For quite some time I searched around for information on the Malayalam singer Mehaboob, but only a little could be dredged. It was finally a brilliant, thought provoking and sentimental article by novelist Vennala Mohan in last years ‘Manorama Onappathippu’ that gave me much insight to this lovable person. Thanks a lot to blogger Abraham Tharakan for directing me to Mohan’s article. That is the real stuff – the article to read, I am writing this only for the benefit of those cannot find it and those who can’t read Malayalam.
This is about Mehaboob, a singer great with his voice, but unfortunately weak in character. It is about a singer of yesteryears, whose talents I alluded to in my earlier blogs on trains and Mammad kaka’s coat. Sometimes you get drawn to a certain person, you can’t necessarily explain why, but it could very well be that it was because he was an underdog, one who was seemingly wronged, one who never received recognition that was always due to him.
There was a time when one could write a letter addressed thus – H Mehaboob Bhai, Cochin, Kerala and the letter would quickly find its way through the gigantic Indian postal system to this gentle soul. Alas, today it would be surprising if anybody in Kerala or for that matter even people of Cochin remembered Mehaboob even if they standing on Mehaboob road in Cochin or living in Mehaboob Nagar. It was the time when Mehaboob and Kozhikode Abdul Khader ruled the waves.
Indeed, he was a character with many virtues and an equally long list of flaws. Fortunately he left behind a legacy of memories for a select few who survived his generation and many lovely songs that epitomized his times & tides. Mehaboob’s story is curiously, one of loneliness, but actually filled with people. Sometimes I wonder if all those people around him were the very reason for his downfall. Such were the times; an era where people tagged on to the rich and famous and every famous person had an even bigger entourage and a huge ego to boot. They bolstered the ego to such a level that the otherwise normal person started feeling insecure and ended up seeking refuge in an imaginary world. They pampered the person with wrong and sweet ideas; they led the person astray, into the arms of booze and other vices.
Mehaboob, fondly known as ‘Bhai’ in the Cochin between the 50’s and 80’s, was born in a family beset with stark poverty. He spent his childhood (early 40’s) in the nearby Bengal battalion military camp polishing shoes while his mother did cleaning jobs. And in the midst of all the grime and squalor, he cheerfully sang the songs he picked up, be it English, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi or Malayalam – whatever the trend was on that day. Bhai grew up to become the singer of choice for the various pre nuptial ceremonies conducted by rich families in Cochin; here was where he made his name, his admirers and many friends. Mehaboob had no real home, but he lived with his friends, and he sang his way into the hearts of Cochin.
A lovable and humane man, with a boyish candor, Mehaboob partook in many of those evenings and his spontaneity and outpourings are now a memory only to a few lucky people like singers Umbayee & Xavier. His extempore songs were never recorded and eventually vanished leaving the oncoming generations poorer of a musical legacy. Many of his songs were composed by Mepalli Balan. While there is still an argument about the ownership of the lyrics, the two people who created songs for Mehaboob, with that special Mattanchery flavour, were Nelson Fernandez and Balan. A simple man, never ambitious, Mehaboob never demanded compensation for the performances, be it at the prenuptial ceremonies, or kacheris’.
So famous did he become in Cochin, that Muthaiah, the actor quickly recommended him to Dakshinamoorthy the music director who was looking for a new voice in the early 50’s. Would you believe that the two of them hunted for the truant Mehaboob all over Cochin and it was only a few minutes before Murthy’s train was leaving the platform that Mehaboob landed up at the station? Well, it was at the station, with the steam engine starting its departure whistle that he sang his first ‘voice test’ lines and Murthy decided that he had found his man. From that point Mehaboob started to get noticed in the film world. He sang of course, for P Bhaskaran and Baburaj in many hit movies between the 50’s and 70’s, but they were to a large extent comedy songs. While it gave him due recognition, it saddened Mehaboob and he remarked once that he thought P Bhaskaran as the one who branded him thus – the comedy singer. Some of us would remember today a few those great ‘comedy songs’ songs, but Mehaboob I believe, wanted to do more serious songs. Seeing all this, Dakshina Murthy took it upon himself to formally launch him, but Mehaboob gave up, refused to sing at the party organized for him, and just left Madras, and with that started his tryst with the bottle and his downfall.
It was not the first time he walked away, many years later at TDM hall in Cochin, Mehaboob who was to perform in a concert, did not sing. He came onstage, simply stated that Gandhiji was responsible for the rot in the minds of Indian people after independence and walked off from a houseful concert (He asked the audience – Gandhi enthakki? The audience replied, Bhai para Bhai para – Bhai said – Gandhi Indiaye mandhi punnakki). What triggered all this I don’t know, but this brilliant singer never took his life or his career seriously after the Madras days.
He was popular, no doubts about that and all this is abundantly clear from the days CH Atma and Rafi performed in Cochin. People clamored for Bhai’s songs even when Rafi was singing and Rafi gracefully invited Mehaboob to sing on his stage. It is said that Rafi then asked Mehamood to accompany him to Bombay, but Mehaboob did not want to leave his friends in Cochin…Now that being the case, why did he lose hope with life? I don’t know, Was it much later, I don’t think so. All the money he made from his movie songs, bundles of it, was usually distributed to all friends the very same evening.
Can you imagine there was a time when Mehaboob had to coach Yesudas with Hindi/Urdu diction for a particular song before a stage show? It is from those dizzy heights this gentleman ended up to singing in Maharaja’s college hostel rooms for the price of a lunch (He sang many of his own songs and admitted that he was Mehaboob only after he was confronted with a request to sing Yesudas & Jayachandran songs). Later, it was poverty that led him to become a part time Muezzin in the local mosque, calling the faithful for prayers. In the end he died a pauper, an abject asthmatic, wizened and sick man leaving behind only his music as his legacy. By then people had forgotten him…new stars had risen in the sky and rustic folk music was no longer in vogue.
Let us take a look at some of his popular movie songs, the songs that make you feel happy and smile
- Manennum vilikkila, mayilennum vilikkila Manathe pachakiliye (Neelakuyil – K Raghavan)
- Kathu sookshiochore kasthuri mampazam kakka kothi (Nair pidicha pulival – K Raghavan)
- Pandu pandu nine kanda nalilla (Rarichan oru pauran – K Raghavan)
- Halu pidichoru puliachhan pulivalupidichoru nairachan– (Nair pidicha pulivalu – K Raghavan)
- Naya paisayilla ( Neeli Sali – K Raghavan)
- Zindabad Zindabad swantham karyam zindabad ( Kandam bechoru kottu – MS Baburaj)
- Vandee pukavandi, vandi vandi ninne pole vayaril enikkum theeyanu (Doctor – G Devarajan)
- O Rickshawalla ( Odayil Ninnu – G Devarajan)
- Vandikaran beeran kaka randam kettinu poothim bechu (Vandi karan beeran kakka )
- Kozhikodangdeele koyakkande kadayilu koyinde kariyude charu (Thanka kudam – MS Baburaj)
- Kandam bechoru kottanu athu mammad kakede kottanu ( Kandam bechoru kottu – MS Baburaj)
Sources & picture – Manorama, Hindu and other web links. ‘Entelokam.com’ provided access to many of Mehaboob’s songs through their fine collection.