October 12 will see the release of Kaushik Ganguly’s Bengali film Kishore Kumar Junior, in which Prosenjit Chatterjee plays a ‘Kishore konthi’, which means someone with the voice of Kishore Kumar. Chatterjee’s character travels across the country performing Kishore Kumar’s hits on stage. The film was believed to have been a biopic of Gautam Ghosh, one of the most popular Kishore konthis in Bengal, but Ganguly clarified that the movie is based on “those hundreds of talented artistes who fail to make a make a mark of their own and live as konthis of stalwart singers”.

We spoke to two such Kishore konthis from Kolkata. Sanjoy Saptarshi, who is 51, made a short film about his life a few years ago and believes that Kishore Kumar Junior has been inspired from his work. There is also Amit Ganguly, a popular Kishore konthi performer in and around West Bengal. We also spoke to members of Salkia Kishore Kumar Memorial Cultural Association, an organisation of Kishore Kumar fans from Howrah whose mission is to get Kishore Kumar a posthumous Bharat Ratna. Here are edited transcripts of their interviews.

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Kishore Kumar Junior (2018).

Sanjoy Saptarshi: ‘Amar Pujar Phool’ did it for him

Any concert without a Kishore Kumar song is like biryani without potato. But I have an objection with the phrase Kishore konthi. The concept of identifying singers as Kishore konthi, Lata konthi, Rafi konthi bothers me. Every singer has an individuality. No one can replicate these legends’ voices. Gautam Ghosh has established himself over decades. But calling him Kishore konthi is not right.

I became enchanted with Kishore Kumar when I was in standard eight and I heard his song, Amar Pujar Phool released during Durga Puja. That puja, I spent all my time indoors and did not go out. Secondly, Anand and Indrani Subramaniam [popular performers of Kishore Kumar songs] performed in our locality. I was stunned by their physical, theatrical performance, and their body language. It was more filmi than pure singing. The 1,000-strong audience stuck to them like magnets. I learned showmanship from them.

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Anand and Indrani Subramaniam in 1991.

I began performing much late in life. I carried my singing bug with me to the army barracks in Kashmir where I worked for the Intelligence Bureau. My performing career resumed on returning to Kolkata. I joined the Cossipore Gun and Shell Factory with a lower income, but I found time to perform. Despite poor sound systems, low remuneration and bad bands, we sang because of our passion.

Despite having a range of rare Kishore Kumar songs ready with me, such as his Assamese and Bhojpuri stuff, I have to go and sing the same old Chirodini Tumi Je Amar. But in the last five-six years, performance opportunities have decreased. The reasons include stage shows inviting reality contest performers or winners and ignoring us. These, in turn, get corporate sponsors. Plus, earlier, stage shows were dime-a-dozen organised by local clubs. Now political leaders control it.

Sanjoy Saptarshi. Photo by Devarsi Ghosh.
Sanjoy Saptarshi. Photo by Devarsi Ghosh.

I came close to Kishore Kumar twice. One was during the Hope ‘86 concert in Kolkata where almost all the top Bollywood names performed. A second concert was organised by the Kolkata Police where Kishore Kumar came. The tickets were priced at Rs 300 at the time, which I couldn’t afford.

The other time is when I ran into one of my greatest musical idols, Ajoy Das, who composed some of Kishore Kumar’s biggest Bengali film hits in the 1980s. But in 2003, I met him in a ravaged state living in a dilapidated house. People kept approaching him with homemade CDs containing their renditions of Kishore Kumar songs, but he had gone far from working professionally in any manner.

Salkia Kishore Kumar Memorial Cultural Association: The Bharat Ratna brigade

The association was formed in 2016 with the sole objective to demand a Bharat Ratna award for Kishore Kumar. We are all devotees of Kishore Kumar, and have celebrated his birthday every year in our locality since 2003. As a way of showing our appreciation, we erected a bust of him in 2015.

Then, discussions led us to thinking that if Lata Mangeshkar, Satyajit Ray or MS Subbulakshmi could get the Bharat Ratna, why not Kishore Kumar? Are talents like him born every day? He was everything inside one body – singer, actor, filmmaker, composer. He did change Hindi music forever, right? And who is not a Kishore konthi? Kumar Sanu, Abhijeet, Babul Supriyo, even Arijit Singh today have made a career singing Kishore Kumar songs.

Kishore Kumar's bust in Salkia, Howrah. Photo by Devarsi Ghosh.
Kishore Kumar's bust in Salkia, Howrah. Photo by Devarsi Ghosh.

So, we formed this association to bring together Kishore Kumar lovers from all across the country, not just within West Bengal. We organised two rallies, in 2017 and this year, on Kishore Kumar’s birthday, demanding the Bharat Ratna. Kishore Kumar lovers and Kishore Kumar singers from other states joined us. In fact, Kishore Kumar-based organisations from state to state are closer to us than the ones within West Bengal. We are more in touch with our Bangladesh counterparts than the ones here.

Among the Kishore Kumar singers from different states to join us were the brilliant Sunil Gadhia from Rajkot, Kamal Diwan from Delhi, Deb Kishore form Lucknow, Anjana Kumari from Patna, Manish Gupta from Kishore Kumar’s birthplace Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, Swaroop Das from Assam, Sureet Sarkar from Ranchi. Then there was Suman Sayeed from Bangladesh.

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The 2017 rally organised by Salkia Kishore Kumar Memorial Cultural Association.

Now for Kishore Kumar to posthumously get a Bharat Ratna, a request has to be made from the government in the state he was born in. Two representatives, Gautam Ghosh and Trinamool Congress councillor Ratan Dey, travelled to Khandwa to speak to those actively involved in the same cause. The most prominent organisation there is Kishore Kumar Jagran Manch.

But we have to up the ante. We are considering – not finalised – a relay hunger strike next year during Kishore Kumar’s birthday. One day, someone in West Bengal will go a hunger strike. Next day, another state, and so on.

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Sunil Gadhia in Rajkot.

This year, we are involved in a variety of programmes. We are associated with the Bidhannagar Durgotsav Committee whose pandal has a Kishore Kumar theme. There, a competition is being organised to look for the best singer of Kishore Kumar songs.

As for the presence of a Kishore konthi being in each and each neighbourhood, well, of course. Good or bad comes later, but at least he is being celebrated. As for the film, it looks fine, but the trailer has some India-Pakistan issue in it, which according to our knowledge, never occurred in Gautam Ghosh’s life.

Amit Ganguly: Only Kishore

When I say I am all about Kishore Kumar, it means that when I do stage shows, I only do Kishore Kumar songs. And that is how audiences know me. Every artist wants to do something of their own. That’s how Kishore Kumar emerged too, because he started off by imitating KL Saigal. And till an artist finds their identity, he or she imitates at least somebody. I have sung playback for top Bengali filmmakers like Anjan Chowdhury, Tapan Sinha and Raja Sen, and have done albums by the side too. But, ultimately, I made Kishore Kumar the focus of my life and career.

When I began singing in college concerts and cultural programmes, my friends, of whom many are session musicians today, suggested that I sing Kishore Kumar songs on the stage. The konthi mania was big at the time, and many were latching on to it. Around that time, I started doing stage shows with Kishore Kumar songs. Since then, I have done stage shows for around 25 years.

The audience reception of Kishore Kumar’s songs on stage has had a transformation over the years. When in the 1990s, Udit Narayan, [Kumar] Sanu, Abhijeet came, we would get requests for their songs. Today, I get requests for Arijit Singh songs, but the moment I go up on stage, the audience knows I am here only for Kishore Kumar fans.

Amit Ganguly. Courtesy Camellia Films.
Amit Ganguly. Courtesy Camellia Films.

It is easy to say that listeners’ tastes have changed. That’s not true. Listeners have changed. People who grew up listening to or experienced Kishore Kumar are still looking for the quality of his voice in today’s songs. Why else is Kishore konthi still a thing today? Today songs are more sound design than a physical process. Listeners understand that.

Is a Kishore konthi musically limited, by definition? Well, Kumar Sanu started singing his songs. But luckily, he became a star in Bombay singing original compositions and then he took off. As for me, I have done playback singing for between 30 to 40 movies in Bengali. I haven’t become a star like him. Now, tomorrow, if one of my songs become a huge hit, then people get to know my name.

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Amit Ganguly singing Kishore Kumar's songs.

Touring singers and performers who entertain audiences in villages, districts, towns struggle to make a name for themselves. When I first began singing in stage shows, I would be made to sit through the evening and then the entire night, and in the end, I would get an opportunity after the big artists had performed. Many singers have become lost in the market after ridicule, criticism, financial problems. There’s sadness in every singer’s life, big or small.

At one point, Hindi film music was only about Mohammad Rafi. When Kishore Kumar came and started singing almost every song, didn’t Rafi feel bad? When Bappi Lahiri took over and everyone forgot RD Burman, wasn’t it painful? I ask this as an artist.