Born in 1942 in Gwalior, Usha Khanna is independent India’s only successful female music director. Her family had a good musical background with her father, Manohar Khanna, being a lyricist and singer and was a close associate of lyricist Indeevar. She had no formal training as such, but the musical environment of the family inspired her towards making music.
There is ambiguity about the fact as to who introduced Usha Kahanna to legendary Producer Sashadhar Mukerjee, whether it was Indeevar or music director OP Nayyar. But the meeting was destined to give Usha her first break in the Indian Film Industry as Music Director. When she sang a song for S.Mukerjee and when he realised that she had composed the song on her own, he was quite impressed and told her to compose two songs per day for one year. A few months later, he signed her as the composer for his movie Dil Deke Dekho (1959) as a music composer. The film, which also introduced the actress Asha Parekh, became a big hit, and she got a second chance to compose for him for another Asha Parekh starrer Hum Hindustani (1961). Who can forget the memorable tunes of ‘Chhodo kal ki baatein kal ki baat purani...’ from Hum Hindustani sung by Mukesh and the songs ‘Rahi mil gaye rahon mein...’ and ‘Yaar chulbula hai haseen dilruba hai...’ from Dil Deke Dekho. With two hit films under her belt, Usha Khanna consolidated her position further by giving hits consistently in films like Shabnam, Ek Sapera Ek Lootera, Fareb, Munimji etc. which had hits numbers such as ‘Maine rakha hai mohabbat apne afsane ka naam...’(sung by Rafi in Shabnam) and ‘Hum tumse judaa hoke mar jaayenge ro roke...’(Ek Sapera Ek Lootera) to ‘Ae zindagi ke saathi jaana na zindagi se...’(Fareb) and ‘Paani mein jale paani mein jale...’(Munimji). All her numbers for Rajshri’s film Honeymoon were huge hits. She made a history by surviving for almost four decades in an almost exclusively male dominated profession and industry. She often collaborated with Asha Bhosle, who referred to Usha Khanna as her daughter, and Mohammed Rafi. This trio produced many hit songs.
Usha’s career started off in 1960 impressively and continued successfully through the 70s and beyond the 80s, a feat remarkable by any standards. Among the composer’s hits are the Rafi-sung dulcet tunes like ‘Maine rakha hai mohabbat apne afsane ka naam...’ and ‘Ye teri saadgi ye tera baankepan...’, both from Shabnam, ‘Haye tabassum tera...’ from Nishan, Manna Dey-sung ‘Apne liye jiye to kya jiye...’ from Baadal, Suman Kalyanpur gems like ‘Ae zindagi ke saathi jaana na zindagi se...’ from Fareb, and ‘Woh jidhar dekh rahe hain sab udhar dekh rahe hain...’ from Sabak. Khanna worked for a Rajshri film titled Honeymoon and the outcome was a feast of songs like the soft ‘Din hai ye bahar ke...o saathi o saathi...’ by Mohd. Rafi, the lively ‘Jeevan hai ek sapna madhur suhana sapna...’ and ‘Mere pyaase man ki bahar...’ by Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle. ‘Teri galiyon mein na rakhenge kadam...’ from Hawas proved to be a very big hit, thereby justifying Khanna’s quality of work. The Khanna-Mukesh combination too clicked in a big way and their songs were something of a rare treat for the ears. Some of their hits, besides the two songs from Hum Hindustani mentioned earlier are ‘Chaand ko kya maaloom chahta hai ise koi chakor...’ from the film Lal Bangla. Towards the later part of the 70s came Saawan Kumar’s Saajan Bina Suhagan, where Usha Khanna gave him that Yesudas melody ‘Madhuban khushboo deta hai...’ and ‘Dil ke tukde, tukde karke muskurake chal diye...’ from the film Dada, which fetched him an award. During the 80s, when one could not get to hear much of melodious music, came a film Aap To Aise Na The which had that ghazal‘ised’ melody ‘Tu is tarah se meri zindagi mein shaamil hai...’ The lyrics by Nida Fazli were tuned well by Khanna and the vocals of the great Mohd Rafi. added the punch. Apart from the Rafi version, there are two others sung by Hemlata and Manhar respectively. Around the same time, there was another film Bin Phere Hum Tere which had Khanna excelling through the Kishore Kumar song ‘Saji nahin baraat to kya, Aayi na milan ki raat to kya... Bin phere hum tere...’ Followed Sweekar Kiya Maine, the film with that famous song ‘Ajnabee kaun ho tum jabse tumhe dekha hai...’ proving that Lata Mangeshkar’s magic still worked. The same film had that charming Lata-Kishore duet ‘Chaand ke paas jo sitara hai woh sitara haseen lagta hai...’ Any information on Usha Khanna would be incomplete without the mention of Saawan Kumar blockbuster Souten, with all the songs proving to be chartbusters. ‘Shaayad meri shaadi ka khayal dil mein aaya hai...’ became a craze, and another song from the film encapsulates Khanna’s career and her motto, and that is ‘Zindagi pyaar ka geet hai, Ise har dil ko gaana padega...’ Usha Khanna was quite active as a composer until the mid-ninetees. Until now the last movie she has given music to was in 2003. The movie was Dil Pardesi Ho Gaya, produced and directed by her ex-husband Saawan Kumar who she was briefly married to.
Regarded as the only established female music director in the Indian film industry, she remained active for more than 3 decades from 1960s to 1980s. She is still active making some music for some movies and television-serials, more than 40 years after her debut as music director in Dil Deke Dekho (1959). The composer was last known for her brilliant work in Saawan Kumar’s Souten. Inspite of forming an extremely successful professional team with producer-director Saawan Kumar, her marriage to him was a disaster, but thankfully to her fans that even after their break-up, they continued to work together. Usha did the background score of Saawan Kumar’s ‘Sajan Bina Suhagan’. She gave quite a few hits and her last released film as music director was for Saawan Kumar Tak’s Dil Pardesi Ho Gaya. She gave the chance to the singers who were little known at that time – Anupama Deshpande, Pankaj Udhas, Hemlata, Mohammed Aziz, Roop Kumar Rathod, Shabbir Kumar, and Sonu Nigam. Many of these went on to become notbale singers. Usha Khanna herself has also sung a few song as playback singer. A. R. Rahman, used her Har Nazar Ke Sau Afsane from Shabnam (1964), as inspiration for the song Latka Dikha Diya in the movie Hindustani (1996). Usha Khanna had given music to non-hindi movies too. The Malayalam movie 'Moodal Manju' (1969) is still remembered for some of the finest songs in Malayalam including 'Nee Madu Pakaroo' by K. J. Yesudas and 'Manasa Mani veenayil' by S.Janaki.