as the major male singer in Bengal and as a composer and singer to be reckoned with in Hindi films.bIn the 1960s he was the predominant and lead male voice in many of Tagore’s musical dramas like Valmiki Pratibha, Shyama, Sapmochan, Chitrangada and Chandalika. With Kanika Bandopadhyay (1924–2000) and Suchitra Mitra (1924–2010), who were the lead female voices in these, he was part of the Rabindra Sangeet triumvirate that was popular and respected. It was referred as ‘Hemanta-Kanika-Suchitra’ and, with Debabrata Biswas, this quartet was and continues to be most heard exponents of Tagore compositions.
In the 1970s, Hemanta’s contribution in Hindi films was nominal. He scored music for a handful of his home productions, but none of these movies were successful nor their music. In Bengal, however, he remained the foremost exponent of Rabindra Sangeet, film and non-film songs. His output continued to be popular for most of the decade. Some of them are Jodi jante chao tumi (1972), Sedin tomay dekhechilam (1974), Khirki theke singho duar (stree 1971), Ke jane ko ghonta (1974), Chorono dhorite diyogo amare (1980). In 1971, Hemanta debuted as a film director in for his self-produced Bengali movie Anindita. It didn’t fare exceedingly well at the box office. However, his rendition ‘Diner seshe ghumer deshe’ was one of his best Rabindra Sangeet. In the same year Hemanta went to Hollywood by responding famous film director Conrad Rooks and score the music of Conrad’s Siddhartha and played back in that film. He was the first Indian singer to play back in Hollywood. The US government honoured Hemanta by giving him citizenship of Baltimore, Maryland. Hemanta is also the first ever singer of India to get USA citizenship. In the early to mid-1970s, two major music composers in Bengal, Nachiketa Ghosh and Robin Chatterjee, who had worked closely with Hemanta since the early 1950s, died. Simultaneously, music composed by Hemanta for Bengali films like Fuleswari, Raag Anurag, ” Ganadebata ” and Dadar Kirti established Hemanta as the major film music composer in the Bengal movie scene. In 1979, Hemanta re-recorded some of his earlier works with composer Salil Chowdhury from the 1940s and 1950s. This album, titled Legend of Glory, vol. 2 was a major commercial success, despite Hemanta’s aged and slightly tired voice. In 1980, Hemanta had a heart attack that severely affected his vocal capabilities, especially his breath control. He continued to record songs in the early eighties, but his voice was a shade of its rich baritone past. In 1984, Hemanta was felicitated by different organizations, most notably by the Gramophone Company of India, for completing 50 years in music. That very year Hemanta released his last album with Gramophone Company of India — a 45 rpm extended play disc with four non-film songs. Over the next few years, Hemanta released non-film songs under small-time labels that had cropped up in the nascent cassette-based music industry. Only a few of these were commercially successful. He composed music for a handful of Bengali movies and one Bengali and one Hindi tele-series. However, by this time he had become an institution, a beloved personality, and a courteous and friendly gentleman. His philanthropic activities included running a homeopathic hospital in memory of his late father in their native village in Baharu, in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. In a television interview to noted elocutionist Gauri Ghosh, his wife Bela Mukhopadhyaya recalled that she never knew during his lifetime the number of families and persons he helped to put up financially or otherwise; only after he died that this truth gradually unveiled. He continued to feature regularly on All India Radio, Doordarshan (TV) and live programmes/concerts during this period. In 1987, he was nominated for Padmabhushan which he refused politely, having already turned down the offer to receive Padmashree in the 1970s. In this year, he was publicly felicitated in Netaji Indoor Stadium in Calcutta for completing 50 years in musical journey, where, Lata Mangeshkar presented him with the memento on behalf of his fans and admirers.Despite his ageing voice, he became the Best Male Singer in 1988 for his rendition in the film “Lalan Fakir”. In September 1989 he travelled to Dhaka, Bangladesh to receive the Michael Madhusudan Award, as well as to perform a concert. Immediately after returning from this trip he suffered another heart attack on 26 September and died at 11:15 pm in a nursing home in South Calcutta.
Nearly two decades after his death the Gramophone Company of India releases at least one album by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay every year, repackaging his older songs, because of the commercial viability of his songs. His legacy still lives on through the songs he has recorded, music he has composed, and through many male singers in Bengal and the rest of India who continue to imitate his singing style.