Ever since the 1930s and the advent of the ‘Talkies’ in cinema, the name of Pankaj Mullick stands out in the world of film, non-film music and Rabindra Sangeet not only for his trend setting great music and singing but also for his outstanding performances in many other fields of arts. Mullick attained greatness and immortality and was decorated with so many awards and accolades, that a short essay can hardly do any justice to even a part of that vast panorama.
NS Rajan recalls how he grew up listening to Pankaj Mullick’s music right from the 30s and enjoys them just as much today. A Silhouette tribute to the doyen on his birth anniversary.
With the film Alam Ara, sound was first ushered into cinema theatres in 1931. In the decade following the transformation of movies into “Talkies”, the number of music directors for Hindi films could quite literally be counted on the fingers of one’s hand. Think of Saraswati Devi (Khorshed Minocher-Homji), Jaddan Bai (mother of actor Nargis), Ghulam Haidar from Punjab and Pankaj Mullick, KC Dey and RC Boral, all from Bengal. It was these few who set the tone and pattern of music and songs in Hindi films.
Saraswati Devi is known for composing Koi humdum na raha (Jeevan Naiya, 1936) and Ek chatur naar kar kar shringar (Jhoola, 1941) both songs sung by Ashok Kumar in the films. These songs were later improvised and sung by Kishore Kumar in Jhumroo (1961) and by Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar in Padosan, respectively. Ghulam Haidar composed excellent music for films like Khazanchi with the very popular Saawan ke nazaarein hain, aha, aha, where actor Ramola leads her friends on a cycling trip (a la Nutan in Ban ke panchi gaaye pyar ka taraana in Anari, 1959). But, for sheer class and output, Pankaj Mullick was head and shoulders above anyone else of that era. He was unmatched and outstanding. He led, and others followed.
Pankaj Mullick was well established as a singer, actor, writer, playwright, and a teacher of music in Calcutta, long before the 1940s. His 25-year-long association with the Calcutta-based New Theatres studio set many trends in filmmaking and music. Mullick had simultaneously composed music and also sung for many Hindi and Bengali films produced under other banners, maintaining a hectic but highly successful career in composing, singing and in many other activities related to the Arts. He had a deep and mellifluous voice which enhanced one’s listening experience when he sang emotional songs of love and sadness. With nearly 5,000 songs and compositions to his credit along with nearly 150 films, Pankaj Mullick’s contribution to the world of Indian films and Indian popular music is awe-inspiring.
Pankaj Kumar Mullick, popular as ‘Pankaj Mullick’, was born on 10th May 1905. His contribution to music, Rabindra Sangeet in particular, Bengali and Hindi film music, and other genres of songs such as kirtan, bhajan, folk songs, patriotic songs, devotional songs, as a composer and singer is as immense and incalculable as it is musically inestimable. He taught many aspiring musicians for several decades through regular programs on AIR, teaching Tagore songs, Nazrul songs (Kazi Nazrul Islam, known as the national poet of Bangladesh, was a poet, writer, and musician and is regarded as one of the greatest poets in Bengali literature) and songs by other composers. Pankaj Mullick’s musical bond with Bangladesh was close and very dear to him as he was associated with East Bengal long before it became an independent nation.
My fascination for Pankaj Mullick began in the 1930s
My personal exposure to Pankaj Mullick’s music began in the late 1930s. As a young boy not even ten yet and only a few years after songs made their advent into films in 1931, I had already seen many films for which Pankaj Mullick was the music director, singer and actor. I remember coming away impressed and awestruck by his music and singing.
Some of those memorable songs are:
And just a few of his countless number of non-filmy songs:
All these songs (and so many others composed by him) were a novelty for their times, besides their lilting melody, for the deft use by Mullick of musical instruments such as the Western Piano, Sitar, Tabla and the Harmonium. It was great sound and harmony with the least fuss.
Tere mandir ka hoon deepak jal raha (Non-film, 1940) Pankaj Mullick / Pandit BC Madhur / Pankaj Mullick — This is a visual interpretation of this ethereal bhajan by a 17-year-old girl Anshula. Shows how relevant and everlasting Pankaj Mullick’s songs are, even for the millennium generation
My highly receptive and fertile young mind soaked up all these songs (besides his many other Hindi film and ‘private’ songs) like a sponge and they struck a deep chord in me, remaining in my memory ever since. In those times, very few films were being produced and by the sheer magic of his music, Pankaj Mullick made all his films as composer, actor and singer memorable.
We should also remember that the earliest composers such as Pankaj Mullick had no precedents nor manuals on tune making and orchestration. With him, whatever he did and produced was absolutely ‘original’. That makes all his work archetypal. Every music director in Hindi films who blossomed from the early 1940s (and suddenly there were a lot of them) had ‘his’ pattern and a precedent to either emulate or be inspired by.
But Mullick, and his very few contemporaries, with no composer as a predecessor in film music behind them, were the real innovators, inventors and trend setters of Hindi film music. And with the introduction of western musical instruments and unique tunes into his songs, Mullick set the bar high at the very outset, which undoubtedly induced Anil Biswas, Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan, and SD Burman, to name only a few who immediately succeeded Mullick, to create great music themselves.
According to the great composer Naushad, Mullick used the concepts of counter-melody, harmony, chords, interludes, double bass and introduced the English flute and accordion in film music orchestra. “Without his early innovations, Indian film music would not have had such elaborate orchestral arrangements.”
“I neither had any exposure to music nor did my family have any musicians. As a six-year-old, I listened to Pankaj Mullick’s singing and was hugely inspired. I became a musician because of him,” OP Nayyar had said once.
Speaking at Mullick’s 115th birth anniversary celebrations recently, Pankaj Mullick’s grandson Rajib Alo Gupta said that his grandfather discovered the horse-beat rhythm and the train rhythm. “You know A.R. Rahman’s Chhaiyaan chhaiyaan? Dadu was the first to use that train rhythm in the film, Doctor .” In other words, there are many such influences, trends and practices that Pankaj Mullick introduced and they continue to flourish till this day.
Immense contribution to Rabindra Sangeet
Mullick was actively into singing and performing at functions while still in college, and his talent drew the attention of Durgadas Bandyopadhyay, an eminent singer who took Mallick under his wings and taught him classical music. After finishing his studies, Mullick happened to come in contact with Dinendranath Tagore (born 1882), grandnephew of Rabindranath Tagore, who was in charge of Tagore’s music school at Visva Bharati. Mullick was fascinated by the Tagore songs taught by Dinendranath.
In 1925, Rabindranath Tagore heard of Mullick, who it was said sang one of his poems most beautifully. This led to a meeting at which Pankaj Mullick sang for Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore, who lived an active life until 1941, grew fond of him, and soon Mullick became known as one of the leading exponents of Tagore’s songs. Mullick was the only musician allowed by Tagore to compose tunes for his songs, a testimony of the esteem in which Tagore held Pankaj Mullick’s abilities as a tunesmith. The most popular instance of this rare honour is the song – Diner sheshey ghumer deshey, where Tagore’s poem Shesh Kheya was set to tune by Pankaj Mullick and used in the Bengali film Mukti in 1937. With the film Mukti (1937) Pankaj Mullick not only launched himself as an independent music director but also became an actor-singer.
Diner sheshe (Mukti, 1937) Pankaj Mullick / Rabindranath Tagore / Pankaj Mullick
Pankaj Mullick earned considerable fame by recording scores of Tagore’s songs. He also popularised using the Tabla and Harmonium for these songs. These instruments, which were not a part of Tagore songs earlier, gradually became a regular part of Tagore songs after Mullick sang using them.
Mentoring young talent
Pankaj Mullick composed songs in Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Tamil language films for 38 years, starting in 1931, and worked as music director for artists like K.C. Dey, K.L. Saigal, Kanan Devi, Hemant Kumar and Geeta Dutt.
“It was perhaps in the year 1931 that a young Punjabi gentleman came to the Kolkata radio station to meet the director, Nripendranath Majumdar. The director told me to audition for his voice,” Pankaj Mullick had recalled in a Films Division documentary. The young Punjabi gentleman was none other than K.L. Saigal, a singer with whom Mullick had a lifelong bond. Mullick passed his audition and that flagged off a historic journey of superhit and memorable films and songs.
Hemant Kumar, in his initial years was known as Chhoto Pankaj (Junior Pankaj). Hearing Hemant Kumar’s songs, listeners felt his voice and style of singing was similar to that of Pankaj Mullick. The doyen had naturally left a mark on the young Hemant’s gayaki, which became more and more evident as more of his songs were heard on the radio and listeners started to fondly call him Chhoto Pankaj.
In 1927, Pankaj Mullick joined All India Radio (AIR), Kolkata, initially known as the Indian Broadcasting Corporation, within a month of its inception. For the next 50 years, he was an integral part of Indian radio.
The epic LIVE radio programme Mahishasuramardini
One of the immensely popular and revered radio programmes of all times is Mahishasuramardini recital broadcast annually since the 1930s on Mahalaya, which marks the end of Pitri Paksha and heralds the beginning of the annual Durga Puja festival. An iconic radio programme composed by Banikumar with music directed by Pankaj Kumar Mullick it is an oratorio comprising devotional songs in the praise of goddess Durga, sung by the leading singers of Bengal; narrations on the legends associated with the mother goddess, and readings from the Saptasati Chandi by Birendra Krishna Bhadra.
The programme, broadcast live for nearly three decades, was later recorded and broadcast from the tapes. Mahisasuramardini was so popular that the Gramophone Company released an LP of the same in 1978, after having acquired the tapes from the AIR archives. It is probably the only radio programme that the company ever released on record.
Mahishasur Mardini / Pankaj Mullick / Bani Kumar / Birendra Krishna Bhadra & Other Artists
Unique LIVE music class
Pankaj Mullick conceptualized and started the immensely popular live-music class titled ‘Sangeet Shikshar Ashar’ which he conducted for a record 47 years on the trot. There is no other parallel to this achievement of his across the world.
First use of playback music
In his study of Pankaj Mullick’s work, Rajib Gupta writes: “In 1935, Mullick was working with music composer RC Boral for Nitin Bose’s Bhagya Chakra. One day Bose thought he heard Mullick singing an English song called ‘Pagan’s Love Song’. Mullick told him he was merely humming a song that was being played on a gramophone nearby. Bose kept quiet. Later, at the sets, in Boral’s presence, Bose played the same song from a record and asked Pankaj Mullick to sing along with it. After a few minutes, Bose asked him to just move his lips with the song, without using his voice. Thus the revolutionary idea of playback singing was conceived, that could sort out the problem of making singers act and non-musical actors sing.”
The many awards and honours
Pankaj Mullick won the President’s Medal, now known as the National Award, for Best Music Direction in films, following the introduction of the awards in a post-independent India that the bulk of his films missed out on. He was honoured with the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association or BFJA award for his work as music director in films, quite a number of times. Among the many Lifetime Achievement Awards he received was one from All India Radio and another from the renowned music company HMV, now known as Saregama Pvt. Ltd. He was conferred the title of Surosagar in 1931, the title of Sangeet Ratnakar in 1962, the Padmashree in 1970 and the ‘Dadasaheb Phalke Puraskar’ in 1973, which is the highest award accorded by the Government of India in the field of Indian Cinema. Interestingly enough, he was the first music director to be so honoured. The prestigious title of Rabindra Tattacharya was conferred upon him 1977. Obviously, the list of awards that he earned would have been much longer had there been so many awards going round in his times, as they were later.
The launch of Doordarshan or television in India in September 1959 witnessed Pankaj Mullick singing the inaugural song. Bharatanatyam exponent Vyjayanthimala was the other lead performer. Pankaj Mullick became adviser to Lokaranjan Shakha (public entertainment branch) of the West Bengal government in 1953 at the request of Chief Minister Dr B C Ray. He served in this capacity till 1967. He presided over the music sessions of the Nikhil Bharat Banga Sahitya Sammelan in 1953 and 1956.
Pankaj Mullick was innovative and nonpareil in creating, composing and singing songs and simultaneously being active in many other branches of music and the Arts, considering the times, and the primitive recording equipment available then. While his achievements are formidable in terms of statistics alone, it is the range and depth of his compositions and singing that leave one staggered; from mere film songs (which he enriched with his inimitable, characteristic touch), to songs based on the classical, religious, Rabindra Sangeet, and invocations in Sanskrit. The last recordings of his life were two Sanskrit hymns in 1972.
When Mullick died on 19th February 1978, Pandit Ravi Shankar mourned the loss of “a wonderful creative musician… a wonderful human being”. Satyajit Ray said, “Pankaj Mullick earned legendary fame and popularity as a singer and teacher of Rabindra Sangeet. He devoted his whole life to this cause”.
Pankaj Mullick | The Musical Pioneer | Interview | 1977 (Films Division)
More Must Reads in Silhouette
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Main Kya Janoon Kya Jadoo Hai: K L Saigal’s Magical Music
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A very interesting article about the doyen of music, Mr Rajan. Loved reading it.
Thank you, Ms Warrier. Coming from a veteran writer on such subjects such as you are, I feel very happy and fulfilled about your comment.
Some comments received over WhatsApp:
Dear Rajan uncle, I am simply in awe of the breadth and depth of knowledge you have…such a treat to read this article. I had never heard Pankaj Mullick until Shraddhanjali by Lata. Yeh Raatein, Yeh Mausam has been one of my all time favorites! I also did not realize how many of Sehgal’s hits Pankaj Mullick had directed until I read your article. Thank you for sharing it 🙏
~ Alok Goyal
Dear Rajan Sir,
The YouTube links make it so easy to listen to each of the songs (have already started tuning in, though I must confess that I have not heard them before).
1. While AIR ( and later Doordarshan) have been always been great prep-schools for Bollywood, Bengal has sent an inordinately high proportion of talent to Mumbai during the 20th century. I always wonder how and why it tapered down.
2. As you rightly pointed out, one’s growing up years ( especially ages 10-20, perhaps) is the period when the songs you listen to, stay with you the most thru your life. For example,for me, it is the Ilayaraaja of the 80s. Wonder if others too share the same kind of proclivity wrt their song choices !
Keep writing, Sir. Just reading your article intently was a rich experience by itself !🙏🙏🙏
Thank you for your kind words, Sathish
1. Bollywood itself created this situation with films only seeking box office success, glorifying and portraying the “Angry Young Man” image, with a good lot of violence and rough action, leaving little scope for the kind of music that prevailed until the 1980s.
When such stalwarts as OP Nayyar, Naushad, RD. Burman could find few takers for their music, it is hardly surprising that the flow of talent from Bengal dried up.
After 1990, music in Hindi films underwent a metamorphosis; whether for the better or worse is open to anyone’s personal assessment.
2. You are perfectly correct in saying that the music we are exposed to at a tender age remains with us. It is the same with our memory.
And thank God for that, for such memories are all pleasant and enjoyable. 🙏
What an amazing and enlightening read uncle .. you are like a university ! Your essays should be made available for reference to students of music and movies.
Pankaj Mullick ! While I grew up with many of his songs that u quote in your essay , I knew nothing of all that you have written . I am in awe . He reminds me of Kishore Kumar in versatility- composing , singing , acting. But he was probably way higher.. As you write , he was the true torch bearer and originator of Hindi film music, whom others followed later . His association with Rabindranath Tagore is the ultimate testimony of his greatness perhaps. My mom was an avid follower of PM and loved your essay.
Thank you, Rachna. That makes me feel so good that I could sit down right now and do another essay.
I am happy that you were exposed to Pankaj Mullick (and KL Saigal) very early. They created great songs together and filmgoers of my generation actually worshipped them. Pankaj was special for his achievements in several facets of arts beyond films and in enthusing an entire generation to learn and appreciate traditional and devotional music.