What was your teenage love anthem?
If, like me, you were an Indian coming of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s, chances are that the song you were infatuated with in high school – that one song that helped you cope with everything – was sung by a man called KK.
Last week, he died unexpectedly at the age of 53. And days after his death, it’s still hard to accept that we’ll never have a new KK song anymore.
KK, whose real name was Krishnakumar Kunnath, was one of India’s greatest playback singers. He wasn’t as famous as the heroes who lip-synced his songs on screen – you’ve probably hummed his songs without even realising who sang them – but his ability to capture the deepest, happiest, and most vulnerable moments through his music made him the voice of a generation.
Since his death, many fans have said they are mourning the loss of not just a talented singer, but also “an unexpected friend” whose voice was an emotional link to their past.
“KK was like a personal confidant who made us feel like someone understood us. And his songs codified the language of love and friendship in music like never before,” a friend told me.
Born in Delhi in 1968, KK began his three-decade-long musical career singing advertising jingles. He then went on to sing in several Indian languages including Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. But it was his work in the Hindi film industry that made him a singer with an enviable track record.
His rise coincided with the entry of music channels such as MTV and Channel V in the 1990s – this was when Indian pop music, also called Indi-pop, was exploding in popularity and introducing energetic new voices to young listeners who were happy to discover a world beyond film songs.
What made KK stand out was the freshness and vitality of his songs. So while Bollywood was churning out one romantic ballad after another, KK’s early hits such as Pyaar ke Pal, Yaaron Dosti, and Chod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyan – which continue to be among his most popular songs – spoke of friendship, the fickleness of life and that bittersweet thing called nostalgia.
“Whether we’re there or not tomorrow, we’ll remember these moments, these are moments of love. So come with me. Don’t think a lot as life’s short. We’ll be very lucky if we unite tomorrow. And even if we don’t, we’ll still remember these moments,” he crooned in Pyaar Ke Pal, his smooth and flexible voice climbing the highest notes effortlessly.
The song became an anthem, hummed at hundreds of parties and performed at college festivals. In some ways, it represented the vast gap between generations, and of the new millennial way of life that thrived on friendships. His superhit Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe (which he sang with the energetic Shaan and Shankar Mahadevan) from Dil Chahta Hai further solidified this image.
That movie, which released in 2001, is widely seen as a turning point for Bollywood, setting the stage for relatable stories of young Indians who wanted something very different from what their parents had achieved. And KK’s voice was perfect to express that yearning.
The ability to capture the angst and dissonance of young adulthood made KK relatable to millions of Indians, many of whom may have preferred Western music until then.
That’s not to say that KK didn’t sing romantic songs – he was the voice behind some of Bollywood’s most popular love songs. But KK had a unique energetic hook which found its influences in blues and rock, complete with a revving electric guitar and juicy bass lines. He did some of his best work of this kind with music composers Pritam and Vishal-Shekhar.
KK’s music also introduced a new vocabulary of unapologetic messiness to his listeners.
He taught us to cry without shame and told us that it was okay to be broken. And his music, fans say, provided a respite, a way to feel less alone. In song after song, he would talk about making peace with heartbreak: “I loved her though she could not be mine. But there’s something that lingers on, even after so long.”
“KK’s voice has helped us all cope. He made us feel like every song was written expressly for you and you alone,” another friend told me.
Bollywood music is a maddeningly vast genre spanning every style and format. And KK traversed them all.
The singer had an incredible range. He could sound brooding and agonised one minute, and then moony, even brimming with hope, the next: “Kyun aaj kal neend kam khwab zyada hai, lagta khuda ka koi nek irada hai… patthar ke is rastey par phoolon ki ek chadar hai (I wonder why these days I am sleeping less but dreaming more, looks like God has a divine plan for me… On this rocky road, there’s a blanket of flowers laid out for me).”
And sometimes, his voice had an aggression that captured the furies of heartbreak and unrequited love. This was perhaps clearest in the soaring Tadap Tadap Ke from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and some songs from the film Jannat: “Tere he liye tujhsey hun fanah, jannatein kahan bin huye fanah (It’s for your good that I am not by your side, after all, there’s no heaven without death).”
His voice not only gave us company at three in the morning when we were crying over a break-up, it also accompanied us during joyful drives through the city as the wind roared past us.
KK was also a bit of a maverick. He never trained in classical music – a prerequisite for most Indians looking to build a career in music – because he felt “it was not something that he was cut out for”. And he was an unlikely rockstar – he came across as quiet and shy during interviews but underwent a magical transformation on stage.
Seeing KK perform, fans say, was like experiencing a moment of exquisite vulnerability with the singer in which he opened up entirely to his audiences.
“He was expressing feelings rather than telling stories,” one fan, who saw him live while in college, says. “Something about the clarity of his emotions made him so relatable – like ‘he gets it, he gets what I feel’.”
And just like that, KK’s music imprinted on millions of us – the melodic contours of his voice captured a multitude of feelings: the flutter of new romance, the inexplicable giddiness of holding hands the very first time, the insurmountable weight of grief, and finally, the relief that comes with acceptance.
Whatever the feeling was – happy or sad, wistful or discouraged, subdued or passionate – KK was the answer. One could never get enough of his voice or hear the same old songs too often.