Manohari Singh: Saxophonist who made his instrument central to Bollywood scores

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Hindi film industry, centred on Bombay, has given birth to a form of popular music that is global in its popularity, penetration and influence. The importance of song to the success of a Bollywood film cannot be overstated but, while the industry's "music directors" (composers) and playback singers are celebrities in their own right, very few of the session musicians who record the instrumentals ever become known by name.

Manohari Singh was a rare exception and recorded under his own name, including one album inevitably titled Sax Appeal. His saxophone solo in "Mehbooba Mehbooba" from Bollywood's biggest-grossing film of all time, the "curry western" Sholay (1975) is every bit as well-remembered as Raphael Ravenscroft's saxophone in Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street".

"Mehbooba Mehbooba" was composed and sung by Rahul Dev Burman and until Burman's death in 1994, Singh continued to complement the Sholay composer, feeding and realising his musical visions in the studio and in concert. Their last completed project together was the posthumous hit 1942: A Love Story (1994).

The month before Singh's death he joined Burman's widow, the playback star Asha Bhosle, on Indian Idol 5 for a Burman-themed special. Singh's contributions went further than being part of Burman's crack team of musicians and sound recordists. Asha Bhosle explained: "Manohari could play a song in a different key without rewriting the notation. He knew every music part of thousands of songs by heart. [He had a] phenomenal memory."

Historically in India, the saxophone had been largely associated with military and brass bands or western-style music, although the emergence of Kadri Gopalnath in the late 1970s made it more familiar to Indian audiences. Singh came to the saxophone as it was one of the instruments that his father played in Calcutta police bands. He also learned the western flute – often called "key flute" to distinguish it from the bansuri or bamboo flute – and mandolin.

A versatile performer, Singh played with the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra and in jazz combos before moving, at music director Salil Chowdhury's suggestion, to Bombay in 1958. His big break came with Sachin Dev Burman's music for that year's Sitaron Se Aage. Sessions for other top-notch music directors such as Shankar-Jaikishan, Madan Mohan and OP Nayyar followed. Early acclaim came with his sinuous melodic hook for the duet in "Tumhe Yaad Hoga Kabhi Hum Mile The" from Satta Bazaar (1959). Inevitably, he got to know SD Burman's son Rahul, eight years his junior, and so the seeds of a remarkable working relationship were sown.

Singh was renowned for being able to play whatever was put on his music stand and he was also adept at improvising. He remained in demand into his 70s, contributing, for example, to Chalte Chalte (2003) and Veer Zaara (2004).

Manohari Singh, musician: born Calcutta 8 March 1931; died Mumbai 13 July 2010.