RMIM Archive Article "371".
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
# RMIM Archives..
# Subject: Usha Khanna
# Posted by: firstname.lastname@example.org (Veena S Nayak)
# Source: Savvy, Jul 97
# Author: Bharati Pradhan
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
Female Composers: Usha Khanna
In an attempt to liven the yawner that is Friday evening, I was poking
around in my sack of goodies garnered from the streets and shops of
amchi Mumbai. Out comes an old issue of Savvy, the magazine for the
"liberated" woman. I learn how to make mango kheer and how to make my
tresses lustrous; skills that will no doubt go a long way in my
emancipation. Moreover, I get simple, practical solutions to posers
that had me tossing in bed on many a sleepless night: how to make ghee
last longer, how to clean tarnished brass buttons, how to give dirty
bottles that clean, sparkling look and how to get rid of the malodour
of boiled cabbage.
Nestling between write-ups on the Fat Club of Bombay and the dubious
Broken Hearts Rehabilitation Society of Chandigarh was an interview
with composer Usha Khanna. Featured under the silly title of "Beauty
and Brawn", the article is written in a mawkish style that is the sine
qua non of lowbrow, cheapie magazines. Be that as it may, the
tete-a-tete does provide a glimpse into the world of the lone female
composer of Hindi film music. One cannot help admiring her lack of
coyness and false modesty, and her unapologetic admission to being
untrained in music. In spite of her struggles as a female, she does
not blame the lack of women in the profession to male chauvinism, but
rightly identifies it as a supply-side phenomenon.
If one may be allowed to digress a little: I firmly believe that most
choices made by individuals are a revealed preference despite
protestations to the contrary. The lyricist who churns out puerile and
pulpy verses while decrying the demand for them is no different from
the affluent housewife, who, supine on her plush sofa, lamented to me
that she cannot "have a career" because her husband wouldn't let her.
The knee-jerk response to the lack of female composers/lyricists in
Hindi film music is to blame it on male conspiracy without looking at
other explanatory variables first. How many women have attempted to
enter these fields? Given the attempt, why did they fail? Perhaps
the more talented ones decided not to peddle their craft in the
wham-bam-thankyou-ma'am world of present-day film music. Perhaps they
did not have the backbone to survive. This is not to say that male
chauvinism does not exist; just that it is also a scapegoat within
easy reach of the mediocre woman.
Coming back to Usha, one forgives some of her trite utterances in
light of the above-mentioned attributes. I do wish, however, that
they had focussed more on her work rather than prattling on about her
ex-husband, lack of children and other assorted irrelevancies.
Without further ado, here is Usha Khanna. (Article reproduced from the
July 1997 issue of Savvy. Without permission of author Bharati
Pradhan. Asterisks denote my comments).
Caveat emptor: Some male-bashing involved. Those sensitive to such
things should hop on to the next article.
"Why does the world never call a man incomplete? Why is a bachelor, a
single man with no kids, never called an incomplete man? But the same
world is quick to call a childless woman, an incomplete woman. Why? I
have never felt incomplete." - Usha.
That could be any Usha, any buoyant single woman who demands to know
why on earth she should be called incomplete.
"I do have kids, I have seven of them in fact. They're called Sa-re-
ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-sa. Those are the kids around whom my life revolves."
- Usha Khanna.
That can be nobody but Usha Khanna, the music director who has
delivered and served a medley of chartbusters like 'Chai pe bulaya
hai'. (**** Geez, was that the best that Pradhan could pick? ****)
"When I had a long-standing prefessional relationship with any
director, people would immediately want to know, 'Chakkar-wakkar hai
kya?'. I'd ask them, 'When Laxmikant-Pyarelal do so many films with a
filmmaker like J Om Prakash, or when Shanker-Jaikishen sat with Raj
Kapoor in his bedroom and composed their tunes, was there any
chakkar-wakkar between them?'
That quote needs no name at the end of it. It could belong only to the
one female name that the Hindi film industry has recognized as a
successful music director. Usha Khanna.
The only successful female music director that Mumbai has ever known,
the only woman who has survived for three wholesome decades in an
arena inhabited entirely by the male homo sapien.
Obviously, the success story has come with a heavy price tag.
Usha Khanna's very entry into the field began with a game of one
upmanship in which she played no part.
THE BIG BREAK
"My father was a lyricist and singer, a sangeet visharad. Perhaps
because he was in Gwalior, he was musically inclined. My brother and I
were twins. Becuse my brother was a little weak, my mother kept him
with her all the time while my father looked after me. As a baby, I
would promptly fall asleep when my father would sing a particular
note. They say that by the time I was a few months old, I was crying
I was never interested in studies. My father tried to get me to learn
music, but there too I paid scant attention. I am completely
unlettered in music and whatever I compose is a godgiven gift, I have
never been a serious student of music. But music is my very lifeblood!
I was a kid when I showed a flair for composing music, it just came
naturally to me. When my father wrote lyrics, I would spontaneously
set them to music. Lyricist Indivar was my father's close friend and
when I was barely in my teens he took my father and me to S. Mukherjee
(the Filmalaya boss). S Mukherjee first heard me sing and showed no
reaction to the new voice he was hearing. Then I sang for him one of
my own compositions which he heard a little more keenly and wanted to
hear more. After hearing a few of my songs, he asked me from which
film I'd picked them up and I told him, 'They are not from any film,
they're songs which I have composed'!
"S Mukherjee immediately went in and fetched his wife, his son Joy
Mukherjee and others and asked me to sing, 'That O.P. Nayyar' number.
I sang my own number and when they realized that I wasn't singing an
O.P. Nayyar composition, but one of my own, there was great
excitement. I came to know much later that there had been some
friction between them and O.P. Nayyar those days and the Mukherjees
who were on a 'We'll show Nayyar' trip, were thrilled to find a music
director whom they could introduce as his competitor!"
And so, in the ego tussle between two big names of that period, the
winner turned out to be a skirt-and-blouse clad 16-year-old who had to
force herself to wear a sari with a big border and keep a huge bindi
on her forehead to be taken seriously in the recording rooms. The
debut that turned out to be a gold mine for everybody was the
flamboyant Shammi Kapoor starrer, "Dil Deke Dekho'.
But the credit strangely went to O.P. Nayyar. How could a slip of a
girl - a girl, you hear - make such hummable, eminently saleable
"There were rumours that O.P. Nayyar had actually composed all the
tunes on my behalf," chuckles Usha, having successfully tidied over
that frustrating rumour. "Okay, so in Dil Deke Dekho, I was asked to
compose O.P. Nayyarish tunes. But the style was different in my next
film and the one after the rumours soon died. It didn't strike anybody
to wonder why on earth O.P. Nayyar would want to pass off his tunes
under my name!"
To this day, the Bajaj folks use Usha's lilting 'Chodo kal ki baaten'
tune from 'Hum Hindustani' for their ads.
Yet, when Usha Khanna started out early in the sixties, every attempt
was made to stifle her talent with raging criticism over her cool
lifting of western tunes for her numbers. But if the title tune of Dil
Deke Dekho was a ripoff of 'Sugar in the Morning' (and she was
expressely asked to use that tune by the makers), so were Shanker-
Jaikishen's Gumnaam title notes taken straight from 'Charade'.
Everybody was Indianising western hits (the composers are at it, to
this day), but Usha was specifically hauled over the coals for it.
Anything, just to deny her her place in the recording rooms?
HOW NAYYAR AND THE MUSIC WORLD WERE WON OVER
"I don't know from where I got the confidence but the first time I
entered the recording rooms as a music director, I went up to all the
musicians and made it clear that I was the boss of the show. I told
them, 'All of you are working under me' and added that if any of them
felt otherwise, they were free to leave!"
Well, that took care of the musicians. But what about the giant
against whom she had been pitted? O.P. Nayyar was then at the pinnacle
of his success - and arrogance.
"Luckily for me, from the day he heard me hum, 'Pyar hai to keh do
yes, pyar nahin to keh do no,' he took me under his wing as his
'beti'. I'd gone to Famous Studio to attend his recording and it was
he who introduced me to the musicians as 'Your new music
director'. All of them had stood up and applauded!
"Of course, as a woman I had to put up with all sorts of rumours about
me. People cannot digest the success of a woman in our country, that
too one who was so young. We may progress in other ways but when it
comes to a woman, if she returns home after midnight, it's never
because she's been working hard but because she's been sinning!
"You do get hurt. After all, even if one works like a man, one has the
heart of a woman. Like in the eighties there was a very nasty article
that called me a lesbian and said I was on drugs. My two brothers
Prabhat and Ashok are making films, they're in this business. If I'd
been upto any such thing wouldn't they have heard about it? I wanted
to take action, but it was they who advised me against it. My family
has always been conservative, but it has never been overly so. They
always supported me and my father always said, 'They're all my sons,
they're not going to be treated differently as daughters'. My sister
Sandhya is a doctor.
"My father used to come with me initially, not as an escort but
because he was himself so keen on music. Luckily, in this business,
you don't need an escort. But a woman who acts coy will get nowhere in
my line. As a music director your interaction is with men at all
levels - the filmmaker, the bongo player, the tabalchi...They're all
men and you hardly meet any girl except when you work with a female
playback singer. In such a situation it just won't do if you make
everybody around you conscious that you are a woman. I have to take
their language, their jokes in my stride and that's the only way the
atmosphere will be relaxed enough to work together. It doesn't mean
that you get vulgar or encourage vulgarity. But if a director is not
comfortable in my presence how can he narrate a situation to me for
which I have to compose a song?
"I developed an I-don't-care attitude towards anything that I had to
hear as a woman. Yes, people did talk about O.P. Nayyar being my
godfather. But my answer was, 'Behind every successful man there's
always a woman. Behind a successful woman like me too, there is a
woman. And that's Goddess Saraswati. Saraswati is the godather that I
had, nobody else!"
But why hasn't Saraswati backed any other female music director in the
last three decades?
THE ONLY FEMALE COMPOSER FOR THREE DECADES
"It isn't easy being a music director," points out Usha. "Apart from
talent which you must have in abundance, as a music director nothing
is laid out for you. You have endless hours of sittings before a tune
is okayed. Girls these days want the easy route to fame, they're after
glamour and all of them want to become heroines. I was goodlooking too
when I was young but I was never keen on acting. To this day, the
camera scares me while the mike is my best friend!
"Composing tunes for films requires a special knack, not everybody can
do it. You have to make music for the masses, music which the ricksha-
wallah will hum. Even an eminent singer like Ghulam Ali won't be able
to make music that'll have mass appeal. Or take Pandit Ravi
Shanker. He's reached such heights in his field. But he'll never be
allowed to stray from a set raag, he can't take a wrong note or mix
his raags. Film music will not be easy for him while for someone like
me who's not a perfect music director, I can play with my notes like a
free bird and create any tune I wish."
This gutsy woman who has ruled in a man's world, survived despite a
13-year period when Lata Mangeshkar (who's said to make or break
careers) didn't sing for her. "It was a misunderstanding created by
those who didn't want me to succeed. Since I was sure that I'd had no
hand in our misunderstanding, there was no question of my apologising
to Lataji. Believe me, when we did work together again in 'Shama',
neither of us referred to the problem and we've had a great rapport
ever since. In fact, I always say that Lataji and Ashaji must've done
some great 'punya' in their last lives to be blessed with such
But this sole woman in her field, didn't rely on the famous singers
alone. It was Usha Khanna who discovered and gave a break to singers
like Jaspal Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Anupama Deshpande, Hemlata, Vinod
Rathod, Mohd. Aziz, Shabbir Kumar and Roopkumar Rathod.
(**** Didn't Jaspal Singh make his debut with Ravindra Jain's "Geet
Gaata Chal"? And I thought Shabbir Kumar's first assault on us was
with R.D. Burman's Betaab. Anyway, why would anyone want to take the
credit for making that donkey sing? ****)
UNDENIABLY, AN ALL-CONSUMING SUCCESS STORY
But was music her only undying passion? How about other womanly
passions? She was linked with lyricist Indivar which she dismisses as,
"Rubbish. He was my father's friend and he used to tease my mother and
say, 'I'll marry Usha'. My mother would say, 'You're like her Mama'
and he'd retort, 'I'll be like her Madrasi Mama'! You know uncles
marry their nieces in Madras. It was that lighthearted a friendship,
he was close to my family, my parents."
So, despite being endowed with the heart of a woman, didn't it ever
stray or make mistakes?
"My marriage to producer-director Sawan Kumar was my biggest mistake.
He charmed me and I fell for him in a big way. I felt there could
never be any man like Sawanji. But I wasn't cut out for marriage. Some
husbands gamble too much or drink too much tea. My husband liked
changing his women!
"But I must say I was lucky that my work never came between us,
Sawanji respected my work and never gave me a rough time over it. Even
after we broke up and I returned home, we continued working
together. When the background score of 'Sajan Bina Suhagan' was to be
done and he wondered if I'd complete it, I'd sent him a message that
work is God for Usha Khanna, she'll never compromise on it. Nearly two
years after our break-up, I went to his recording and on the second
day, he came in and said over the mike, 'Good morning, music director
saab' and I replied, 'Good morning, sir' and the whole recording room
watched on astounded. He asked me to sing my piece a little more
sweetly and I told him, 'Any sweeter and you'll get diabetes!' Our
working relationship never suffered. Despite everything that went
wrong personally, to this day, he has always called me 'Memsaab' or
'Madamji' and we don't ever wish each other ill. But marriage was not
for me. I should never have got married."
Does that mean that a woman can't have a successful career and a great
family life like many men do?
MR. RIGHT DIDN'T ARRIVE
"The truth is, I haven't met anyone with whom I have a fantastic
tuning as a woman. I do somethimes wish I had my own family but I soon
get over it. I get great happiness from my neices and nephews.
"The problem in our country is that women can't have it cool on both
fronts like the men. Because when it comes to marriage, men want a
docile Sita. They all want a Sita at home although there is no Ram