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Interviews |  14 Jul 2015 20:39 |  By Dhairya Ingle

He was a man of conviction: Sanjeev Kohli on his composer-father Madan Mohan

The Bollywood music industry has produced several musical gems that may be long gone, but not forgotten. One such gem is Madan Mohan Kohli. He inherited his music talent from his mother, who was a poet and also loved music. After spending his first few years in Iraq, Madan Mohan’s family shifted to India, where he developed an interest in music after joining All India Radio in Lucknow.

Madan Mohan’s USP was infusing Indian Classical musical elements with Western music. His compositions have been instrumental in creating soulful melodies. On the occasion of his 40th death anniversary, Mohan’s son Sanjeev Kohli talks about the legendary composer.

Unreleased recordings

There were almost 30 songs that he had recorded for various films that were shelved. The unheard songs were sung by five singers- Lataji, Ashaji, Rafi sahab, Kishoreda and Talat Mahmood sahab. I found these tracks on his tapes after he passed away, and I was able to put some of them together on a CD titled ‘Tere Bagair’. I discovered another five or six compositions which are featured on his website. Another ten or so that he had recorded were never found on his tapes as they were either erased, or never retained at that time due to paucity of tapes or facilities. So even I have never heard them. 

With regards to unused/unrecorded tunes, he would compose them instinctively, and sometimes just hum a tune on the very limited recording devices that were available in the 50s and 60s. Fortunately I found some of these on his tapes. There were many of them, though the years had taken a toll on their audio quality. 30 years after he passed away, a farsighted director like Yash Chopraji took up the challenge to use recordings that were about 15 years old. Ten of these unused tunes were picked up by him for ‘Veer Zaara’. Today, however, the sensibilities of listeners have changed, and even more the sensibilities of young filmmakers. They may find the concept of using 50-60 year old tunes a bit irksome. ‘Veer Zaara’ was a great experience, and a once in a lifetime dream. I chose not to explore this further. But who knows what the future holds! 

Qualities he admires in his father

Apart from being a very emotional and loving father, he was a man of conviction. Even though I was only 18 years old when he passed away, I always observed his complete conviction in his principles, particularly for his music. He would not pander easily to commercial demands, or unfairly try to win any awards. Neither would he market himself with film producers for big banner films at a time when there were many stalwarts, many of whom had great tuning with the big banner, director and stars. His self-respect and dignity, possibly, were the reasons why he may not have enjoyed as much commercial success in his lifetime. Also, if he believed in a tune, he would do it his way. If he believed a particular singer was most suitable, he would not budge from his creative conviction. This may have been a deterrent, but could also be the reason for the longevity of his music. Musically, it was his unique ability to blend his penchant for Indian traditional music with western music – many of his songs even though Indian in melody, were well decorated with a blend of western music.

Not following in his father’s footsteps

Having seen the uncertainties of the entertainment world, and possibly some disappointment in not achieving great success despite his talent, my father was adamant that his children will be well educated first and not rely only on creative urges. We focused on our studies and hoped to learn music thereafter. But then he passed away, when I was still in college and had no training in music. Of course, once he passed away, being the eldest son, I had the responsibility of the family and thus had to pursue studies for my security. I was able to do my MBA from IIM Calcutta and then had to first secure a stable job - while my passion for music was put on the backburner. Fortunately, I was able to blend my Management education with my music interest. While employed with music companies, I was able to work professionally with all my musical idols, including my father’s contemporaries as I produced various albums with them. At the same time I was able to develop a lot of new talent, many of which became successful. While I thrived in the musical environment and even shaped some of it, the instinctive composer within me remained hidden because of work pressure, possible lack of confidence and changing times. But more so because it is not easy to match the standards set by my father and expectations by his admirers.

Exposure to limelight

There was very little media in the 50s and 60s, and exposure of creative people, other than the film stars was much less -  no television, very few film magazines, of course no social media etc. However he was very popular with the critics and was in demand for interviews. He also received a large volume of fan mail. I was too young to comprehend his standing amongst his peers and the cognizance of how respected he was. I realised this only after he passed away. Only after that I witnessed, first hand, the enduring power of his work, even 40 years after he has gone.

Learning from his father

Through the experiences and difficulties he faced, and even the difficulties we faced when we lost him, I have definitely learnt that it is necessary to be self-made and find your own place in the sun. It is best to be content with your achievements based on your own strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. 40 years ago, when as a young teenager, I was faced with finding my own path, it was a less ruthless and cut-throat world than it is today. There was more caring among people, and I am glad to be part of that generation which helped me achieve realistic goals that I had set for myself. Today, while we have great talents, they are faced with challenges of the media glare, and thus spend time and energy on things other than creating music. While all my life I have lived and worked with creative people, and have been in the entertainment business, I have been able to fence myself from some of the vagaries of the business. And I have been content in keeping a dignified distance from the rat race!