“It’s the most extraordinary thing, friendship… That anyone can reach anyone else is a miracle. To stretch out across the vast space and be at one with someone else.”
These lines, from Australian author Patti Miller’s new, deeply evocative memoir, True Friends, came back to me on two recent occasions. The first was when I watched someone I hold dear go through the debilitating grief caused by the end of a friendship – a grief that, in crucial ways, is more radical than the pain of losing a romantic partner.
The second was when Krishnakumar Kunnath – better known as KK – passed away hours after a live performance in Kolkata on the night of 31 May. His untimely demise sent waves of shock through his fandom, the music fraternity and social media. The resultant outpouring of grief was expected: in a world where newer ways of expressing individual and collective emotion are constantly being negotiated, more people are taking to online spaces to mourn the passing of their icons. KK’s music was decidedly mainstream, and, like several other Indipop artists who watched the parallel industry get snuffed out by Bollywood, he moved on to playback singing. But for many growing up in India in the 1990s/early 2000s, KK’s songs – especially Pyaar Ke Pal – played a significant part in shaping their understanding of love.
For me, though, it was his song Yaaron that made all the difference. This is not because it is a work of great musical or lyrical accomplishment, or that it does a particularly good job of highlighting the singer’s range and versatility. There are other songs that meet those parameters. Yaaron could be called yet another melodic 90s ballad, but it also accomplished something else. It foregrounded friendship in a manner that transcended mere nostalgia – an aspect of songwriting that eludes mainstream Hindi music even today.
Some would point out that Ali Haider, in his 1993 pop anthem Purani Jeans, spoke about friendship six years before KK did. And yet, KK did something rather courageous with Yaaron. He sang about friendship in the only way it deserves to be, but rarely is, portrayed in popular South Asian music – as a human bond on a par with, if not more important than, romantic relationships.
This vital understanding of friendship naturally eluded me at a time when we were busy singing “Yaaron dosti badi hi haseen hai / Yeh na ho toh kya phir bolo yeh zindagi hai?” at teary school and college farewells. And why shouldn’t it? The media and popular culture we grew up consuming focused overwhelmingly on romantic (heterosexual) love or marriage as an ideal – the primary relationship in one’s life to which all other relationships must come second. And while this hierarchy might seem natural – to many, it is even an informed choice – it works to the disadvantage of those who do not subscribe to it. People who prioritise their friendships as the centre of their relational lives face, at best, societal pity and bewilderment, and, at worst, judgment and severe discrimination.
Why should this be? This question begs answering for several reasons, not least because of the singularity of the nature of friendship. It is the only human connection not bound by law, blood or State sanction; it is thus entirely voluntary and remarkably expansive. It creates a space for building a love that could be considered the least transactional of all forms of human interaction. It quietly meets several crucial human needs, the onus of which is almost entirely, and unfairly, placed by society on romantic partners. It is where we go when love – romantic or familial – wounds us repeatedly and irreparably. This is one of the many reasons why the profound heartbreak caused by the loss of a friendship is so incapacitating: it signals the end of the ultimate safe space. (“Koi toh, ho raazdaar / Begaraz tera ho yaar.”)
And yet, this heartbreak rarely finds expression in songwriting, television or other pop cultural pursuits in India. As Miller says in her book, “I’ve been wondering why, compared to romantic love, the love of friends is not much written about.” Friendship is merely celebrated, not explored. It is not extended the incredible nuance with which the complexities of love, marriage and separation are tackled. We have little to no language for it: a vacuum that KK, perhaps unwittingly, took a step towards filling when he sang, “Gham ki ho dhoop toh saaya baney tera woh dost / Naache bhi woh teri khushi mein.”
The words are simplistic, the step small. But, as early twentieth century writer Hilaire Belloc once wrote, “From quiet homes and first beginning / Out to the undiscovered ends / There’s nothing worth the wear of winning / But laughter and the love of friends.” There is a debt of gratitude to be paid to KK – not just for era-defining memories but also for the inadvertent help in balancing a few cultural scales.
Nayantara Mazumder is a Kolkata-based journalist and communications consultant
Also Read: 10 songs to remember KK by
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed KK as having written Yaaron. He only sang the song which was composed by Leslie Lewis, with lyrics by Mehboob.