New Delhi: In 1969, a group of musicians from Mumbai accompanied Kishore Kumar on a three-month tour of performances, visiting the West Indies, the US, and the Netherlands. It was during this tour, when the troupe hit New York, that Manohari Singh purchased his adored saxophone—a Selmer alto sax, plated in gold. “He was in love with that sax,” says Kersi Lord, a fellow musician, a colleague in R.D. Burman’s extended orchestra, and a close friend. “He would never even let anybody else carry it.”
Versatile musician: A file photo of Manohari Singh. Dinesh Ghate / Swar Aalap
Love affairs between musicians and their instruments aren’t unusual, but they are nevertheless memorable, and this one more than most. Singh, whose exuberant saxophone lit up classic film songs such as “Roop tera mastana“ and “Mehbooba mehbooba”, and even films as recent as Chalte Chalte and Veer Zaara, passed away on Tuesday after suffering cardiac arrest at the age of 79.
Like his father, who played for Calcutta’s police bands during the British Raj, Singh started his career with the key flute, and he never deserted it entirely. Even in 1967, well after he became famous for the distinct sound of his sax, Singh contributed a flute strain to the song “Ek haseen shaam ko”, from the film Dulhan Ek Raat Ki—a sweet snippet that seems to respond playfully to the plaintiveness in Mohammad Rafi’s voice.
Singh was nothing if not versatile; Pyarelal calls him an “all-rounder”. He played mandolin for the S.D. Burman movie Kaala Paani, and Lord remembers calling upon his clarinet for a stretch of the score to Ram Aur Shyam. “We had a very good jazz pianist, and I told Manohari that he had to play clarinet for the piece,” Lord remembers. “He had to bring his clarinet out, dust it and oil it—he hadn’t played it in a long time. But he played beautifully.”
But to listen to some of Singh’s best saxophone work is to realize that he had found his truest métier. He came to the instrument because he wanted to play in Calcutta’s nightclubs, he once told the e-paper Swar Aalap, which devotes itself to the music of the Hindi film industry. “It took about six months to a year for me to get comfortable with the saxophone,” he said in that interview. At the outset of his career, he played extensively in jazz bands as well as in the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra, absorbing the spontaneity of the former and the technical rigour of the latter.
When he arrived in Bombay, in the late 1950s, the Hindi film world was uniquely prepared for him. “The most famous sax player was Ram Singh, and after he died, people simply stopped using the alto sax,” Lord says. “For six or seven years, there was a gap, because nobody was good enough. After that, Manohari filled the gap.”
But Singh also caught Bollywood on a cusp. “Before him, the trumpet and saxophone would be used in a very muted manner—feeble but still beautiful,” says Manohar Iyer, who runs a music troupe in Mumbai called Keep Alive, and who first met Singh in the early 1990s. “Then the trend began to change. There were more solos. This is when Manohari-ji came in.”
Though he worked with a host of music directors—Kalyanji-Anandji, S.D. Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal—Singh’s most memorable association came with R.D. Burman. In a way, Iyer says, they were made for each other. “It was inevitable, because in Western-oriented songs”—a broad genre that Burman rapidly made his own—“the saxophone is used very often.”
Singh experimented initially with all three varieties of saxophone—the alto, the tenor, and the soprano; in fact, one of his most famous solos, in Sholay’s “Mehbooba mehbooba”, is the product of a soprano sax. But his nimble technique was most suited to the alto sax. The alto sax “is mainly used for infusing melody”, he explained to Swar Aalap, and it was to this that he dedicated himself.
Singh had a rich, expressive style of play. In songs such as “Huyi shaam unka khayal” (from the film Mere Humdum Mere Dost) or “Huzoor-e-wala” (from Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi), he sustained notes with impeccable vibrato, making his music throb with feeling. Often his solos were riffs on the main melody, as in “Yahi woh jagah hai” (also from Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi), launching off from the melody into their own terrain before returning neatly to the theme. Singh’s roots in jazz, Lord says, allowed him to be enormously creative—in his improvisations, but also in his forays into arrangement and sporadic composition.
“When Lakshmikant and I composed,” Pyarelal says, “we’d take his abilities into account and compose specifically for him. He was one of the few world-class musicians in Bollywood.”
Lord recalls feeling liberated, in a way, by Singh’s talents. “Sometimes when you were writing music, you had to wonder: ‘Can this guy play this music or not?’” he says. “With Manohari, I knew I could write anything I wanted and he’d be able to play it. He could read notation as if he were reading a newspaper.”
In the 1990s, Singh started to play for films less frequently, so when Iyer started Keep Alive in 1997, he was able to invite Singh to feature in its live performances. “He had surgery a few years ago, so I didn’t press him to play so much after that,” Iyer says. But the saxophone was in Singh’s hands, he adds, almost until the very end.
“His hobby was music, his profession was music, everything was music,” Lord says, but then reconsiders a little. “That, and his love for eating and drinking, for having a good time. Now he’s with Pancham and Basu Chakraborty and the rest of them. The whole gang is up there, jamming away.”