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Song from the soul

Rooted in a culture of music inspired by the poetry of the saints, Kailash Kher was amused by the ways of the Hindi film industry, where he was first rejected but later celebrated



Kailash Kher

When someone's voice sounds like it is rising from the pit of the stomach or the depth of the soul, it strikes a chord in your heart. That's how Kailash Kher I think got heard — first by the average listener and then by the Hindi film industry — his voice distinct from among a hundred cacophonous voices every day.

How a singer feels about himself influences his music. This is where Kailash Kher comes across as a contrast to what we think film singers are. His music and his voice have been described as folksy, Sufi, soft rock, Indipop, earthy, soulful… But Kailash doesn't like any of these labels. In fact, he doesn't like many labels, including the term Bollywood. “My voice is universal… that's the impression I had before I came to the Hindi film industry,” he says.

Kailash struggled in the initial days in Mumbai because his wasn't the conventional voice we were used to in the 1990s. It took some time, the soul-rousing “Allah ke Bandey” in 2003, and audience acceptance, before music directors started composing songs for him, to suit his style and voice. They were the same people who first turned him down.

Music in all its rasas

“I sing only for myself…. Music makes me cry, laugh, and even numbs me sometimes through its various rasas,” he tries to explain (it's tricky to translate the chaste Urdu-Hindi he speaks, coming from his Kashmiri Pandit roots and his Meerut upbringing).

What inspired Kailash to sing Sufi music? “The word Sufi is originally from Turkey. What we sing here is ‘nirgun sangeet' — Kabir, Raidas, Baba Farid, Khusrau… These are highly romantic songs, laden with imagination, written out of the love for God. It's just that some people can market their words well, so Sufi became a famous word.” He cites his hit “Teri Deewani” as an example of this genre.

It's a world he's been deeply entrenched in. His father, an amateur singer, would discuss spiritualism with his friends in his village. “He didn't worship God in any form. He taught me that I needed to be aware of myself.We always look up to others. First, you must look up to yourself. I was four when I started singing with my father — it was Kabir, Raidas, Gorakhnath. By the time I was eight, I was part of their discussions. My father used to write too, and his poetry left a deep impact on my childhood,” says Kailash. It's now legend how he left home when he was barely in his teens travelling to different places in search of music teachers, dabbling in business, sleeping in Mumbai's Andheri station…He candidly admits, “I spent more time wanting to learn music rather than learning it…I was so depressed that I felt like killing myself.”

His world was so far removed from films that when he landed in Mumbai, he didn't know the city was the land of films, he recalls. “I was working on private albums. I was offered ad-jingles; I didn't know what jingles were! I laughed the first time I heard I had to sing in 10 to 20 seconds — ‘ Utne time mein sur shuru bhi nahin hota aur yahaan khatam bhi karna padta hai'…and they were willing to pay well for it,” he laughs, amused by the idea. He went on to sing over 500 jingles for products ranging from cars to talcum powder.

Kailash has also sung in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil films and is all praise for the music directors he's worked with, be it A.R. Rahman, Hamsalekha, Ilaiyaraja or Vidyasagar. While films form a large part of his repertoire, he hasn't lost sight of connecting with his audience — through his private albums, his band Kailasa, and through live concerts.

BHUMIKA K.

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