Khushwant Singh came into the office, as always at nine sharp. “Ha, you are just the man I want to see!” he exclaimed. “Tell me which is that Lata bhajan playing on ‘Bombay B’ every other morning.”

“‘Jai Jai He Jagadambe Mata’ from Ganga Ki Lehren [1964],” I told him.

“That’s the one. What a lovely Lata rendition to hear early in the morning. Who composed it?”

“Chitragupta,” I said.

“Who’s he?” queried Khushwant.

Raju Bharatan, writing in The Illustrated Weekly of India (January 1992), on the occasion of Chitragupta’s first death anniversary.

Jailed in 1930 for his participation in the Non-Cooperation Movement, Braj Nandan ‘Azad’ was a highly regarded journalist known for the hard-hitting editorials he wrote in the English daily Indian Nation and its Hindi sibling Aryavarta, both published from Patna. Unsurprisingly, then, the editor was a huge influence on his brother Chitragupta Shrivastava, younger than Azad by almost 11 years.

“My uncle was like a father figure to him,” said Sudha Shrivastava, Chitragupta’s daughter. Under his brother’s stern watch, Chitragupta earned himself a master’s degree in Economics, following it up with an MA in Journalism.

Vocal ambition

But while academics were considered important, the brothers had also received a good grounding in classical music. “My uncle was supposed to be a very proficient tabla player,” said Sudha, who retired as a professor from Mumbai University a couple of years ago. Chitragupta, meanwhile, was more interested in vocal music and, unknown to his brother, seems to have harboured a secret desire of becoming a professional singer. Armed with his twin degrees, Chitragupta had landed a job at Patna University. But when his friend Madan Sinha (who later became a well-known cinematographer and also directed the Vinod Khanna-starrer Imtihaan in 1974) suggested they go to Bombay to try their luck in the films, Chitragupta agreed. This decision, as one can imagine, did not go do down well with his brother.

According to journalist Girija Rajendran, Chitragupta arrived in Bombay “without knowing a soul in that city”. Yet, “he managed an introduction to the legendary Nitin Bose who gave him a chance to sing in the chorus. One thing led to another and Chitragupta soon found himself as the assistant of Shri Nath Tripathi.”

An intriguing figure in the history of Indian cinema, SN Tripathi (1913-1988) wore many hats. He was primarily a composer who mostly plied his trade in mythological films or historical period dramas. His imposing frame also fetched him many roles in these genres, and he even directed a few films later on, including the Nirupa Roy-starrer Rani Rupmati (1957). He sang and wrote dialogue too.

A product of the famed Marris College of Music in Lucknow, which had been founded by VN Bhatkande, Tripathi has often been described as a classicist. While he and Chitragupta had conflicting opinions regarding the use of Western elements in Hindustani film music, Tripathiwas an able mentor and also secured his assistant his break as an independent music director.

The big break

The film was Fighting Hero (1946) and the die was cast, as this was followed by a string of other stunt films (some of them featuring the legendary Fearless Nadia, then on a downward curve), mythologicals and period dramas. We don’t know if Braj Nandan Azad did watch any of these films, but he might have taken some solace from the fact that his brother was credited, at least in the early films, as “Chitragupta M.A.”.

Door Desh Ka Raja, Veer Babruvahan, 1950.

Thanks to his association with SN Tripathi, Chitragupta found himself from the beginning in the thick of the B-movie industry, where filmmakers worked with tight budgets and mostly non-stars, churning out films in a variety of genres – stunt, fantasy, mythological/religious pictures, historical period dramas, crime thrillers, social melodramas.

It is a tribute to Chitragupta’s versatility as a composer that he straddled these disparate genres with ease. His first major hit, the lilting Rafi-Shamshad Begum duet Ada Se Jhoomte Huye was in Nanabhai Bhatt’s Sindbad The Sailor (1952). The next year, Chitragupta surprised everyone by scoring a hit with Asha Bhosle’s O Naag Kahin Jaa Basiyo Re (Naag Panchami, 1953). This was also the song, Sudha said, where the clavioline was used for the first time to get the been sound.

But, more often than not, Chitragupta’s music got lost in these quickie pictures. Moreover, like his mentor SN Tripathi, Chitragupta managed to get stereotyped pretty early on and this had an adverse impact on his career. His adaptability has also been held against him by his critics, who believe he never developed a distinctive style.

Neend Na Aayi Raja, Talwar Ka Dhani, 1956.

The 1955 release Shiv Bhakta was an important milestone in Chitragupta’s career. Though a mythological, it was produced and directed by AV Meiyappan, the founder of the Madras-based AVM Productions. The film had initially been offered to SD Burman, who had earlier delivered a hit for AVM with Ladki (1953). But Burman politely declined saying he did not do mythologicals, and thus Chitragupta was brought in.

Chitragupta with Lata Mangeshkar. Courtesy Sudha Shrivastava.

Shiv Bhakta was not only his first brush with a big banner. AVM’s backing also meant the music director finally got Lata Mangeshkar to sing for him. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful association for both. According to Raju Bharatan, Mangeshkar sang “240 songs (no fewer than 151 solos)” under Chitragupta’s baton. But with or without Mangeshkar, through the 1950s and ’60s, in film after obscure film, Chitragupta gave the most melodious of songs. In fact, some of his best work lies buried in these long-forgotten films.

Machal Ke Dil Kahe Mera, Commander, 1959.

It was again an AVM picture that finally got Chitragupta his first big commercial hit. Directed by Krishnan-Panju (the duo behind the landmark Tamil film Parasakthi), Bhabhi (1957) was a typical AVM family melodrama that had Balraj Sahni, Nanda and Jagdeep in leading roles. Every song in the film had something going for it, but Rafi’s Chal Udd Jaa Re Panchhi struck a special chord with listeners and still remains one of the singer’s most-loved songs.

Should Chitragupta have put his foot down and stopped accepting films from the likes of Homi Wadia and Nanabhai Bhatt after the success of Bhabhi? A more calculating person probably would have. But for Chitragupta, it was never an option. “How could I say no to those people who gave me my early breaks?” he told Bharatan many years later.

Chitragupta did three more films with AVM: Barkha (1959), Main Chuup Rahungi (1962) and Main Bhi Ladki Hoon (1964). “Some of my best work was done for AVM,” he told a journalist in 1990, making a special mention of the Rafi solo Main Kaun Hoon (from the first-rate Main Chuup Rahungi soundtrack).

According to Sudha, Main Kaun Hoon was one among a handful of songs arranged by Pyarelal Sharma (of Laxmikant-Pyarelal fame) for her father. Chitragupta’s regular arranger was Johnny Gomes who, like many other Goan studio musicians of the era, had started out playing in various jazz bands in pre-independent India.

Main Kaun Hoon, Main Chuup Rahungi, 1962.

Another close and long-time associate was Dilip Dholakia (1921-2011). A Sanskrit graduate, Dholakia too had started his career in films as a chorus singer before ending up as an assistant to SN Tripathi. When Chitragupta started out as an independent music director, Dholakia began assisting him too. “It was only in 1959 that my uncle started working full-time with Chitragupta-ji,” said his nephew Gaurang Dholakia.

While his ambitions as a singer were perhaps never fully realised, Dilip Dholakia is remembered for his rendition of Tari Aankh No Afini, which still remains one of the most popular Gujarati songs of all time and has been covered by various singers since. Originally composed by Ajit Merchant, the melody was later adapted by Chitragupta for Chanda Loriyaan Sunaye (Naya Sansar, 1959).

As a child, Gaurang Dholakia attended quite a few recordings. “One day when I was in the ninth standard, my uncle asked me, ‘Do you want to watch Kishore Kumar record a classical number?’” Gaurang needed no second invitation and landed up at the studio to watch the recording of Payalwali Dekhna (Ek Raaz, 1963).

Agar Sun Le To Ek Naghma, Ek Raaz, 1963.

“Papa would not really encourage us to read film magazines or attend recordings, but sometimeshe would give in to our demands,” said Milind, Chitragupta’s son.

Milind recalls being there while Yeh Parbaton Ke Daayre (Vaasana, 1968) was being recorded. “What I remember most about those studio recordings is that, as a kid, I found the brass section very loud. The sound made by those instruments would scare me!”

Sudha’s memories have more to do with the people who frequented their house at 14th Road, Khar (Madan Mohan had been its earlier occupant). “Mohammad Rafi used to come in the mornings and diligently rehearsehis songs,” she said. “The Mangeshkar sisters apparently did not need rehearsals, but Lata-ji was a frequent visitor.”

Kishore Kumar, she recalled, would address her father as ‘Maharaj’. “He would often come to our house, stand outside and start singing Sardi ka bukhaar bura/Baniye ka udhaar bura.” These were lines from a comic song that Kishore and Chitragupta had created for Manchala (1953). The same film also marks the high point of Chitragupta’s singing career – his solo Bhagwan Tujhe Main Khat was a big hit in its time.

Bhagwan Tujhe Main Khat, Manchala (1953).

Sudha also has fond memories of Phani Majumdar, probably the most important producer-director in Chitragupta’s career after AV Meiyappan. “He was a wonderful man,” she said. “Other producers would always ask for options for each song, but Phani-da was different. Once the song situation had been discussed, if Papa said, okay, Phani-da, I will give you some options, he would say, no, I don’t want options; give me that one tune which you think is best.’”

This freedom (and responsibility), believes Sudha, brought out the best in her father, as is borne out not only by evergreen songs such as Dil Ka Diya (Akash Deep, 1965) and Jaag Dil-e-deewana (Oonche Log, 1965), but also lesser-known tracks such as Kishore Kumar’s soulful Main Hasoon Ke Is Pe Rounn (from the unreleased Maa) and Rafi’s deeply moving Itni Badi Duniya Jahan Itna Bada Mela (Toofan Mein Pyar Kahaan, 1963).

About the latter song, which features Ashok Kumar, Sudha recalls, “After Ashok Kumar’s wife passed away, he sent a message to Papa asking him to send a cassette with this song.”

Dil Ka Diya, Akash Deep, 1965.

Sudha also narrates an incident related to another popular song, the Manna Dey-Asha Bhosle duet Jodi Hamari Jamega Kaise Jaani (Aulaad, 1968). Mehmood, she says, who was then also working on Padosan, wasn’t happy with the song. “Papa was very distressed. It had taken a lot of time to record this song as the music changes from Western to Indian and back. But then Aruna Irani sat Mehmood down and asked him to listen to it again.” Mehmood had a change of heart and the song went on to become a big hit.

Around this time, Chitragupta was offered the film Vaasana (1968) where he was to work with the formidable Sahir Ludhianvi for the first time. “Sahir saheb had this reputation that he did not get along with everyone, but he and my father hit it off very well,’ Sudha said. They worked together again on Sansar, 1971. “My father was very well-read and most lyricists enjoyed conversing with him,” she added.

The lyricist Shailendra lived nearby and would also drop in regularly, a cigarette dangling in his hand. “Whenever he and my father were together, they would always speak in Bhojpuri,” Sudha said. The duo worked together in only a handful of movies, among them the first Bhojpuri film Ganga Maiyya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo (1963). The lyricist Prem Dhawan, a frequent collaborator, was also a dear friend. “They would often drive off to Aarey Colony where they would find a place to sit down and that’s where they would make the songs.”

Teri Duniya Se Door, Zabak, 1961.

The late ’60s and early ’70s was a period of deep churn in the music industry. The older generation of music directors had passed on, faded away or were on their last legs. Younger music directors such as RD Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal were calling the shots. “People would often tell Papa that you have to change your style, maybe get a new arranger,” Sudha said. “This always hurt him.”

Chitragupta answered his critics strongly. With hit songs in films like Oonche Log, Akash Deep, Aulaad and Vaasana, his stock was on the rise. But a heart attack in 1968 put a massive spanner in the works. He recovered and made a comeback with some superb songs in films such as Saaz Aur Sanam (1971), Intezar (1973) and Angaarey (1975), but these films fared very poorly at the box office.

Aankh Mila Le, Saaz Aur Sanam (1971).

A paralytic stroke in 1974 set him back further. “Papa recovered almost 90% from his paralysis, but this was a very difficult phase for the family,” said his son Milind, who along with brother Anand had started accompanying their father to recordings. “We had to sell off the car. I remember we used to change three buses to reach Homi Wadia’s studio in Chembur.”

But Chitragupta wasn’t done yet. Following the unprecedented success of Balam Pardesiya (1979), he enjoyed a remarkable second wind as a successful and prolific composer for Bhojpuri films in the ’80s. He also did a few low-budget Hindi films, the last being Insaaf Ki Manzil (1988), which featured a song by Alisha Chinai (according to Milind, this was programmed by Leslie Lewis).When we recall that he had begun his career in the era of Fearless Nadia and Amirbai Karnataki, Chitragupta’s longevity as a composer is nothing short of staggering.

In 1988, Anand-Milind struck it big with the songs of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, even bagging the Filmfare Award that year. “They reached home very late that night, but they woke up Papa and showed him the award,” Sudha said. “He was delighted. He said, you have done what I could not do all these years.”

Chitragupta died on January 14, 1991, succumbing to yet another heart attack. A month earlier, he had attended Milind’s wedding reception. The who’s who of the industry had turned up. “Papa was beaming,” Sudha said. “He told me, ‘dekho, kitni line lagi hai.’”

Ae Jaan-e-jaana, Bank Robbery, (1969).