Golden era’s melody man

Pankaj Mullick

Gifted with a rich sonorous voice, Pankaj Mullick has left his imprint on both film and non-film music. Pran Neville remembers this musical genius in his centenary year

Pankaj Mullick, a great musical genius of the 20th century is ever remembered as the outstanding composer and singer of the golden era of New Theatres, Kolkata, in the 1930s and ’40s. Born on May 10, 1905 in a middle class Bengali family, Pankaj was very much interested in music from his younger days and gave up college to concentrate solely on music. He received his training in classical music from the veteran Durgadas Banerjee. Later, when introduced to the Tagore household, Dhirendranath found a talented pupil in him. He groomed the young Pankaj providing his singing with that quality and polish which won the hearts of millions of his fans.

Pankaj joined films during the silent era and provided background music using Tagore melodies and conducting a live orchestra during the screening of silent films Chorkanta and Chashar Meye. After the arrival of sound Pankaj scored the music for New Theatres’ first talkie, Dena Paona in Bengali (1932) followed by Attorthy’s costume epic Yahoodi ki Ladki (1933), the latter being his maiden bid to score music for a Hindi/Urdu film. As a composer, Pankaj almost revolutionised the concept of music content in films. He was the first music director to establish the use of western orchestra and the equally important role of background music in highlighting the moods and tempo of the scenes. He was enthusiastic about using the piano and the accordion besides, conventional Indian instruments. Even today his compositions like Pran chahe do not pass as old-fashioned. Along with R.C. Boral he composed for some of the most famous films of the era, such as Barua’s Devdas, Manzil and Maya, Chunder’s Karorpati and Nitin Bose’s Dhoop Chhaon and President. It was Barua’s Mukti (1937) where he not only composed its music but also made his debut as an actor in the role of a poor philosopher-singer and made himself known to the cinema fans.

Once established as a music director and singer, Pankaj got interested in acting as well. He appeared in Phani Mazumdar’s Kapal Kundla which owed its success chiefly to the haunting music provided by him. He played the role of an old singer singing that most unforgettable of romantic songs Piya Milan ko jana. This was followed by Debaki Bose’s Nartaki with his music direction where in the role of a poet he sang those memorable songs like Ze kaun aaj aaya swerai and Madbhari rut jawani hai and prem ka nata chhuta. His next film was Barua’s Zindagi another classic immortalized by that famous Saigal’s lullaby So ja raj kumari so ja.. The year 1941 saw the culmination of Pankaj Babu’s career with the release of New Theatres Doctor where the music director takes the role of a hero and a singing star. A roaring success, the film earned him countrywide fame and popularity with every song becoming a hit such viz. Chale pavan ki chal, Kab taq nirash ki, Aaj apni mehnton ka and the all time classic, Guzar gaya woh zamana.

The War years brought many new players in the film industry and the old studio system could not survive. Many well-known artistes, directors and technicians migrated to Bombay and so New Theatres, once the unrivalled leader of the industry, fell into bad days. But loyal to B.N. Sircar, the founder of New Theatres, Pankaj continued in Calcutta. His next famous musical score was for My Sister (1944) with K.L. Saigal who came specially from Bombay to do his role in the film. It carried those memorable hits Ai katib-e taqdir, Do naina matware and Chhupo na Chhupo na. This was Saigal’s last film for New Theatres.

Gifted with a rich sonorous voice, Pankaj has also left his imprint in the field of non-film music. He was an erudite scholar and a prolific writer who wrote four authoritative books on music which contain the tunes set by him with fully expounded notations.

Woven in smiles and tears, his songs will ever ring in the ears of music lovers for generations to come. He was, truly, a peoples’ artiste. He was always polite, courteous and even humble in his interaction with people of all classes, high and low. Listening to Pankaj is like going on a pilgrimage to the past. His voice transports you to the days of your boyhood and youth with all their joys and sorrows. All this and much more we find when we hear his eternal melody Guzar gaya woh zamana Kaisa.