Krishnakumar Kunnath, known to a generation of Indian film viewers as KK, died in Kolkata last night, after suffering a cardiac arrest following a live performance. He was 53.
KK started as a playback artist in 1996, quickly establishing himself as the male singer to tap for soaring melodies. His clear voice stood out in an industry where the most popular singers usually have some kind of vocal affectation. He sang on dozens of hits over the years—Aankhon Mein Teri, Bardaasht Nahi Kar Sakta and Dus Bahane, to name a few—and also gave Indipop two of its enduring classics: Yaaron and Pal. KK will be intensely missed, not only for the quality of his work but its warmth and familiarity. Whenever KK was on, it was like a friend was singing. Here are 10 songs to remember him by.
Just the song title, repeated once, at the start. But KK stretches the line until it extends across some imaginary valley. Hariharan, Suresh Wadkar and Vinod Sehgal handle the rest of the Maachis song, but KK turns up with a memorable high echo of “woh galiyan” in the final chorus. Hardly anyone had heard him before this; Maachis was his Hindi debut, a few months after his Tamil debut in Kadhal Desam. Everyone who heard it knew he’d be sticking around.
The track that made his reputation. Tadap Tadap, from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, could easily have become a self-pitying incel anthem. Instead, KK’s lightness of tone even in his heaviest moments allows it to burn clean. After the bluster of the chorus, the way he descends, defeated, on “lut gaye hum teri mohabbat mein” is heartbreaking.
KK’s superpower was the way he could go loud without visible strain, without sacrificing that beautiful clear tone. It’s evident in all his great songs, never more so than this track from Bachna Ae Haseeno. KK and Shilpa Rao trade restrained verses and suddenly he’s in the sky, singing “Khuda jaane ke main fida hoon/khuda jaane main mitt gaya…”
A majority of KK’s hits showcase his searing higher register. The up-tempo, Goan-flavoured Banda Bindas Hai from Aks is a rare track that uses his lower register to great effect. His reading of “Ras pine ki pyas hai/banda yeh bindas hai” is playful and perfect, KK gleefully exaggerating the alliteration in both lines.
There are farewell songs, and then there’s Yaaron. Off his first solo album, this warm number, with KK singing over a simple guitar riff, is perfect for singalongs. I should know: it was the go-to song when I left school, college, post-grad…
This playful AR Rahman track with nonsense lyrics by Javed Akhtar needed a light-as-air vocal. Rahman, always a great matcher of singer and song, called upon KK. He combines easily with Kavita Paudwal, handling this Hollywood musical-like curiosity with an easy humour.
From Life in a Metro, a stormy power ballad tailormade for KK. The first 80 seconds are deceptively calm, but after KK launches into the chorus, he’s raging. There are no verses after that, only agitated bridges that carry him back to the anguished interrogations of the chorus: Alvida alvida/ab kehna aur kya/jab tune keh diya alvida.
KK had a way with acoustic ballads, and this from My Brother Nikhil was one of his best. The shift from moodiness in the verses to hope in the chorus would not have been the same with any other singer.
In the first season of Coke Studio India, there was a fortuitous pairing with the Sabri brothers on this ominous qawaali by Aziz Nazan. The first four minutes of this nine-minute track are exquisite slow burn, after which it explodes, KK cutting completely loose at the end.
From Love Aaj Kal 2.0, a late-career gem—unsurprisingly, a Pritam collaboration. KK’s voice soars as easily as it did a quarter of a century earlier. And the wordless coos he adds at the end of the chorus are pure KK: featherweight, perfectly pitched, intuitively emotional.