'Instant success does not last long'
Born 66 years ago in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, he has been a Cumballa Hillaikar for over three decades and more. His most-cherished film songs include Hothon se chhu lo tum (Prem Geet), Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho (Arth) and Hoshwalon ko khabar kya (Sarfarosh).
At 9 am, I meet him at a verandah outside the Gallops Restaurant at the Mahalakshmi race course and ask:
Have you been coming here for long?
I've been a regular at the race course for the last eight years.. at 9 am for a walk and my daily exercise. It has kept me fit over the years. You can't ask for a better beginning for the day. I stay fresh all day.
Where have you been after the songs you playbacked for the film Babul?
Babul isn't even worth mentioning please. I don't give any importance to it. I've released an album with Gulzar on Kabir's poetry recently. I'm planning a Gurbani album, a few ghazal and bhakti geet albums and I've sung three songs for Kahani Gudiya Ki.
Why have you cut down on film songs?
That was never my core area of work. And I don't sing as much for films today because no one calls me to. If someone does, I screen the song for its lyrics and tune. If I like them, I do them. I haven't cut down on work at all.
In retrospect, were things difficult for you at the outset?
Indeed, they were. It took me 10 years to cut my first album. It took me another decade to prove my worth and establish my style amidst the topmost singers then. Today, the scenario has changed so much.. superstars and supersingers are made overnight.
But it has to be seen how long they will survive. Singers are media created, instant success cannot last long. I have nothing against anyone's success though.
Whom did you regard as strong competition among your contemporaries?
I began when Mehndi Hasan was at the peak of his career. Ghulam Ali was doing very well. In film music, there were Talat Mehmood, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar. I've faced competition.. the need to survive was always there.
You've been making appearances on the the Bombay social circuit only of late..what's your take on the city's party scene?
(Laughs) Oh, I guess my Padma Bhushan did that for me. No, I'm serious. Earlier, I wasn't considered big enough to be invited to parties.
After the national honour, I've suddenly become important. I'm in the media glare. I was even chief guest at Lata Mangeshkar's album release.
The party scene in Bombay is fabulous ‘time-pass'..there's good food, social chit chat, drinks and gorgeous women, all under the same roof. That makes for a nice evening once in a while.
Recently, Himesh Reshammiya was quoted as saying that ghazals will continue to enjoy their sacred space but never match up to the sales of film music. Your reaction.
Really? He said that? Well, I would ask Himesh if album sales are the only criteria to judge what survives and what fades out. Please tell me, why did Altaf Raja go into oblivion? He had the greatest album sales figures ever, but where is he today? No one knows his whereabouts.
Sales figures are publicity gimmicks. I'd like to ask Himesh if he or any of his contemporaries will survive 40 years in the business and do well.
Ghazals are a form of classical music. Everyone borrows from it. Ghazals sell on their own merit, no one promotes them. Imagine the sales if they were promoted well?
Why haven't your wife Chitra Singh and you recorded an album in 17 years?
She's given up singing since 1990 after our son Vivek's death. I can understand how she feels.
Whom would you call your friends today?
I have several acquaintances, I can't call them my friends. I've always felt close to Subhash Ghai, Ravi Rai, Johnny Bakshi and Pavan Kumar.
It's said that Pankaj Udhas and you aren't on talking terms.
Rubbish. I have no problems with him. Please ask him if he has any problem with me. I haven't worked against him.. his quality of singing may have worked against him..
What do you think of today's movie music?
Horrendous, amelodic and bereft of any Indianess. The sound has turned completely western. Sorry to say, it has really become nonsense. Once in a while, I do hear a song which is melodic. But 90 per cent is horrible.
Sometimes, A R Rahman and Shankar Ehsaan Loy do a good job. I think there should be some kind of censorship on the kind of vulgar songs being churned out today.
How come classical music has remained safe from allegations of plagiarism?
It's the source of all music. Whatever you do, you end up borrowing from it. That doesn't make you a chor. If you pluck a leaf or a flower, nature won't call you a chor.
Do you feel any work of yours is underrated?
I think all the work that I've done is underrated.
Talat Aziz said that ghazal is a dying form. Would you agree?
For him, yes, it's a dying form. For me, it's immortal. It may seem to have a dark future though because Urdu is not taught in schools today. Computer games have taken precedence over poetry in all languages..
Would you say any promising singer has gone unnoticed?
Madhurani. She was a colleague.. although her work was excellent, she didn't make it to the top. Singing talent contests are all over TV… They're a fabulous source of making money. Some good singers do come to the forefront but these contests are essentially for the channel's benefit.
I've heard they offer good money.
(Laughs) At some point, I wouldn't hesitate to be a part of such shows. I'm human, I'm here to earn.
Khayyam saab was humiliated by a new generation composer on a TV show. What do you say about that?
That means the person doesn't have the ilm of music. Elders must be respected in all walks. Whether Khayyam saab's decision was right or wrong is secondary.. how can any composer challenge his decision? Khayyam saab has six decades of experience to say what he is saying. .
Do you have any other interests besides singing?
I love racing horses. I own a couple of them and race them at Mumbai and Pune. It gives me a break, a pleasure of sorts.
Finally, what advice would you give a newcomer to the music field today?
One.. don't learn music, pretend to know it. And two.. make the media your best friend. That'll make any nobody into a somebody.