Celebrated and popular Pakistani singer Ali Sethi spoke about how the sign of a great singer — not merely a gifted or talented one, but a great one, is in their seemingly effortless voice. Krishnakumar Kunnath, better known as KK, was one such artist. His smooth, honey-textured voice flowed like water. It could project any tone and tenor. He could mould his pitch to reach and resonate with the ups and downs of the human experience.
The Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan writes in his treatise The Mysticism of Sound and Music that one's voice is "the instrument that God has made". He writes that nothing is more living than the voice, it is an expression of the spirit itself. KK's voice and expression too represented the spirit of life, and that's why the loss of that voice and spirit has been so difficult to bear for Indian cinema.
Indian cinema has the unique phenomenon we call a playback singer. Simply put, playback singing is lending one's voice to a character in a film. It requires the singer to absorb the context of the script, understand the character's circumstances, embody their mood and sing on their behalf. Playback singing is a remarkable collaboration between the actor and the singer. One could say that momentarily, the singer even becomes an actor. It is make-believe that has captivated audiences for generations. There are numerous such partnerships. For instance, Kishore Kumar and Dev Anand, Asha Bhosle and Madhubala, and in recent decades, Shah Rukh Khan and Udit Narayan.
The essence of a film is represented in its songs. A good film achieves a sense of harmony with its songs, fitting perfectly like a hand in a glove. Some films, on the other hand, are easily forgotten while their tracks outshine them completely. One may not remember the movie The Train (2007) with its amusing tagline, "Some lines should never be crossed", but the song "Beete Lamhein" is one of KK's most popular and touching songs.
Songs are projections of the characters' desires – a parallel script that drives the story by shedding light on what remains unsaid. They expand the story spatially, temporally, and most importantly, emotionally. KK's voice had an expansive range to turn all these cinematic possibilities into reality. His voice was intentional yet subtle and suggestive when needed. His skill to change keys gracefully can be heard in "Alvida".
While singers like Shaan and Sonu Nigam were some of the dominant voices in Bollywood, if one looked back at Bollywood songs in the decades following the 90s, one would surely have heard KK's, regardless of knowing what his initials stood for or what he looked like. KK planted the seed of emotion in a song. Then, it was up to the actor to identify it and enact it through the body, expression, and of course, lip syncing.
One could say that a character's emotions travel in two parts: First, the playback singer gives life to the lyrics, and then, the actor enacts it. Perhaps one can say that it takes two to tango to the tunes of Bollywood songs! A partnership between the actor and the playback singer is vital to a successful song. And KK made the job seem effortless – he could empathize with the characters to whom he lent his voice.
KK has left behind a rich legacy of songs, ad jingles and other tracks. His voice continues to soothe, heal, entertain, and add colour to the soundtrack of our lives.