KK, whose real name is Krishnakumar Kunnath, died last night in Kolkata. He was performing in a college fest when he started to feel uneasy, an hour after which he passed away. Early reports suggest it was a heart attack. He was 53.
KK was quite possibly the most original Hindi film playback singer of his generation. Everybody sounded like somebody – not KK. Among his contemporaries, Sonu Nigam has a bit of Rafi in him. The 90s kings Kumar Sanu and Abhijeet – with the exception of Udit Narayan – were influenced by Kishore Kumar. It was difficult to find traces of any other singer in KK.
There is a tendency in playback singing to introduce somewhat unnecessary flourishes. KK's vocals had an honesty and transparency that is even more precious in the age of pitch correction and autotune.
His voice was unique not because it was out-there, like say the inherent smokiness that makes Mohit Chauhan's vocals distinct; neither did he have a mannered style. It had the clear, guileless quality of water. Certainly there were signatures, there were certain things he would do exceptionally well, like how easily he would switch to a higher octave. His ability to shoot straight and sharp was remarkable, hitting the upper reaches of the roof of the mouth with power, effortlessness, and ease. KK was unique not because he had a god-gifted texture but because he sang right. He wasn't classically trained.
You didn't have to be a musician or a critic to be able to appreciate his voice. Everybody dug KK. It felt direct, without much ornamentation. There is a tendency in playback singing to introduce somewhat unnecessary flourishes. KK's vocals had an honesty and transparency that is even more precious in the age of pitch correction and autotune.
Perhaps he was bringing with him something of the indipop spirit of the 90s into his playback work (in Tamil and other South languages apart from Hindi). The Delhi-born Malayali singer, after all, sang for an English band, before he sang jingles for Leslie Lewis, who then went on to collaborate with him in Pal, his first hit, a non-film album.
When he did make his debut as a Hindi playback, with "Chhor Aye Hum Woh Galliyan" from Maachis, followed up by "Tadap Tadap" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam – with which he delivered one hell of a breakout hit – his ability to soar met the drama of Hindi film.
Composers would find it tempting to use this skill of his to the max and somewhere in the mid 2000s, during the whole Emraan Hashmi-Shiney Ahuja phase of his career, that thing he did – that euphoric 'woh-oh-ho' in songs such as "Tu Hi Meri Shab Hai" from Gangster and "Kya Mujhe Pyaar Hai" from Woh Lamhe – became a kind of signature.
But KK shone equally in the quieter, pensive numbers that required him to operate in a low scale, a testament to his sheer range. "Aawarapan Banjarapan" from Jism is an example of how understated he was in terms of 'emoting'. "Dil Kyun Yeh Mera" from Kites is an ode to how plain KK could sing and still make it so evocative.
All this seems like retrospective appreciation. The news of his untimely death has left us in a state of shock and grief. News of deaths of some of our favourite people, some of our favourite artists, have numbed us beyond belief over the last couple of years. In any case, it has been too much to process. With the singer's demise, it well and truly feels like a part of our growing up years has been snatched away cruelly. When the news came in at around eleven at night, I found comfort in my old friend and current flatmate – he found comfort in me. We had both missed KK perform live in the fest of first year of college for reasons beyond our control. It had hurt then, and it hurts now. It was hard to comprehend the irony that he fell ill performing in a college fest in Kolkata before passing away.
The song lyrics – which have a way of assuming unfathomable, eerie poignancy, after years, in contexts they weren't meant for – haven't made it any easier. Listening to Hum… Rahe Ya Na Rahe Kal… Kal, Yaad Aayenge Yeh Pal at four in the morning wasn't easy, but it was the only way to cope. "Alvida" was unbearable but listening to it on loop was the only way to say goodbye to a singer we didn't quite celebrate the way we ought to have when he was in his prime.
The outpouring of emotions on social media following news of his death almost feels like hitherto unexpressed gratitude for what KK meant to us, "90s kids". Something about him defined that time in our lives – those last years in school and first years in college. He belonged there, in that college fest arena… Yaaro, Dosti, and all that. This morning I woke up to a missed call from a friend I haven't spoken to in years. I know exactly why he called. I have to call him back.