Standing across the road at Calvetty in Kochi, watching the windowed brown building opposite Aspinwall, it is easy to imagine the face of Mehboob looking out to the road from an open window. There’d be a song absently flowing out of his lips, very likely an old Rafi, and in his hands, a half-smoked beedi. But Mehboob had not lived in this building that now bears his name, ‘Mehboob Memorial Orchestra’. The image, somehow, is one formed from reading NS Madhavan’s Litanies of Dutch Battery, in which Mehboob, the legendary singer, features among other stories of Kochi.
Any story of Kochi is not complete without Mehboob, the people of the island who grew up listening to stories about the legend will tell you. They’d correct you with a frown when you mention the name Mehboob – “You mean Bayi”. Absolutely endearing, considering Mehboob died more than 40 years ago, and many who now call him a brother and hold on tight to his memories would not have been alive then.
Junior Mehboob, a singer named after the legend, sounds almost accusatory when he says young people should know Bayi’s songs, since they are so easily available now, unlike in his younger days. Junior, a septuagenarian now, was only four or five when he met Mehboob in the mid-1950s. Those were the years people outside his circle began hearing about Mehboob, the man who sang those first popular Malayalam film songs in Jeevitha Nouka (1951) and Neelakuyil (1954). ‘Maan ennum vilikkilla’ from the latter is even now one of the most popular film songs in Malayalam.
Junior Mehboob, who had his first music lessons from Bayi, hums ‘Akale aarum kaividum’, a song from Jeevitha Nouka, sung in the tune of the Hindi track ‘Suhani raat dhal chuki’ from the 1949 film Dulari. “Those days, they’d use popular tunes in Hindi for Malayalam film songs. It was just the practice then,” Junior says. In fact, the audition to find a singer for Jeevitha Nouka invited those who could sing ‘Suhani Raat’ and that is how Mehboob, a 20-something-year-old, impressed the selectors and later, the composer V Dakshinamoorthy.
Mehboob’s tryst with film music
After decades, veteran singer KJ Yesudas recorded another version of ‘Akale aarum’, an act frowned upon by Mehboob loyalists. Dasettan should not have done that, at least two of them said, as they recalled the song. The original track still exists in a record at the office of the Mehboob Memorial Orchestra, but the one on YouTube is a remix.
Another story of how Bayi got to sing that song is that actor Muthaiah, who was also from Kochi, recommended Mehboob, known to sing ghazals tunefully, to Dakshinamoorthy. “Bayi grew up in Pattalam, the part of Fort Kochi where the military camped during the Second World War. It is from the soldiers coming from different parts of the country that he is believed to have learned his first songs in Hindi,” says Hussain Koya, founding member of the Mehboob Memorial Orchestra. About 300 Deccani Muslim families live in Pattalam, their ancestors believed to have migrated to Kochi from Hyderabad during the invasion of Tipu Sultan in the late 18th century. Kochi’s history of Ghazal music is also often traced back to the migration of the Deccanis. Mehboob, a Deccani Muslim, spoke Urdu at home.
Little is known of Mehboob’s father. But his mother is known to have been a musician herself, singing with her dhol for wedding functions. Mehboob, tagging alongside, must have picked a few lessons, guesses Hussain. But he lost his mother soon, and his elder brother too had disappeared, leaving Mehboob an orphan at a young age.
“Bayi did not have a home. He lived at the homes of his friends, he has lived in mine too. My uncle, Hussain Koya (different from the Orchestra founder), and he were friends. That is how I got named after him, though Mehboob was not a common name among Mappila Muslims (in Kochi),” says Junior.
Anecdotes about Bayi create the kind of Bohemian image you picture of an artist unmindful of the norms of the time. He did not, like film musicians of the time used to, sing movie songs when he sang in public. “Bayi will see what the context is, get one of his writer friends – mostly Nelson master (who is still alive) and Balan master – to write a poem after outlining a theme, then compose it and sing it. He’d sing ‘Naadinu vendi naadinu vendi, jeevan nalkaan poyavare’ (Oh, those who went to give their lives for their homeland), for a fundraising event during wartime,” Hussain says.
He’d be present at houses in the neigbourhood where a wedding took place, invited or not, singing for mehfils. Many of his film songs were composed by veterans like MK Arjunan and MS Baburaj. But Mehboob mostly stuck to ghazals and the original compositions he got his poet friends to write.
Unfortunately, none of his original compositions sung in his voice exist today. The only man who had kept the original lyrics, a person called Ibrahim, also failed to pass it on, Hussain laments. But there is a cover version that late Ghazal singer Umbayi recorded, of several of Bayi’s non-film songs.
‘The history of Kochi is incomplete without Mehboob’
Director Rajeev Ravi put two of Mehboob’s songs in his debut film Annayum Rasoolum (2013), a love story that captures the life and character of Kochi. “There is history in his songs. The ‘Kayalinarike’ song has everything about Kochi of the time. His songs were political. He expressed a stand through his songs. This was a man who sang about his homeland and what went on there. You cannot tell Kochi’s story without Mehboob in it,” Rajeev says.
No one knows where Bayi learned his songs from, his disciples guessing that it probably began with his childhood in Pattalam. The fame, however, came before the first film song, on a night that Mohammed Rafi visited the Patel Talkies in Thoppumpady of Kochi for a show and Mehboob got a chance to sing with him. “Overnight, he became famous,” says author NS Madhavan, who has seen the legendary singer a few times on a ferry that rode between the island and the mainland.
“He would go up and down the ferry and he’d be sitting on the boat, singing songs,” Madhavan says. There were no conversations. The youngsters – including Madhavan – were simply in awe of this character they’d heard so much about. “He was a Bohemian even before Bohemianism became a lifestyle,” the writer says.
In the index of cartoonist’s EP Unny’s Santa and the Scribes: The Making of Fort Kochi is a Kochi Timeline, listing out major happenings of the island from the late 14th century. The two-page index carrying only the most significant events ends with: “1981: Kochi’s legendary singer Mehboob dies.”
He was only 54 or 55 when he died in April 1981, having sung 58 songs in 36 films and created 90-odd independent songs with Balan and Nelson. There was too much drinking and smoking in his life, his followers mention sadly, and he had saved nothing for himself. But what killed him was his Asthma, Junior, who got to see Mehboob a day before his death, says. “Someone told me that Bayi was seriously ill and wanted to see me. When I went to that house on a hilltop in Kakkanad, owned by a relative of his, he was so ill that he could not sit or lie down. He told me not to fall into a drinking or smoking habit and to make sure that I saved some money.”
Junior owes a lot to Bayi, he says. He had joined Bayi’s troupe as a little boy, tagging along for his music programmes, learning his first songs from him. “Those days the only way to hear a song was to go outside a film theatre and listen to the tracks they played in the evening, an hour before the 6 pm screening. Even radio was a luxury and we were poor people. I learned songs from standing outside these theatres, from going to the tea shop where they played the Ceylon station at 8 in the morning, and from listening to Bayi sing,” Junior says.
The film songs stopped after Mehboob developed an aversion to singing mostly comedy tracks in movies of the time. Those were days when most films had a parallel track for comedy featuring actors like Adoor Bhasi, Sreelatha, Bahadoor, and SP Pillai. “He sang the first Qawali in Malayalam – ‘Kaathusookshichoru kasthuri mampazham’, composed by Baburaj, but in the film, it was meant for a comedy track featuring SP Pillai. After this, he began getting more such ‘funny’ songs, meant for comedians in the films.
“He was disillusioned after a while and didn’t want to sing them anymore. He would tear up the telegrams they sent, calling him to Madras where the songs were recorded, and Dasettan (Yesudas) or Babukka (Baburaj) would end up singing them. Years later, it was for my sake that he travelled to Madras when I got a chance to record private songs (as non-film songs were called) and later, film songs. Those too came through Bayi,” Junior Mehboob says.
The legend who left too little of himself behind
Bayi left too little of himself behind for those who wanted to preserve his memory. “There are not even enough decent photographs,” Hussain laments, pointing to a few they have managed to find and stick on the walls of the Orchestra office. That is how the Orchestra itself was named after Mehboob, a few years after his passing. Earlier they were called Raag, one of the first troupes in Kerala dedicated to singing ghazals.
Every year on April 22, the day Mehboob died, they’d have a musical night in his honour, singing more of his private compositions than the film songs. “Bayi would sometimes sing even the film songs in a different, more Hindustani flavour. Bhaskaran Master (P Bhaskaran, renowned writer-lyricist) once asked him to sing ‘Maan ennum vilikilla’ on stage. Bayi went on stage and sang it in a completely different tune,” Hussain says, and sings Bayi’s version.
Hussain has not spoken to his idol, only seen him from a distance when he was really young. There’d be such loyalists across Kochi, Rajeev Ravi says, with fond memories of Bayi. But most of them are old themselves, and too unwell to stay up and recollect the old days. We tried knocking on the doors of one – Nelson Master who wrote songs for Bayi – but the family said he was held up in his bed, too weak to talk.
Then again, the stories wouldn’t all be that different. Every one of them had a Bayi, going against the tide, even as he smiled and sang and spoke with a lot of love – a lean figure in his unremarkable clothes, who was always clean-shaven until his final days when Junior saw him with a grey beard and unkempt hair for the first and last time.
A square was raised in Kochi in his memory many years ago, but it was pulled down later when the land was taken up for an apartment building. Still, as Unny writes in his book Santa and the Scribes, "across the lading named after Albuquerque in Calvetty, in a little chamber on top of a row of shops, his voice still resonates many years after his death".