How the two brothers, who died earlier this week in a span of two days, became one of the most successful musical pairs in Gujarat.
Last week, a video clip, which showed an emotionally charged man holding his ailing and bedridden elder brother’s hand, and elegiacally singing, “O Sathi Re”, from the iconic
Remembering his early association with the group, Amit Divetia, veteran actor and director of Gujarati theatre, tells me: “We did many programmes together from 1961-1963. I was based in Ahmedabad too. Impresario Abhay Shah used to organise a variety of programmes in small centres of Gujarat. I would act in short plays, Mahesh would sing songs with a few musicians, and Naresh would dance to the playback of actor Mahmood’s songs. The troupe would travel together in a station wagon. They were very humble till the end.” Divetia remembers one incident in 1965, when Mahesh Kumar and Party were going to Africa by a steamer from Mumbai. “This was the first time an Indian musical party was going abroad to perform. I had a show of our Gujarati play in Mumbai, but that day my flight was delayed, and I was almost an hour late. By sheer coincidence, Mahesh was at the theatre to meet the producer Abhay Shah. He immediately requested him to sing for about 40 minutes, or else the show would have to be cancelled. He happily obliged. A tabla player and harmonium were arranged, and the show was saved.”
After the successful Africa tour, they began to perform regularly in Mumbai. The shows were a roaring success. Nareshbhai, apart from being a gifted dancer, was also an excellent mimic, and would even call himself ‘Johnny Junior’ after Johnny Walker. I remember watching a show of Mahesh Kumar and Party and being mesmerised by their performances. In the late 1960s, the brothers shifted to Mumbai from Ahmedabad, and bought a flat in the posh Pedder Road area. Both families used to live together, and, as their families began to expand, they then shifted to a bigger home in Andheri West. By now, their days of poverty were far behind them.
Popat Lal Shah, the longtime manager of Maheshbhai, fondly remembers how the music director had one unusual ritual. “After every show, he would keep a bundle of notes in his pocket, while returning home. When the car would stop at a signal, he would distribute the cash to the beggars,” he says. “Whenever we went to Ahmedabad for a show, a crowd of at least a hundred people would gather at the hotel to meet him. Most of these people would belong from his community. Maheshbhai would always patiently listen to their problems and help them financially out. As a rule, he would also never take the profits of a tour in Gujarat back to Mumbai.”
It is said that Mahesh Kumar and Party performed over 15,000 shows and apparently not once in their entire career was a show that was announced ever canceled. Nareshbhai, much like his brother, was also a gem of a person. And was greatly attached to his elder brother.
As their fame grew, the Gujarati film industry began to take notice. When Mafatlal Shah, producer, along with Madhukant Patel, Gujarati films director, attended one of their shows, they offered them work. The film was Veli Ne Avya Phul (1970). This was the beginning of their next successful phase in life. As music directors, they did more than a hundred films, and won countless awards. Naresh’s popularity began to grow by leaps and bounds. He was the first dancing star, and began to be labelled as the ‘Amitabh Bachhan of Gujarati films’. When the brother produced a Hindi film, Chhota Aadmi, in 1986, starring Naresh as the hero, they composed a song, which went: ‘Chhota sa aadmi hoon. Amitabh nahin hoon’, which was sung by Kishore Kumar.
The brothers then made their foray into politics. In 1991, Mahesh was offered a ticket by the BJP to contest for the Lok Sabha seat from Patan, which he won comfortably, and won four times. Naresh, too, was offered to contest an Assembly seat from Karjan constituency, in 2002, which he won. Before joining politics, they shifted back to Gujarat. Naresh’s son Hitu Kanodia, also a major star in Gujarati films, was elected as an MLA from Idar, Banaskantha in 2017. In 2012, Naresh was awarded with the
Gujarati drama and film producer and publicist Niranjan Mehta says that the most redeeming quality of the two brothers was that they were extremely down to earth: “Along with
Their humility aside, they were close as a fist. Their families, too, all stayed under one roof. They were like the proverbial ‘Ram-Lakshman jodi’. In their stage programmes, an oft repeated stanza in the medley was ‘Sathe harshyu sathe farshyu sathe jivashyu sathev marshyun” (We will roam together, live together and die together). Perhaps this is why I find it no major coincidence that the two brothers have also left this stage of life together.
— The writer is an actor, singer, director and a columnist for Gujarati newspapers
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