Manohari Singh is memorable as the saxophone maestro, whose exuberant playing added magic to hugely popular songs such as Roop tera mastana from Aradhana (1969), Mehbooba mehbooba from Sholay (1975) and even in more recent films like Chalte Chalte (2003) and Veer-Zaara (2004). Also the main arranger of R D Burman, he combined forces with Basudeb Chakraborty as music composer, forming the duo Basu-Manohari. Considered one of the few world-standard musicians in Hindi films, leading music directors of the time like R D Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal would take his abilities into account and compose specifically for him, secure in the fact that he would be able to play anything they wrote.
Born in a Nepalese family in Calcutta on 8 March, 1931, his father and uncle used to play in brass bands. He was also encouraged by his grandfather, a trumpet player, who played for music operas during the British era. As a young boy in 1942, Manohari joined the brass band at Bata Shoe Company, Bata Nagar, Calcutta, under its Hungarian conductor Joseph Newman. Three years later, he followed Newman to HMV. As Newman arranged music for music composers such as Kamal Dasgupta, S D Burman, Timir Baran and Ravi Shankar, this meant a shift for Manohari from classical music, to Hindi and Bengali songs for the HMV orchestra. He also played flute and piccolo at the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra. He was introduced to the Calcutta nightclub scene through fellow musicians such as Francisco Casanovas who was conductor at the Symphony Orchestra and band-leader at Firpo's Restaurant, George Banks who played trumpet at the Grand Hotel. Already familiar with the English key flute, the clarinet and the mandolin, Manohari now turned his attention to the saxophone in order to be able to play at nightclubs. It took about six months to a year for him to get comfortable with the saxophone. He played extensively in jazz bands as well as in the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra, soaking in the spontaneity of the former and the technical rigour of the latter. After Newman left HMV in 1950 to settle in Australia, Manohari started playing at Firpo's with his own band. New avenues now beckoned…
On the persuasion of music director Salil Chowdhury, Manohari decided to seek fresh opportunities in Bombay, the buzzing centre of the film industry. When he arrived in Bombay, in the late 1950s, the Hindi film world had stopped using the alto sax, as the most famous sax player, Ram Singh, had passed away. It was this gap that Manohari was gifted enough to fill. He won his break in 1958, playing the saxophone for the film Sitaron Se Aage (1958), which had music composed by Sachin Dev Burman. What’s more, from being used in a muted manner, the sax began to be used for solos, thus showcasing Manohari’s talent. While Manohari went on to play for other music directors, such as Kalyanji-Anandji, and Laxmikant-Pyarelal, he collaborated most frequently with the redoubtable R D Burman, playing the saxophone for many of the latter’s compositions. It was a perfect match as the Western-oriented song realm which Burman dominated, used the saxophone very often. Besides being Burman’s alto saxophonist, Manohari was also the former’s music assistant and arranger.
Singh experimented with all three varieties of saxophone—the alto, the tenor, and the soprano. One of his most popular solos in the song Mehbooba mehbooba features the soprano sax. However, his forte was the alto sax, which was employed mainly to infuse melody. His rich and expressive style of playing is amply demonstrated in his work in Huyi shaam unka khayal from the film Mere Humdum Mere Dost (1968), Huzoor-e-wala and Yahi woh jagah hai from Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi (1966), Gaata rahe mera dil composed by S D Burman from Guide (1965), as well as for compositions in more recent films like Chalte Chalte and Veer-Zaara. Singh’s jazz roots saw him able to improvise and flourish creatively. He also released an album, Sax Appeal, comprising saxophone renditions of Hindi film music tracks.
Collaborating with Basu, a violinist in the 1970s and 80s, Manohari and Basu began their career under the legendary S D Burman and later became assistants to his phenomenally talented son, R D Burman. Basu-Manohari together scored music for three Hindi films, namely Sabse Bada Rupaiya (1976), Kanhaiya (1980) and Chatpati (1983). Their popular songs include Waada karo jaanam, Sabse bada rupaiya, and Aa humsafar. Manohari and Basu went their separate ways when Basu decided to leave R D Burman's team and Manohari elected to stay on.
Interestingly, having started his career with the key flute like his father, Manohari Singh did not shun it completely. Even after he became famous for the unique sound of his sax, he played a flute strain in the song Ek haseen shaam ko, from the film Dulhan Ek Raat Ki (1967). An all-rounder, he also played the mandolin for Kaala Paani (1958), as well as the clarinet for Ram Aur Shyam (1967).
Felicitated on 19 March 2006, on the occasion of his 75 birthday, Manohari Singh was also awarded the Memorable Contribution to Music Award at the Tata Indicom Radio Mirchi Music Awards function held on 27 March, 2009. His filmography included Nepali films such as Kanyadan (1991), and Santaan (1989).
Manohari Singh died after suffering a cardiac arrest on 13 July, 2010 in Mumbai.