Krishnakumar Kunnath, who died aged 53 on May 31, was one of Indian cinema’s most highly regarded playback singers. Known to listeners as KK, Kunnath had performed at a college festival on Tuesday night in Kolkata. He went to the Grand Hotel after the event, where he succumbed to a cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife and two children.
KK stood out for his ability to perform songs that required angst, earnestness and passion. An untrained singer, KK was particularly skilful with songs that were in or influenced by the blues and rock genres. His stardom peaked when millennials were coming of age in the late 1990s and mid-2000s.
Given the running themes in his most memorable songs, and the timing of his rise, KK is understandably considered as the voice of his generation. His best songs evoke a spirit of nostalgia for youth (Yaaron and Pyaar Ke Pal) or youthful abandon (Tu Aashiqui Hai from Jhankaar Beats).
His debut as a Hindi playback singer, Chod Aye Hum Woh Galiyan from Maachis (1996), was a song about friendship among a group of young men. Among his breakthrough hits is his non-film song Yaaron (1999), which was reused for Nagesh Kukunoor’s high-school drama Rockford.
Or take Koi Kehe Kehta Rahe (Dil Chahta Hai, 2001), where he shared the mic with Shaan and Shankar Mahadevan. It’s among his many hits dealing with nostalgia for the good ol’ days.
The flipside of such joie de vivre was angst and agony. KK hit the right notes with songs about passionate yearning (Tu Hi Meri Shab Hai from Gangster) and the pain of loneliness (Awarapan Banjarapan from Jism).
One of KK’s earliest film hits was the tragic Tadap Tadap Ke from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999). KK returned to such songs about burning ardour, which played to his strengths as a rock singer who could look up to the skies and bellow in rage. Another example is the title track of Mujhe Kucch Kehna Hai (2001).
KK found a new lease of life in 2006, when the perfect kind of song tailormade for his rock singer-style arrived in Bollywood. It was first recognised by Vishal Bhardwaj for Anurag Kashyap’s unreleased Paanch. KK is the voice of Main Khuda, sung by the volatile rocker played by Kay Kay Menon.
Then came the romantic track Tu Hi Meri Shab Hai, composed by Pritam, who started off as a rock guitarist. A few months later, KK was heard in the Vivek Philip-composed title track for Onir’s Bas Ek Pal.
With the electric guitars of the former and the prominent drums of the latter, KK found his sweet spot as a playback star. He went on to sing several rock-inflected tracks over the next few years.
Among the composers who best used KK’s ability to signal feverish love were Vishal-Shekhar.
In 2007, KK sang Ajab Si in Om Shanti Om. The next year, KK was heard in one of his greatest songs ever, Khuda Jaane (Bachna Ae Haseeno), a duet with Shilpa Rao.
Vishal-Shekhar also gave KK one of his most interesting tracks: the Goa trance number Door Se Paas from Musafir (2004). Note how slowly his voice comes into focus in the song, keeping in line with Dev Kohli’s lyrics.
While these songs are also recognised by the stars onscreen, some of his best songs are easily mistaken to be among his non-film Indipop. Le Chale from My Brother… Nikhil (2005) is an example. Then, there’s the super puppy-love anthem Mera Pehla Pehla Pyaar from MP3 (2007).
While KK is mostly regarded for his work in Hindi, he also sang memorable film tracks in other languages, especially Tamil. For Suriya-starrer Kaakha Kaakha (2003), he sang the electric Uyirin Uyire.
It was visionary for composer Vidyasagar to imagine KK as the voice of the rowdy cult hit Appadi Podu from Vijay’s blockbuster Ghilli (2004).
In the 2010s, as the importance of playback songs decreased in Hindi cinema and new voices came to the forefront, KK was seldom heard. Still, he frequently got the best song in a film, such as in Aur Tanha from Imtiaz Ali’s 2020 version of Love Aaj Kal.
His untimely death brings to mind the lyrics from one of his best songs. Javed Akhtar writes, “Jaane ye kya hua, ab har pal anjaana hai, dekho hona hai aur kya”. (Who knows how this happened, every moment feels strange, who knows what will happen next?)