An entire generation of Indians aged a decade yesterday, when they heard the news of KK passing away. For most Indians, KK was a soulful singer. Someone who could breathe life and emotions into a song. Who could elevate a song from the mundane to the mystical. A magician with a mike.
But KK was personal to me. More than a decade ago, I had decided to learn to play the guitar. It was a childhood dream of mine, and I was a bits-and-pieces singer at school. When I first held the guitar, it was overwhelming. Where should I begin? Which song do I choose? There were the legends of the West – Eagles and Beatles and Scorpions. And then there were the icons of the East – Nusrat and Mohd. Rafi and Sonu Nigam. Where was I supposed to begin? Whose songs could I grasp on to, under confident as I was with both my voice and my guitar skills. And that is when I realised the beauty of KK’s songs.
Ask any friend who has ever dabbled with the guitar, and they’ll tell you what they think of KK. KK’s songs did not come with the baggage of classical training, like the likes of Kailash Kher, Daler Mehndi, or Sukhwinder. They were easy to strum along to. KK never attempted to complicate his songs with unnecessary harkatein or aalaps. He made beautiful songs accessible.
Of course, it was a different matter that when you actually got down to sing his songs, you realised how complicated they were. How high the high notes were, how difficult the notes that he seemed to glide over actually were. KK took the complicated, the complex – and made it seem within reach. As he effortlessly slid from note to note, his voice encouraged you to skate along.
By the time KK burst into the scene, India already had a gamut of playback superstars. Our parents swore on Mohd. Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh. Kumar Sanu was the voice of the early and mid 90s. Udit Narayan and Sonu Nigam had firmly entrenched themselves as leading singers of the time. KK well and truly belonged to the piracy generation. A generation that grew up around Cable TV – that chose to ‘watch’ their songs instead of merely listening to them. A generation who listened to songs on new FM radio stations, on pirated MP3 CDs, or illegally downloaded from songs.pk or gaanaworld.com.
As I made myself familiar with his discography, I realised that KK had also sung a number of Telugu songs that I had jived to without knowing the name of the singer. There was Allu Arjun’s Feel my love from Arya. There was Paataku Pranam in which Venkatesh aimed to connect to the youth of the country while playing a guitar, wearing beach shirts, rocking rock concerts – all the while managing to keep his wig intact. I found that KK had sung songs by Rahman before he became the phenomenon he is today. With DSP before he became as enjoyable as his namesake – Directors’ Special whiskey.
But that’s the thing about KK’s voice. It didn’t try to stand out, to grab your attention. It melded into the vision of the director. Even though he was classically trained, KK’s voice was easy on the ears. He felt no need to peacock his skills in every song. He made difficult songs seem like childhood friends. Even though he was a performer par excellence, his songs could be hummed by even the most tone-deaf person in the room. It’s no wonder that his songs became the anthems for love and friendship for an entire generation.
As I scroll through his discography, something else strikes me. KK was never attached to any particular actor. His chameleon-like voice could go with just about anybody. Whether it was a Shah Rukh Khan at the peak of his Rio de Janeiro charm, or Allu Arjun before he started shaving. Whether it was Shiney Ahuja, Emraan Hashmi, or Saif Ali Khan – KK’s voice melded into the voice of the star. I dare say having KK sing for you made the actors look cooler. This was because KK could pull off complicated songs easily, but also have a blast with dumb, commercial songs. Check out Bardasht Nahi Kar Sakta or Ding Dong Ding Dole. In fact, such was the versatility of the dude, that even when Himesh Mania was at its peak, Lord Himesh would sing every song in his album, but leave one song for KK. For even the Lord nose!
Gradually, the tone of Bollywood music began to change. While Pritam survived the transition successfully, musicians like Shankar Ehsaan Loy, Vishal – Shekar and even Rahman to an extent find work hard to come by. We gradually went from a soulful music industry to one where robots pick a song from the previous decade and proceed to decimate it carefully.
But even as the songs dried up, KK never fought to remain in the limelight. He never judged a reality show, or made a controversial statement. Singers today have opinions on everything under the sun, but KK was too cool for Twitter. No drama, no shocking interviews. You’ll find clips of him talking to people while chilling on a couch, or of jamming with college students before or after a show. It seemed like the stage was really where KK belonged.
I once attended a KK concert, and I shall never forget the night.
One of the pastimes that me and my drunken friends indulge in, is to check how 90s singers have aged. I firmly believe that live singing is the more exciting, more difficult form of singing, especially in the age of auto-tune and high-def musical technology. We used to spend hours checking out live videos of singers from our childhood.
While age has come his way, Udit Narayan still manages to turn on his charm at shows. Kumar Sanu – in spite of his voice getting a little shaky – has a huge repertoire of slow romantic songs of the 90s. Abhijeet was the pleasant surprise, managing to retain the honey-coated voice that he used to croon for Shah Rukh Khan, and to speak against the use of Pakistani singers. Sonu Nigam is still pretty solid in live performances.
But KK is something else. If you had the chance to go to a live KK concert, you’ll know that he had an enviable list of super hit songs – each one a banger, each one better than the previous one. While other singers try to pump up the crowd during a concert, it came naturally to KK. He’d sing a few lines, walk up to the crowd, shake their hands, whisper a few instructions to the sound engineer, turn around, glide through the high notes of a song – to send the audience into a mad tizzy.
KK knew how to put up a show; it came naturally to him. That night, he sent the audience home sweating, dancing, crying and hugging. I remember going back home after the concert shaking my head a few times – wondering how a person could change a barren exhibition ground into a well of humans charged with emotions.
While it is incredibly sad that he had to pass away, I am inclined to look for the silver linings. In a way, KK will be forever young in our minds. He’ll remain the cool, hip rock star who sang to an entire generation about love, friendship and life.
I hope he reaches heaven safely, and finds Irrfan Khan. I hope they both sit on top of a high-rise building in heaven. And just as Irrfan is about to light a joint, KK begins to hum ‘Alvida’…