The man with the magical, sonorous baritone – Hemant Kumar possessed that rare placidity that echoes in the consciousness. A prominent singer, music director, and film producer, he straddled Hindi and Bengali cinema with elan. Recording with All India Radio Calcutta as a 13-year-old, he trained in music before he made his debut as a playback singer in Hindi films with Irada (1944). In time, he became the exclusive singing voice of Uttam Kumar, while also rendering playback for leading actors such as Biswajit Chattopadhyay, Anil Chattopadhyay, Anup Kumar Das, Soumitra Chattopadhyay, Pradeep Kumar Batabyal and Dev Anand. Making his foray into music direction for the Hindi film Anand Math (1952), Vande mataram from the film rendered by Lata Mangeshkar, went on to become extremely popular. Even as he established himself in the Bengali film industry, his big break in Hindi cinema came with Nagin (1954). With songs like Mann dole tan dole becoming chartbusters, his career soared with his compositions for films like Jagriti (1954), Bees Saal Baad (1962) and Khamoshi (1969). He also produced the Bengali film Neel Akshar Neechay (1959) directed by Mrinal Sen, Bees Saal Baad, Kohra (1964) and Khamoshi (1969). Walking in the footsteps of his hero, the legendary Pankaj Kumar Mallick, he also helped greatly popularise Rabindra Sangeet. He also sang songs in languages such as Marathi, Gujarati, Odia, Assamese, Tamil, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Konkani, Sanskrit and Urdu. Interestingly, while he was the recipient of two National Awards for Best Male Playback Singer, he politely declined the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, for which he was nominated.
He was born Hemanta Mukhopadhyay in Varanasi, at the home of his maternal grandfather who was a leading physician. With the family migrating to Calcutta in the early 1900s, he attended Nasiruddin School and Mitra Institution school of Bhawanipore. Joining the Bengal Technical Institute at Jadavpur to pursue Engineering, he faced objections from his father when he quit to pursue a career in music. Recording his first song for All India Radio in 1935, he was mentored by Bengali musician Sailesh Duttagupta, and was later trained in classical music by Ustad Faiyaz Khan's student Phanibhusan Gangopadhyay.
Cutting his first gramophone disc under the Columbia label in in 1937, rendering non-film songs, he went on to record non-film discs for the Gramophone Company of India (GCI) till 1984. In 1940, his first Hindi songs - Kitana dukh bhulaya tumne and O preet nibhanewali were released under GCI's Columbia label.
Stepping into the realm of playback singing, he rendered his first song for the Bengali film Nimai Sanyas (1941). In 1944, he scored his first Bengali non-film compositions for himself, namely Katha kayonako shudhu shono and Amar biraha akashe priya. His first Hindi playback assignment was for the film Irada (1944) which had music by Pandit Amarnath. A leading proponent of Rabindra Sangeet, he also recorded his first Rabindra Sangeet, namely Pather sesh kothaye in the Bengali film Priya Bandhabi (1944). As a music director he made his debut with the Bengali film Abhiyatri(1947). He migrated to Bombay in 1951 upon the request of Hemen Gupta. Joining Filmistan studios, he made his debut as a music director in Hindi films with Hemen Gupta’s Anand Math (1952). His marching tune composed for the song Vande mataram became popular. Even as he pursued music direction, his graph as a singer rose as he rendered playback for leading heroes of the time. Over the decades, if he sang for Dev Anand in Jaal (1952), House No. 44 (1955), Solva Saal (1958), and Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962), he also gave voice to Pradeep Kumar in Nagin (1954) and Detective(1958), Sunil Dutt in Duniya Jhukti Hain (1960), Biswajeet in Bees Saal Baad, Bin Badal Barsat (1963), and Dharmendra in Anupama (1966). He also composed the music for all these films.
Kumar was known for his association with fellow songwriter, composer and poet, Salil Chowdhury through the Indian People’s Theatre Association. They collaborated to compose several soul-stirring Bengali songs such as Kono ek gayer bodhu, and Path harabo. He also worked with other renowned composers such as S D Burman, Anil Biswas, and Laxmikant-Pyarelal.
He consolidated his position in both the Bengali and Hindi film industry as a sought-after singer and prominent composer. His music for the Hindi film Nagin (1954) propelled its success to a large extent, also winning him the Filmfare Best Music Director Award in 1955. Scoring the music for the Bengali film Shapmochan(1955) for which he also rendered playback for actor Uttam Kumar, it was the start of a long and fruitful singer-actor partnership. Singing for the major music directors of Bengal such as Nachiketa Ghosh, Robin Chatterjee and Salil Chowdhury during his peak period, he also composed music for films such as Harano Sur (1957), Neel Akasher Neechey (1959), Lukochuri(1958), Swaralipi(1961), Deep Jwele Jaai (1959), Shesh Parjanta (1960), Dui Bhai (1961), and Saptapadi (1961) in Bengali, and, Jagriti (1954) and Ek Hi Raasta (1956) in Hindi. He also directed the film Anindita in 1971. Some of the Bengali films for which he sang popular numbers were Indrani (1958), Abak Prithibi (1959), Sathihara (1961), Natun Jiban (1965), Baghini (1967), Adwitiya (1968), and many more.
Hemant Kumar stepped into film production in the late 1950s, floating his banner Hemanta-Bela Productions. Producing the Bengali film directed by Mrinal Sen, Neel Akasher Neechey (1959), it depicted the travails of a Chinese street hawker in Calcutta against the backdrop of India's freedom struggle. The film was banned in India for two months. Renamed Geetanjali Productions, his production house went on to produce Hindi films such as Bees Saal Baad, Kohra (1964), Biwi Aur Makaan (1966), Faraar (1975), Rahgir (1969) and Khamoshi (1970). Experimenting with blending Bengal folk music and light music in Palatak (1963), he repeated the style in films like Baghini (1968), and Balika Badhu (1967), while his compositions for Manihar (1966) and Adwitiya (1968) were based on light classical music. The 70s saw him reign in Bengal in the realm of film and non-film songs and Rabindra Sangeet, popularised in songs such as Chorono dhorite diyogo amare from Dadar Kirti (1980). He also became the first Indian singer to render playback in Hollywood, when he sang O nadire for director Conrad Rooks’ Siddhartha (1972). He went on to become the first Indian singer to be honoured by the US government with citizenship of Baltimore, Maryland.
Nominated for the Padma Bhushan in 1987, he politely refused, just like he had when offered the Padma Shri in the 1970s. He had however been honoured with several other awards in the course of his career, including the Filmfare Best Music Director Award for Nagin, the National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer for Nimantran (1971), the National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer for Lalan Fakir (1987), the BJFA Best Music Director Award for Swaralipi, and the BFJA Best Music Director Award (Hindi) for Bees Saal Baad. He was also conferred an Honorary D.Litt. by Visva-Bharati University, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, and the Michael Madhusudan Award.
Married to singer Bela Mukherjee in 1945, the couple had two children – son Jayanta and daughter Ranu. Ranu Mukhopadhyay pursued a music career in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while Jayant is married to actress Moushumi Chatterjee.
Hemant Kumar passed away on 26 September, 1989 in Calcutta after succumbing to a heart attack. Of Hemant Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar had once said, “Listening to Hemanta da, I feel as though a sadhu is sitting in a temple singing bhajan”. Among the tributes that poured in, Satyajit Ray stated, “Rabindra Sangeet has died,” while Salil Choudhary, his fellow composer, declared, “Hemant Kumar's voice was the voice of God.”