Usha Khanna is the second female music director in the Indian Film Industry, after Saraswati Devi
. She made a prlific and successful career in a almost exclusively male dominated profession and industry.
Born in Gwalior, her father, Manohar Khanna, was a lyricist and singer, working as Assistant Superintendent in the Water Works Department in then Gwalior State. When he came to Bombay for some work in 1946 he met Jaddanbai who was mother of Hindi film actress Nargis Dutt. On her request he started writing Gazals for Hindi films by the name, Javed Anwar. He was getting a monthly salary of Rs. 250 in Gwalior State and Jaddanabi offered him Rs. 800 for 3 gazals which he wrote for Jaddanbai's Nargis Art Productions' Romeo Juliet.
The popular music director O. P. Nayyar introduced Usha Khanna to Sashadhar Mukherjee, a powerful man in the Indian film industry at that time. She sang a song for Mukherjee, and when he realised that she had composed the song on her own, he told her to compose two songs per day for one year. After a few months, Mukherjee 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 Mukherjee hired her again for another Asha Parekh starrer Hum Hindustani. After she started composing music for Hindi movies, Usha Khanna struggled to establish herself as a music director, despite producing many hit songs. She often collaborated with Asha Bhosle, who referred to Usha Khanna as her daughter, and Mohammed Rafi. This trio produced many hit songs. Many of songs sung by Mohammed Rafi under composition of Usha Khanna are still very popular.
Saawan Kumar was often the lyricist for Usha Khanna, and wrote most of his lyrics for her songs. He directed and produced the lyrics for eleven movies she scored the music for. In 1979 K. J. Yesudas received Filmfare award for her song Dil Ke Tukde Tukde for the film Dada. Usha Khanna was married to Sawan Kumar Tak but later they separated and she lives in Bombay.
The effort she had put earlier in life to establish herself in the industry, made her realise how difficult it was to break through, and this made her often give the chance to new singers. 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 notable singers.
Usha Khanna remained quite active as a composer until the mid-nineties. 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.
Usha Khanna has 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 Madhu Pakaroo' by K. J. Yesudas and 'Maanasa Mani veenayil' by S.Janaki. Agni nilavu and Puthooram Puthri Unniyarcha are the other Malayalam movies done by her.