The golden period of film music between 1950 and 1970 has a number of icons dotting its desktop. In this galaxy of myriad geniuses one name that will remain incommoded under the superincumbent weight of some maestros who won a much wider acclaim will be that of Sardar Mohinder Singh Sarna, popularly known in the fraternity as S Mohinder.
In an era dominated by titans like Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishen, Madan Mohan, C Ramchandra, O P Nayyar, S D Burman, Salil Choudhary, Sajjad Hussein, Khayyam Anil Biswas and others, S Mohinder remained under their long and superior shadows but his compositional genius was never in question. It is a measure of the quality of music routinely produced by stalwarts that S Mohinder got labeled as perhaps less-than-a-second-line composer – in the bracket of Ravi, Hemant Kumar, Sardar Malik, Chitragupt, C Arjun, S N Tripathi and many more. That doesn’t take away from the brilliance of the 50-odd films he composed in a career spanning almost 20 years.
His roots from small town Sillianwali in the then undivided Montogomery district of Punjab and being a son of a police sub inspector, were no indication of the niche that he was to carve for himself in the quick sands of film music. His father’s frequent transfers was a sore point in pursuing his passion but that proved to be a blessing in disguise. It was during one such transfer that he was occasioned to meet Sikh religious vocalist Sant Sujan Singh under whom he honed his classical skills. The pious atmosphere of Sheikhupura (now in Pakistan) close to Nankana Sahib – the birth place of Guru Nanak – was just the atmosphere that his musical hunger sought to satiate.
Somewhere during the tumult of Partition, Mohinder moved to Benares, the Mecca of Indian classical music where he groomed for a while before boarding a train to country’s film industry of Mumbai without ticket. His tryst with the film music began in 1950, the year which is believed to have spawned what is believed as the golden period of film music. But for him, big time recognition was still away.
Mohinder knew how to blend classical skills with film music. He started composing tunes that were light but had a strong aesthetic appeal to them. Many people are not aware that when he composed for Sehra (1948), its producers were Arun and Nirmala Ahuja, parents of actor Govinda. The combination worked wonders and the film made ripples if not waves. What boosted his prospects was the unabashed admiration singing star Suraiya had for him. She put him on to director-producer Chandulal Shah to sign him on for Nili (1950) where Suraiya’s co-star was her beau Dev Anand who was also finding his moorings. Its success attracted him to Raj Kapoor whose Paapi was in the making. The film was a visual disaster but the audience that slept through most of the film, would suddenly come alive to Mohammed Rafi’s foot-tapping Tera Kaam Hai Jalna Parwane. It made him a house-hold name but Mohinder who also nursed singing ambitions until then, gave them up after hearing Rafi’s voice.
Although his popular Shabad Gurbani Mittar Pyare Nu, also sung by Rafi became a benchmark, he often broke stereotypes to create something totally diverse. Asha Bhosale, another of his favourite, sang Re Man Aiso Kar Sanyasa, set in Raag Kalavati for Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai (1969) that won him national recognition. Among his enduring memories was how Madhubala acknowledged his Shirin Farhad qawwali Ankhon Mein Tumhare Jalwe Hain by kissing his hands. In Naata (1955) and Shirin Farhad, Mohinder reached the zenith of his career. Lata’s Guzra hua zamana aata nahi dobara made him a part of national consciousness. It was here that he made a famous team with lyricist Tanveer Naqvi like Naushad did with Shakeel, Shankar-Jaikishen did with Hasrat and Shailendra and Madan Mohan with Rajinder-Jaikishen or Raja Mehdi Ali Khan.
Mohinder didn’t carry any particular stamp of his own when it came to composing. He didn’t have the classical mindset of Naushad, nor was his orchestration heavy like that of Shankar-Jaikishen. He did not lean on folk music or Rabindra Sangeet as S D Burman or Salil Choudhary did. His tunes were simple, hummable and yet very catchy. His USP lay in the simplicity of his tunes.
Mohinder composed for a host of films and true to his caliber, he was a revelation in each of them. Unfortunately, most films he composed for sank at the box office without trace. That never affected his compositional mindset. He cherished his association with contemporary composer Ghulam Haider and Lata. Pyarelal played violin for Zameen Ke Taare (1960) when he was yet to hit the national scene with fellow composer Laxmikant. Mohinder later forayed into production in the 70s. His Punjabi film Nanak Naam Jahaaz hai bagged the National Film Award for Best Music Director in 1970 beating SD Burman’s Aradhana. What he missed in Hindi, he got it in Punjabi.
Just one Guzra hua zamana aata nahi dobara catapulted him to the Hall of Fame. And made him immortal but many of his songs were lost to public administration like Phir teri yaad naye geet sunane aayi (Bekhabar/1966) and Shama se jaa ke kehdo (Mukesh-Suman/Jai Bhawani). Mohinder, however, never sulked. In the post 1970s when the character of film music changed from sober to brash, Mohinder decided to bid adieu. Towards the end of the millennium, he chose to settle in US. It was only some time recently that he came to Mumbai to stay with his daughter.
After Khayyam, he was the last of beacon lights of Hindi film music. His passing brings to an end, an epoch of music that will have his name etched on it. The greatest of singers of the last century, including Amir Karnataki, Surinder Kaur, Geeta Roy-Dutt, Lata Mangeshkar, Suraiya, Shamshad Begum, Asha Bhosale, Rajkumari, Mohd Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood, and Hemant Kumar lent their voice to the compositions of this rather under-celebrated music director. S Mohinder is no more. Long live S Mohinder.