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Music of the soul

Kailash Kher was very amused by the ways of the Hindi film industry

Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

MUSIC REFLECTS The singer's personality, believes Kailash Kher

When someone's voice sounds like it could be rising from the pit of their stomach or the depth of their soul, it strikes a chord in your heart, creates a earworm in your head. That's how Kailash Kher I think got heard — first by the average listener and then by the Hindi film industry — distinguishing himself from a hundred voices that are raised in cacophony every day.

A person's music, I suppose, also depends on how a singer looks upon himself. And this is where Kailash Kher comes across as jarring contrast against what we think film singers are. His music and his voice has 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,” says Kailash, who 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's 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… that's how the connect happens. Music makes me cry, laugh, it makes me numb 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 entangled as it is with his Meerut upbringing).

In Bangalore recently for the Fever Unplugged Series of concerts, Kailash also spent much time explaining to scribes what Sufi meant when asked what inspired him to sing Sufi music: “The word Sufi is originally from Turkey. What we sing here is ‘nirgun sangeet' — Kabir, Raidas, Baba Farid, Khusrau and how they flew with their music. These are highly romantic songs, laden with imagination, written in the love of God. It's just that some people can market their words well, so Sufi became a famous word.” He cites as an example of this genre his uber-famous “Teri Deewani”.

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 practise God in any form. He taught me that you need to be aware of yourself; I learnt that the body is given to us on rent by God and we have to be responsible for it. 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,” Kailash says breathlessly of his beginnings.

It's now legend how he left home barely in his teens travelling to different cities and counties, seeking music teachers, dabbling in business, sleeping in Mumbai's Andheri station…

Talking to another reporter of his days of struggle, he candidly admits, “I spent more time wanting to learn music rather than learning it…I was so depressed that I felt I should kill myself.”

His world was so far removed from films that when he landed in Mumbai, he didn't know the city was the Mecca of films, claims Kailash. “I was innocently working on private albums when the hub of Mumbai was really films… I was offered ad-jingles; I didn't know what jingles were! I laughed the first time I heard you 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, highly 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 music directors he's worked with, be it A.R. Rahman, Hamsalekha, Ilaiyaraja or Vidyasagar. He's been singing at the Mysore Dasara for the last two years and loves Karnataka's traditions, silks, sandalwood, Hampi, and of course, dosa and majjige!

He sums himself up while fielding questions on corruption, Baba Ramdev, going against the tide — thrown at him by journos in the city. Kailash, in his inimitable English says: “I am not a thinker, I'm a feeler.”

BHUMIKA K.

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