Madan Mohan Kohli was born in Baghdad, Iraq to Rai Bahadur Chunilal Kohli, an accountant General with the Iraqi Police. His father returned to his hometown, Chakwal in Punjab when Madan Mohan was five years old. Even as a child, his talent was noticeable and he became famous in Chakwal for his singing.
In search of better prospects, his father first moved to Lahore and then in 1933 to Mumbai, where he started Bombay Talkies with Himanshu Rai. On his father’s insistence, Madan joined the army in 1943 but resigned in 1945 to join All India Radio (AIR), Lucknow as a program assistant. His AIR job made up for his lack of formal training in music as he made acquaintances with and learned from the musical greats of that time, like Ali Akbar Khan and Begum Akhtar. He eventually resigned in 1947 and moved to Mumbai, when AIR transferred him to Delhi for a desk job.
Although his father was an influential person in the film business, Madan Mohan sought to strike out on his own due to his independent streak and also because of differences between them. As a result he struggled for two years, before he landed his first film as a music director - “Aankhen” (1950). His futile attempts at pursuing a career in acting perhaps took focus away from music. It was his work as assistant to S.D. Burman in “Do Bhai” (1947) and the encouragement he received from the maestro that brought his focus back to music.
Madan Mohan made some stellar music through the early 1950s and while his work was appreciated, he had to wait till 1956 for his first hit "Ae Dil Mujhe Bata De" ("Bhai Bhai"). The Hindi film music scene was extremely competitive during this time given the presence of giants like Naushad, C. Ramchandra, O.P. Nayyar, Shankar - Jaikishan, et al. but Madan Mohan established himself by creating his own brand of music - the filmi ghazal. Lata Mangeshkar called him the King of Ghazals for his compositions for her in "Adalat" (1958) - "Yun Hasraton Ke Daagh" among them.
Through the 1960s, the Lata - Madan partnership flourished and produced a number of gems like "Woh Bhooli Dastan" ("Sanjog", 1961); "Hai Isi Mein Pyar Ki Aabroo" and "Aapki Nazron Ne Samjha" ("Anpadh", 1962); "Naina Barse" and "Jo Hamne Dastan Apni Sunayi" ("Woh Kaun Thi", 1964); "Tu Jahan Jahan Chalega" ("Mera Saya", 1967); "Teri Ankhon Ke Siva Duniya Mein Rakha Kya Hai" ("Chirag", 1969). His exemplary work through the 60s was finally rewarded when he won the National Award for his music for "Dastak" (1970).
By this time, Madan Mohan was getting disillusioned by the film industry and took to alcohol. Offers dried up and he became increasingly bitter. His swan song came in the form of "Dil Dhoondhta Hai" ("Mausam", 1975) which remains a much-loved song to this day. Madan did not live to see the success of "Mausam" as he passed away due to liver cirrohsis before the film’s release. Since his death, his legend has grown and his popularity has increased. He left behind a number of unused musical scores which were used in several films in the 1970s.
His family, led by his eldest son Sanjeev Kohli, have nurtured Madan Mohan’s memory. With Sanjeev’s help and through the voice of his friend Lata Mangeshkar, Madan Mohan made a comeback with the award-winning score for "Veer Zaara" (2004) - 29 years after his death.