Presenting Kanwar Grewal. It’s time to. A voice stuns you out of your blur under a sharp sun as your car grazes a national highway. Just like the road snakes out of the city chaos with trees bending over — celebrating journeys — a voice uncoils out of a CD & begins a snake dance, bending low, to raise its hood in naked fearlessness. It rides untamed winds, singing to the skies.
(A mystical new song is rising in Punjab. The voice belongs to a man ropewalking between
the ‘divine’ and the ‘material’. We present the sweet conflict. Sanjeev Sharma/HT)
It presses lustily into cotton-balls and silks, before setting on fire, the hearts of the Passionate. Like some Sufi that side of the Wagah, its choral embroidery barely allows you a whisper: Who the hell is this?!
Presenting Kanwar Grewal. The voice of the album, Akhaan. The voice the worlds of bhajan sandhyas and Punjabi aficionados know, love and have begun to obsess about. It’s finding its way, out of the womb of something beautiful. You can see its upward arrow. You can see: it’s Coming Soon.
But, its owner is a troubled man. Under a carelessly wrapped turban, his eyes burn coals. “I’m stepping into fire. A seat of sin. I can feel the fangs of fame,” murmurs he, sitting on the floor of a Khanna.
He’s not been easy to trace. The phone’s always unreachable. He’d like to be too. But something’s tugging at a corner of him. The lure of audience. Fame’s first honey drops. He’s smacking his lips. He likes the taste. And he hates this. He could’ve pointed a gun at himself as he says: “I am no faqir. Had I been one, I would’ve been in my kutiya, singing to my guru, my bebe. As I have, since 2010.”
Hungry for the rewind, we steal him from the studio, into the arms of the wheat fields nearby. So thin, so thin… almost driven by the rural wind, he, a blazing vermillion from head to heel, walks like a king who knows just where to bow. As we match steps, slipping into his sway, he begins.
No, he didn’t choose music...
In Mehma Shahwala village in Bathinda, a farmer’s son would dance to Chamkilas and Kuldip Manaks in empty afternoons. The father found hope. After all, he fancied a son who’d sing. The five-year-old laid out the deal: Buy me a Ranger bicycle; I shall learn to sing. The father promptly returned with the bait and the ‘baaja’ – the eternal harmonium. And Kanwar Grewal pedalled away into the world of the seven notes.
Time travelled, teachers taught…
From Gurjant S Kalyan harnessing his chords to Ravi Sharma delivering him into mellowness to Aruna Randev fine-tuning him in Kotkapura – he came to Vijay Kumar in Bathinda who “plucked all my commas and questions in just four months and died. I inherited his golden lesson. That music isn’t in the throat. The harkats, garaaris, taans, alaaps – all are born here,” he points at his head.
“Think it and you sing it.” Armed thus, he knew he was done with learning. But a singer friend — Deep Dhillon — packed him off to Punjabi University, Patiala. “I took a PRTC bus and landed there. In my kurta pyjama and chappals — I had girls laughing at me, teachers too. But a song later, I was in.”
University didn’t exactly expand his learning. Soon, he turned composer for theatre. But another dance had begun. He insists we quote him: “Those three years sank in drunken stupor. Alcohol turned my lord. But music he never cast away. I drank and sang and drank and sang and drank…” Yes, his darkest dungeons.
But why such misery — we scratch the soreness. He pierces through: “We’re all seeking. We’re in pain. Why? Because we’re separated from our source, the divine. Ahhh…,” he sighs into
the blushing dusk, “we’re so miserable”.
But when decay nails us, the divine arrives. A friend took him to Mira Bai, a faqir in Malerkotla.
He never returned.
Aisi mastaan di yaari ni, bhul jaayugi duniyadaari n… na jaayin mastaan de vehde, mast bana denge Biba… From a hostel room to a mud-swept kutiya — the shift wasn’t just physical. “A master’s energy bathes you inside out. I gave up friends, family to live in seva. She’d hand me sufi qalaams and I’d sit at her feet, composing, singing. Sometimes, she’d wear her ghungroos and dance away”. Then, on September 28, 2012, “Bebe asked me to sing for a Sai Sandhya - I’m loosening the reins, be careful, she warned.”
But it’s not easy…
Today, recording his second album with Speed Records, he stands unsure. “My mind’s playing games. I know this is a futile journey. I’ve sampled the nectar we’re born chasing. Singing is my meditation. But I’m biting into baits,” says he, very sour. “My booking amount is Rs 1.50 lakh. Believe that?!?”
But when spiritual is all he’d sing, isn’t that seva? “Fake justification,” he cuts in, “how many can a song transform? Tears flow, hands unite in prayer, but a few hours away, we’re back into the illusion”.
But with Bebeji watching over, what risk can he run! “Popularity demands sacrifice. When I get off the stage, a serpent rises. Praise. It’s poison. If you let it seep into your pores, you’re dead. Then, what if women catch my fancy? And bureaucrats buy me? I’d lose myself.” He recalls how a recent show in a temple turned out to be actually a leader’s rally. The money was already in. And he turned puppet. “I can easily play out a tamaasha when people touch my feet. But between Him and I, no sin is unseen”. As he walks away from the fields, into the studio, he says: “There’s no time to waste. I’m on fire. This is THE moment. Our only chance to unite with Him.”
We nod. We listen to his song too. And leave him there, a mass of conflict. As the screen graphs out his vocal chords, we hear the hidden soundtrack. Nevertheless, we present Kanwar Grewal.
(Contributed by Balpreet Kaur)