In 2001, when Kailash Kher moved to Mumbai, he hadn't the faintest idea what people meant when they heard him sing and declared: "Maaan, you are too good, dude, you are the ultimate."
For small town boy Kher, Mumbai was a culture shock. The pace of life dizzied him and the kind of people he met on the music circuit baffled him. Especially the duo that went by the names of Naresh and Paresh Kamath who invited him to be part of their rock band and who are now Kher's partners.
"They wore stylish clothes, had styled hair and wore studs and rings in their ears," laughs Kher. "When they used words like ‘dude' and ‘man', I had no idea what they meant. Mujhe to samajh hi nahi aaya ki woh achcha bol rahe the ya bura (I did not know if that was praise or criticism)." <b1>
Today, Kailash Kher is well versed in the language of hipness (though he only uses it "for fun"). As he should be considering that he's one of the hottest singers in the film industry, and that he has two independent al bums to his credit, both of which have done very well.
In fact, Mumbai lingo should come naturally to Kher because his is the quintessential Mumbai story. Young man emigrates to dream city to make it big. Young man struggles. Young man succeeds. And in this case, the young man succeeded in a highly competitive industry without any formal training at all.
"My story could be the story of Eklavya and Dronacharya," says Kher. "I never had a proper teacher. Cassettes of singers like Kumar Gandharv, Omkar Nath Thakur, Mehdi Hasan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and others were my gurus." <b2>
Though Kher plays down his ‘struggle' ("It would have been the same for anyone who started the way I did"), the fact is that the industry wasn't very welcoming when he arrived in Mumbai. His voice was too ‘unusual', too ‘different' for most music directors. But what Kher calls his "stubbornness" kept him going.
It was perhaps this same "stubbornness" that had led him, as a 13-year-old, to leave his middle class Delhi home where he stayed with his parents and live by himself because he wanted to study classical music, which, he had been told, required discipline and isolation.
"Call it obstinacy, madness or foolishness, but I thought the only way to learn music was in isolation, so I left home," says Kher.
"Later, when I realised that that had been unnecessary, my zidd to prove myself didn't allow me to return."
Though based in Delhi, Kher was enrolled at a family-run school in Meerut, where, because he was good at his studies, he didn't need to attend classes, but could only take the exams. So he was able to spend his days learning music. In theory, that is. In practice, because he needed to earn his living, he had to work, mostly taking tuition and once even working as an assistant to a chartered accountant.
But that cut into his music learning time. "Because I missed classes, my
would throw me out," he says. "I kept changing
and didn't really get much formal training."
He didn't need much formal training. Kher knew his music. But it didn't occur to him that he could make a living from it. "I come from an average middle class family, and my dreams were average too," he says. So it was only when he failed to get a good enough job in Delhi that he decided to give music a shot and moved to Mumbai. <b3>
"I wrote my lyrics and made my music," says Kher. "The only thing I needed was professionals who could ‘arrange' the music for me. At that time, the market for non-film albums had opened up, so I was lucky to meet Naresh and Paresh who had a rock band and thought I had a unique voice. That's when things began to take off."
That wasn't the big break though. It was just the beginning. Ad jingles began coming in, and that led to the occasional offer to sing playback.
"I still remember my elation when I saw my name on a cassette cover as a playback singer for the first time, along side Sunidhi Chauhan's," grins Kher. "I was suddenly somebody ."
Top of the scale
Then came the song that changed his fortune and his life – Allah ke bande. He cannot resist singing the song, right here at the interview: Allah ke bande hansde, jo bhi ho kal phir aayega... <b4>
This is the song that made Kailash Kher the Kailash Kher, so it's no wonder that he believes that its lyrics somehow tell the story of his life: his love of music, his pursuit of it, his unexpected success.
"When you really don't know what is happening in your life, I suppose you have no other choice but to stay hopeful and positive that good things will happen some time," says Kher. "I had nothing to start with – no direction, no training, just an ambition and a stubborn instinct to earn enough so that my parents would feel that I had become responsible. So I struggled to make things happen… And good things happened."