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URBAN balladeer

Time to catch up with singer Rabbi Shergill.



Rabbi Shergill: `I am a multi-layered person like many of us are.'

RABBI SHERGILL, one hears, wears a "calm, gentle demeanour over his trademark kurta-pyjama". At least that's how Minty Tejpal, the younger brother of Tarun Tejpal who "discovered" the singing Sardar, describes him in his long article in Tehelka. I wouldn't really know about that, having never met him, though the music video of the poet-singer's chartbuster "Bulla ki jaana main kaun... " gives a tantalising glimpse of this demeanour.

But what one does know now is that Rabbi has an alluring "morning voice" too, a piece of information not many can stake a claim to!

Picking up the phone, he was still groggy. Did it wake you up? "No, that's just my morning voice," he laughed, and chatted on.

Excerpts:

How do you make such an incongruity — an Indipop star singing the soulful song of the 18th Century Sufi saint Baba Bulle Shah, with a guitar in hand, wearing a kurta-pyjama, with no long-legged belles in the video... — work so wonderfully for you? Is this incongruity itself your USP?

I guess that's the reality of urban India right now. I am, for instance, connected as much to the musical forms of the West such as rock as I am to my own language and ethos. Me and my music are a clear reflection of the present.

The fact that Sufiana music has caught up so well with globalised urban youth is another seeming incongruity that works, don't you think?

It is incongruous at one level. But having said that I would also say that there is still a distinct spiritual core to India. We have an instinct to connect to it and appreciate it. Sufi music now, perhaps, fills the space that organised religion at one time did. Interestingly, even when he wrote it, Bulle Shah was rebelling against organised religion. When I sing it today it's a Sardar singing a Muslim saint's composition that says `I don't know who I am... ' Yet it doesn't jar, it's inclusive. That, for me, is the idea of India. We are one culture where intellectual energies are channelised within to discover the inner spiritual self. In these divisive times, this need to seek within could be one binding factor.

With the popularity of the song, you have come to be labelled a Sufi singer. Does that tag please you?

That's a double-edged sword. I am not a Sufi singer. I am a multi-layered urban person like many of us are. Bulla, perhaps, appealed to the rebellious-existentialist-spiritual side of me at this point. There are different facets to me and I will do whatever I can to express all of them.

But why this disdain for Bollywood? You have rejected many offers including those by Pooja Bhat and Shashank Ghosh.

I am not really ready to give up my identity and get lost in Bollywood. Not that it happens all the time, but I am not ready for Bollywood yet. But I should also say that the film industry itself is changing, churning. I watched Black and loved it. Who knows, seven years down the line, it may all be different. But right now, I can't see myself fitting into family sagas!

Now that you have made it big, the stories of your initial struggles with music companies, of how you were spotted and nurtured by Minty Tejpal, of how Amitabh Bachchan and V.S. Naipaul loved your music have all become the stuff of folklore! How do you look back at it all?

I have met Amitabh twice. When I met him the second time, he said: `Remember what I told five years ago?' That someone so big likes your music is, surely, a validation of your effort. He is a superb actor and I admire him. But to me it means a lot at a human level: an intelligent man of an earlier generation liking it. Somewhat like my mom liking it. It's what's behind the persona that's important.

Your mom is a Punjabi poet and your father was a preacher of Gurbani. How does this affect your lyrics and your music?

I can't run away from my own self. I am the sum total of my experiences and memories. It is from this identity that I write my songs and sing my songs.

Figuratively speaking, having made it big, is it time for you to move beyond the spirit of your Bulle Shah song which says `I know not who I am'. Where from here?

The more I learn, the less I know. Does anyone ever find what one is looking for? To question is to be human, isn't it? When I do know what I am, I guess I will just stop singing!

BAGESHREE S.

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