Most accounts of Dattaram Baburao Naik’s life begin by stating that he was born in 1927 in the village of Aroba in Goa. But his son Roop Naik, an advertising filmmaker, clarifies that his father was born in Bombay and then moved to Aroba with his mother when about a year old. “My grandfather passed away early,” Roop said. “My father was raised by his mother and aunt.”

Near their ancestral house in Goa, says Roop, stands an ancient peepal tree. “Adjacent to it is a small temple. Every Thursday evening, people used to gather around there and sing abhangs (devotional songs).” The young Datta seems to have enjoyed these sessions, even trying his hand at the harmonium whenever the opportunity presented itself. He was also exposed to touring Marathi musical theatre groups that came from places such as Kolhapur and Ratnagiri. However, when Datta expressed a desire to learn music, his maternal uncle read out the riot act to him and asked the boy to concentrate on his studies. “That’s when he rebelled and ran away to Bombay,” Roop said. Naik was only about 12 then.

We don’t know much about those early years in Bombay but Naik seems to have done the usual rounds of the studios for a while. Lata Mangeshkar recalls encountering him in 1946 when he was assisting a music director named Kedar Shinde. (The singer could possibly be referring to Ramakrishna Shinde, who composed for Marathi plays. Shinde later did a handful of films under the name Hemant Kedar, apparently the names of his favourite ragas.) We do also know that Naik briefly assisted the legendary composer Ghulam Haider, but all information about this period remains sketchy.

Dattaram Baburao Naik. Courtesy Roop Naik.

According to Roop, his father actively participated in prabhat pheris and other local festivals and it was during one of these that SD Burman happened to hear Naik sing. When it turned out that the young man had also composed the tune, the impressed music director asked Naik to come and meet him. Naik ended up assisting Burman on a number of films, where he had the opportunity to work closely with people such as the arranger Anthony Gonsalves, poet Sahir Ludhianvi and fellow assistant Jaidev.

It was during the making of Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951) that Naik met Raj Khosla who was then assisting Dutt. When Khosla made his debut as a director, Naik was brought on board as the music director. Naik’s break had actually come in 1951 with the Punjabi film Baalo (1951) but it was only with the release of Raj Khosla’s Milap and GP Sippy’s Marine Drive in 1955 that he could be considered to have become an independent music director.

Ab Who Karam Karen Ki Sitam, Marine Drive (1955).

Amongst his earliest songs, Ab Who Karam Karen Ki Sitam (Marine Drive); Yeh Baharaon Ka Sama (Milap) and Maine Chand Aur Sitaron Ki Tamanna Ki Thi (Chandrakanta, 1956) stand out. A common thread running through these songs was that they were written by Sahir, who was then at the top of his game. But success had come at a price for Sahir as he had fallen out with both SD Burman and OP Nayyar. Consequently, after the high of Naya Daur (1957), when BR Chopra started on his next project Sadhana, Sahir recommended the comparatively inexperienced Naik’s name.

Dattaram Naik with Mohammed Rafi. Courtesy Roop Naik.

A bold film for its time, Sadhana (1958) did very well at the box office. Naik came through with flying colours and his pared-down treatment of Sahir’s scathing Aurat Ne Janam Diya Mardon Ko set a template of sorts that was later used to brilliant effect in BR Chopra’s 1961 production Dharamputra (directed by his brother Yash) in evergreen nazms like Main Jab Bhi Akeli Hoti Hoon (Asha Bhosle), Tumhari Aankhen (Mahendra Kapoor) and Aaj Ki Raat (Mahendra Kapoor).

The recording of Aaj Ki Raat is the first live recording that Javed Akhtar recalls attending. Akhtar, then not yet out of school, had accompanied his father Jan Nisar Akhtar to the studio. A close friend of Sahir, Jan Nisar Akhtar also had a fruitful working relationship with Naik, the highlight of their collaboration undoubtedly being the superb Lata-Rafi duet Main Tumhi Se Poochhti Hoon (Black Cat, 1959). The same year also saw the release of the Kishore Kumar-Mala Sinha starrer Jaalsaaz, which had two absolutely charming Kishore-Asha duets (written by Majrooh Sultanpuri): Pyar Ka Jahaan Ho and Mere Dil Meri Jaan.

Meri Dil Meri Jaan, Jalsaaz (1959).

But it is again Sahir who is behind the song that Naik is most remembered for. Dhool Ka Phool (1959) marked Yash Chopra’s debut as a director. A melodrama about a Muslim man bringing up a Hindu child, the film was leavened by romantic songs such as Tere Pyar Ka Aaasra Chahta Hoon and Jo Tum Muskura Do. But the high point is the classic Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega. The same melody had been used by the composer earlier for Kya Kya Na Sitam Tujh Pe Huye (also sung by Rafi) in the lesser-known Nirupa Roy tear-jerker Mohini (1957).

L-R: Mahendra Kapoor, Yash Chopra, Dattaram Naik and Sahir Ludhianvi. Courtesy Roop Naik.

While Dharmputra might not have succeeded at the box office, its songs were much appreciated and it was a given that Naik would be repeated for the next BR Films production. But a sudden heart attack scuppered all such plans. Still only in his thirties, it was a blow that Naik perhaps never really recovered from. “He felt he was going to die,” Roop said. “He suddenly developed a kind of fear for his life. I think it lasted with him all his life. Even if he had a little bit of illness, he used to get fearful.”

It took Naik a while to come out of his funk and get back on his feet. But by then BR Chopra had already hired Ravi to do the music for his next film. Gumrah (1963) went on to do very well and so did its music, and Ravi became a permanent fixture in BR Chopra’s films.

Not really in a position to pick and choose films, Naik took what came his way. Unfortunately, none of the subsequent films worked at the box office. While some songs, such as the soulful Talat Mahmood ghazal Ashqon Ne Jo Paaya Hai (Chandi Ki Deewar, 1964), attained great popularity, the post-Dharmputra phase of the music director’s career has not received much attentionand the songs remain underheard.

Ashqon Ne Jo Paaya Hai, Chandi Ki Deewar (1964).

While it is true that the songs are not in the same league as some of his earlier work, Naik’s talent for composing simple but effective melodies never really deserted him. A case in point: two fabulous Mahendra Kapoor duets­, Chand Bhi Koi Deewana Hai (with Asha Bhosle) and Jigar Mein Dard (with Kamal Barot), from Phani Majumdar’s Apna Ghar Apni Kahani (which was released as Pyaas, 1968).

Though Naik did not do many Marathi films, his work in Apradh (1969) and Bala Gau Kashi Angai (1977) stands out. From the latter film, the lullaby Nimbonichya Jhadamage, beautifully rendered by Suman Kalyanpur, remains especially popular.

Nimbonichya Jhadamage, Bala Gau Kashi Angai (1977).

Towards the end of the 1970s, Roop recalls seeing a change in his father. “For the first time, I saw him approaching people, trying to rekindle old relationships.” It seemed to pay dividends as he was brought on board for a film being directed by Raj Tilak, BR Chopra’s son-in-law. But Chehre Pe Chehra (1981), a misguided adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, bombed at the box office and put paid to his plans.

“Everyone goes through difficult times,” Roop said. “My father too went through one. But I think we should focus on the good work he did.”

Since the past few years, Roop has been organising a musical programme on his father’s death anniversary. “I firmly believe that a human being dies twice,” he said. “Once, when he dies physically. The second time he dies is when everyone who knows about him also dies. I will not let my father die a second time.”

Given his father’s substantial body of work, there is not much chance of that happening.

The music director with Asha Bhosle and the violinists.