Composer, musician, audio innovator, singer, music director, teacher and a part-time actor Pankaj Mullick is a colossal figure not only in the field of Bengali cinema but ranks among the greatest cultural icons of Bengal.
He was born on 10th May, 1905. His parents Monimohan and Monomohini were devout vashnavaites and the young Pankaj often sang shlokas and devotional songs during family religious ceremonies. He took talim in dhrupad, khayal, tappa and other forms of Indian classical music under the tutelage of Shri. Durgadas Bandopadhaya. He came in contact with Dinendranath Tagore, Tagore’s grand-nephew and the composer, music arranger for many of the Gurudev’s songs and thus developed a lifelong passion for Rabindrasangeet. Tagore himself grew fond of the young man and soon Pankaj Mullick became recognised as one of the finest exponents of Tagore’s songs. He was the first person to use the tabla as an accompaniment in these songs. He made his first recording at the age of eighteen and the first of his numerous commercial recordings was made with the Vielophone Company in 1926. The song was Nemecche Aaj Prothom Badal. Pankaj Mullick’s rendition of many a Rabindrasangeet is extremely popular even today.
In 1927, when India Broadcasting Corporation, the forerunner of All India Radio (AIR) was launched, Pankaj Mullick along with Rai Chand Boral joined in as one of its earliest employees. His association with AIR lasted for over four decades and produced the music–teaching program Sangeet Shikshar Ashar (1929-1975, excluding 1944). The programme was instrumental in popularising Rabindrasangeet among the Bengali middle-class for generations.Mahishashura Mardini, which was aired first in 1932, was a joint creation of Pankaj Mullick, Bani Kumar and Birendra Krishna Bhadra. The program, a musical evocation of the goddess Durga, used to be broadcast live on the crack of dawn on the auspicious day of Mahalaya (the first day of Devipaksha – the fortnight that includes Durga Puja). Eminent singers such as Angurbala, Suprabha Ghosh, Supriti Ghosh, Arati Mukherjee, Sumitra Sen, Sandhya Mukherjee, Hemanta Mukherjee, Pannalal Bhattacharya, Dwijen Mukherjee and Manabendra Mukherjee considered it to be a privilege to be invited to sing for this prestigious program.Mahishashura Mardini, is a now a part of the Bengali identity and cultural ethos. The recorded version which is aired even to this day is still listened to by millions.
Pankaj Mullick’s association with the cinema began as a conductor and music arranger for the orchestra at the Chitra cinema hall that played live ‘mood’ music during the screening of two silent films Chashar Meye (he also had a walk-in part in this film) and Chorkanta. Both films released in 1931, were produced by International Film Craft, the company floated by Birendra Nath Sircar in order to judge the prospects of the movie business. Later in the same year, when Sircar formally launched the now legendary New Theatres, Pankajbabu was an obvious choice to join the galaxy of talents that gathered under its aegis. Dena Paona (1932), the first film produced by New Theatres was also the first Bengali ‘talkie’. Pankaj Mullick along with Rai Chand Boral composed music for this ground-breaking film. The following year 1933, he made his debut as an independent music director for a Hindi/Urdu film Yahudi Ka Ladki, a New Theatres costume drama directed by Premankur Atorthi. Pankajbabu was one of the first music-arrangers and orchestra conductors to extensively use western musical forms and instruments like the piano and the accordion in composing music for Indian films. The imaginative use of background music to emphasise the mood, action and tempo of the film scenes is one of Pankaj Mullick’s great contributions to music in Indian cinema.
In 1935, Pankaj Mullick along with RC Boral composed music for the New Theatres production Bhagyachakra (1935) the Hindi version of which was named Dhoop Chhaon. This film directed by Nitin Bose is generally considered the first film to introduce playback singing in India though rival studio Bombay Talkies also claimed to have invented playback. Before this, songs in Indian movies were sung live on-camera by the performers. While shooting a group dance of sakhis in Bhagychakra/Dhoop Chhaon, the rehearsals took so much energy out of the performers that their singing went haywire during the actual shoot! Faced with this problem Nitin Bose, Madhu Bose, the sound recordist, Pankajbabu and RC Boral with the help of certain Mr Demming (a visiting audio-engineer from Hollywood), came up with an innovation – they recorded the song beforehand and asked the performers to lip-synch during the real shoot. Thus history was made. The song in Bengali was Mora Pulak Jacchi and its Hindi version was Main Khush Hona Chahun. Suprabha Sircar (nee Ghosh), Parul Ghosh (nee Choudhury) and Umashashi were the all female chorus that recorded both versions of this song. Pankaj Mullick and RC Boral continued their collaboration and the duo composed music for some of the most memorable films – many of these had Bengali and Hindi/Urdu versions – such as Hem Chandra’s Krorepati/The Millionaire (1936), Nitin Bose’s Didi/President (1937), PC Barua’s Grihadaha/Manzil (1936), Maya (1936), both Hindi & Bengali, 1936 and the classic Devdas (1935) in Hindi which had KL Saigal singing the immortal Balam Aaaye Baso Mere Man Mein and Dukh Ke Din Ab Beete Nahin while the Bengali original had him performing Golap Hoye Uthuk Phute. In Manzil, Pankaj Babu sang the Sundar Nari Pritam Pyari, a song also rendered by Saigal. Pankaj Babu was successful in persuading Saigal to bring down his high pitch in order to control his nasal twang and the result was evergreen songs like the lullaby So Ja Rajkumari So Ja in PC Barua’s Hindi film, Zindagi (1940).
PC Barua’s Mukti/Mukti (1937) saw Pankaj Mullick make his debut not only as an independent music-director but also as an actor. He had a small role playing the character of an impoverished philosopher-singer. The Bengali version of the film had the distinction of being the first film to use Rabindrasangeet in its soundtrack. Pankaj Mullick thus became the first person outside the Tagore family to compose music for one of Tagore’s works. He managed to get the poet’s permission to set his verse Shesh Kheya to music and the outcome was the magical Diner Sheshe Ghumer Deshe – a song that is still on the bestsellers list in Bengali music charts even today! It is said that Tagore himself gave the film its title. Sharabi Socha Na Kar, a song rendered by Pankaj Babu in the Hindi/Urdu version of the film was popular all over the country.
Following the success of Mukti/Mukti, Pankaj Babu’s screen appearances became more frequent. He appeared as an elderly singer in the Hindi version of Kapal Kundala (1939), an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, directed by Phani Majumdar. He composed and sang the unforgettable Piya Milan Ko Jaana, undoubtedly his most well-known song in Hindi. The next highlight of Pankajbabu’s career was Debaki Bose’s musical extravaganza Nartaki (1940) where he sang the evergreen hits Ye Kaun Aaj Aaya Swerai, Madbhari Rut Jawan Hai and Prem Ka Nata Chhuta in his rich, sonorous vibrato. 1941 saw Pankaj Mullick reaching the zenith of his career as an actor-singer with the film Daktar/Doctor. In this reformist melodrama directed by Subodh Mitra, Pankaj Mullick played the character of Amarnath, the liberal-minded son of a rich family who chooses to become a doctor in an impoverished village to combat the dreaded disease of cholera. Pankajbabu was excellent as the idealist Amarnath and he also sang the popular songs Chaitra Diner Jhara Patar Pothey and Ore Chanchal. The Hindi version Doctor had him singing the hit songs Mahak Rahi Phulwari, Kab Tak Nirash Ki, Aaj Apni Mehnaton Ka and Guzar Gaya Woh Zamana.
During the Second World War and its aftermath, New Theatres went into decline and many of its luminaries went to Mumbai in search of better prospects. Pankajbabu continued to base himself in Kolkata. With the rise of playback singing he restricted his screen appearances concentrating more on Rabindrasangeet and modern Bengali songs (Adhunik gaan) and his role as a music director. In 1944, he composed music for Meri Bahen and this film he had Saigal singing some of his ebst ever songs Ae Qatib-e-Taqdir Mujhe Itnaa Bata De, Do Naina Matware and Chhupo Na Chhupo Na. Pankajbabu also worked for some Mumbai productions among which were the Dev Anand-Geeta Bali starrer Zalzala (1952), an adaptation of Tagore’s novel Char Adhaya and Kasturi (1954). In Kolkata, Pankajbabu worked as the music director in films like Meenakshi (1942), Kashinath (1943), Dui Purush (1945), Nurse Didi/Nurse Sissy (1947), Ramer Sumati (1947), Pratibad (1948), Rupkatha/Roop Kahini (1950), Mahaprashthaner Pathey (1952), Banahansi (1953), Nabin Yatra/ Yatrik (1952), Raikamal(1955), Chitrangada (1955), Louhakapat (1957) and Ahwan (1961). His last film as music director was Janhabi Jamuna Bigolito Karuna in 1972. Dui Purush (1945) won him the Bengal Film Journalists Association (BFJA) award for the best music director.
Pankaj Mullick was also a music scholar and theoretician and he wrote several books on Indian classical music. He also recorded the definitive version of the Indian national anthem Jana Gana Mana in deference to Premier Jawaharlal Nehru’s wishes. He was also an Honorary Advisor to the Folk Entertainment Division of the Government of West Bengal and is said to be one of the persons responsible for giving the go-ahead for Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) to be funded by the government. Yatrik (1952) and Raikamal (1955) won Pankajbabu the President’s Award for the best film music. He was honoured with the Padmashree in 1970 and the Dada Saheb Phalke Award for his ground-breaking contributions in Indian cinema in 1973. A commemorative postage stamp honouring Pankaj Mullick was issued by the Department of Posts, Govt. of India on the occasion of his birth centenary.
Pankaj Mullick’s autobiography is titled Aamar Yug Aamar Gaan. When he died on 19th February 1978, Pandit Ravi Shankar mourned the loss of “a wonderful creative musician… a wonderful human being”.