A tabla player with a prominent theatrical troupe, he went on to partner with a harmonium player to create – and guide – the duo that seamlessly melded the strains of Indian classical and popular music with Western melodies to create an array of immortal tunes for films starring titans, from Raj Kapoor to Shammi Kapoor to Rajesh Khanna. 

Shankar-Jaiskishan was not the first duo to give music for Hindi films — that signal honour went to their own ustads Husnlal-Bhagatram — but they were the most successful, right from their first venture in 1949, down till the dawn of the 1970s. 

Going just by the metric of Filmfare Awards, their record of the most Best Music Awards (nine) stood for nearly four decades till A.R. Rahman picked up his 10th in 2012. And though they were runners-up in most nominations (20), behind Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s 25, 10 of their nominations were in consecutive years since 1959.

More tellingly, their success came in an era where they had to contend with Naushad, Hemant Kumar, S.D. Burman, Madan Mohan, O.P. Nayyar, C. Ramchandra, and then, Ravi, Roshan, and many others.

The in-house music composers for almost all of Raj Kapoor’s films, from “Barsaat” (1949) to “Mera Naam Joker” (1970), they also provided music for all moods for the films in which Shammi Kapoor energetically capered, cavorted, and jigged to become India’s Elvis Presley, besides many classics for Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna, as well as Nargis, Meena Kumari, Vyjanthimala, and many other stars.

And while it is not possible, nor ethical, to delineate their individual contributions to the success of their combination, it was Shankar, or actually Shankar Singh Raghuvanshi, who would have turned 100 on this day (October 15) that took the initiative to bring them together.

Born in Hyderabad in 1922 to a family that had migrated there from the north, Shankar was interested in music right from when he was young and took formal training in playing tabla. Moving to then Bombay, he was inspired by and played in the orchestra of renowned music director Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (who would migrate to Pakistan after the Partition), and then, joined the Prithvi Theatres, where he played the tabla and appeared in bit parts in plays too. There, he also gained mastery over the sitar and the piano.

Meanwhile, he used to frequent the office of a film producer who had offered him the role of the music director whenever he made his first film, and it was there that he met the young harmonium player, Jaikishan Panchal, who hailed from what is now Gujarat. They hit it off and Shankar asked Jaikishan to join Prithvi Theatres, with Prithviraj Kapoor only to happy to accept his recommendation.

There, the duo also grew close to Raj Kapoor, who was planning to take the plunge into film-making. He made his debut as a director with “Aag” (1948) where Ram Ganguly composed the music with assistance from Shankar and Jaikishan.

However, in “Barsaat” (1949), Kapoor clashed with Ganguly and sought to replace him with Shankar. And Shankar insisted on including Jaikishan as his partner, thus, giving birth to the duo. While they most usually paired up with lyricists Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri, and Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar for their RK Banner films, they worked with other lyricists and singers – from Manna Dey to Kishore Kumar – too in their career. 

As mentioned, the duo had a hit with their first independent venture with songs like the breezy “Hawa mein udta jaye”, the plaintive “jiya beqarar hai”, the joyous “Barsaat mein humse mile”, the effervescent “Mujhe kisi se pyaar ho gaya”, Hindi films’ first-ever ‘cabaret song’ “Patli kamar hai”, the mournful “Main zindagi mein hardam rota hi raha”, and the heart-rending “Chhod gaye balam”, and other, making their name.

The duo worked as a combination and it is a guess game to ascertain which one scored which song, though Hasrat Jaipuri once disclosed that the romantic songs were Jaikishan’s forte and the deeper and philosophical ones Shankar’s strength. Shankar also dealt with title/theme songs and Jaikishan with the background score, though there were no hard and fast lines to divide their work.

In light of this, one can only wonder which one was responsible for songs that are central to Raj Kapoor’s Chaplinesque image like “Awara hoon”, “Mera joota hain Japani”, “Sab kuch seekha hamne, na seekhi hoshyari”, “Hothon pe sachai rehti hai”, or the legend of Shammi Kapoor – from his wild flings like “Chahe koi mujhe jangli kahe” or “Aasman se aaya farishta” to the more (relatively) restrained “Aajkal tere mere pyaar ke charche har zabaan par”, to the soft and soulful “Ehsan tera hoga mujh par”.

Or for that matter, to whom do we attribute the display of Dilip Kumar’s brooding grandeur in “Yeh mera diwanapan hai”, or Meena Kumari’s thoughful sadness in “Ajeeb dastan hai yeh”, showcasing an urbane Dev Anand in “Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum” or on horns of a dilemma in “Andhe jahan ke andhe raaste, jaayen to jaayen kahan”, providing the pulsating melody to one of Rajesh Khanna’s most famous songs – “Zindagi ek safar hain suhana”, or even showing a lovelorn Ajit in “Aaja ke intezar mein” or David calling for rains in “Lapak jhapak to aaye badarwa”.

Then, there are the sublime classical compositions in “Basant Bahar”, “Amrapali”, and “Mere Huzoor” – in fact, Shankar-Jaikishan tried to include one classical song in all their compositions.

But, by the middle of the 1960s, there was some tension after Jaikishan identified a composition of “Sangam” as his in a signed magazine article and Shankar sought to advance the career of a new female singer to lessen reliance on Lata Mangeshkar. While Shankar later claimed that there were differences, others said that Mohammad Rafi had stepped in to heal the rift, it was the untimely demise of Jaikishan in 1971, aged just 40, that ended their association.

Though hit by loss of his partner, the decision of Raj Kapoor to switch to another team, and the passing away of key associates like Shailendra, and changing mores and tastes, Shankar struggled on, in the name of Shankar-Jaikishan, till his own death, largely unnoticed in 1987, but he never had another hit.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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