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A Mystic in Bollywood

Lalitha Suhasini is the former Editor of Rolling Stone India
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Tochi Raina, the voice behind the dreamy Saibo and grungy Dilli, on meditation, meltdown and the strains of success

We are at an apartment-turned-studio close to the fishing village of Versova in north Mumbai. A singer rehearses the line “Ujle cigarette ki dhooen ka rang saala kaala thha” about 20 times on the microphone in an odd, lifeless monotone, which is exactly how the arranger wants it. Playback singer Tochi Raina, who seems to be supervising the recording, does a dummy take to guide the singer before stepping out onto the balcony with us.

Taking a cue from all that chanting, Raina lights up a Marlboro Gold. He exhales most of the smoke, which adds a tobacco tinge to the fishy, salty air around us. Saibo, a dreamy Rajasthani folk-influenced duet with singer Shreya Ghoshal, composed by Sachin-Jigar for the soundtrack of Shor In The City, has rendered Raina a busy man. “I’ve been recording back-to-back and haven’t slept for weeks,” he offers. When he gets a breather, the 44-year-old singer turns his attention to Band of Bandagi, a Sufi jazz project that he set up in 2005. Raina, who speaks in flowery Hindi and Urdu for the most part, tells us that what we heard inside the studio was an experiment for the band. He explains why he chose jazz over rock: “Sufi rock nahin ho sakta hai. Rock pathhar hai aur fakir log pathhar nahin hote.” The singer’s logic is laughable, but his earnestness is genuine. Raina has ambition to match. “It is my dream to turn Bandagi into a 100-member band, bind them together into one string, because that is the number of the sun, the giver of light,” he says.

He admits that he has been given to existential angst since childhood. “I used to wander around alone as a kid. My grandfather, Akaali Kaur Singh, was a fakir and perhaps this runs in the family.” Born in Bihar, Raina moved to Nepal to study, before eventually settling down in Patiala in Punjab. “After I moved to Delhi, I meditated for 20 years, looking for answers to who we are in poetry and nature,” says the singer, who hopes to communicate some of these answers through Band of Bandagi.

While the band won’t be ready for two years, Raina’s Hindi film projects have been a vehicle to promote it. “Whenever I’ve done Bollywood shows, I’ve spoken about Band of Bandagi and the youth seem to vibe with it,” he says.

The climb up hasn’t been easy. With Saibo, Raina has finally managed to break the myth that he could only deliver hits with Amit Trivedi, the composer who crafted the ebullient score of Dev.D which featured the track Pardesi that spotlighted Raina. A riot of colours and images pop up when you listen to Raina bring Pardesi, a folk-funk track with lush synth and sitar sounds, to life. Blood-red shots in a seedy bar with blue walls, busting some crazy moves in black-and-white suits, and if the buzz is right, the effect is in stop motion. “I love the desipan in his voice,” says Trivedi, “There’s a certain rawness in his voice that places him in the Sufi folk space. And everything he’s sung for me has been a hit—Ektara from Wake Up Sid, Dil Dilli from No One Killed Jessica. ”

Raina made his debut with the less than remarkable Bulle Shah from the soundtrack of Neeraj Pandey’s sharp directorial debut A Wednesday (2008). After Pardesi released the same year, music reality show contestant Toshi Sabri, mistaken to be the voice behind the hit, landed shows on the strength of just one song. Raina, who had also recently lost his mother, suffered a meltdown. Meditation brought him back to form, says the singer.

His musical ambition took form when he moved to Delhi from Patiala when he was 16. “I had just Rs 500 in my pocket,” he says. Raina turned instrumentalist first, learning the tabla and then trained as a vocalist under Pandit Vinod Kumar Mishra, disciple of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Raina rattles off names of classical music greats, “Gurus such as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Khan, Ustad Bhure Khan, Mani Prasad, Pandit Dayal Thakur understood and nurtured the Sufi spirit within me, but it was Pandit Vinod Kumarji who first drew me into spiritualism and Sufism.”

The singer, now completely in the skin of his wandering mystic character, tells us of the time he came to Mumbai in 2003. “I didn’t have a plan. I slept on Aksa beach for 20 days, travelling between Ekta Nagar (a North Mumbai suburb) and the beach with my harmonium,” he says. He began giving music lessons to make a meagre living. “Shaayad Maalik ne bheja hoga (maybe, the Master sent them),” he says, grinning, when we ask him how he found students, a few of whom have now become members of Band of Bandagi.

Veteran Hindi film star Dev Anand was Raina’s first introduction to the film industry. “I wanted to understand Hindi films before I could attempt singing in them. Dev saab heard my music for about two hours and gave me his blessings,” remembers Raina. It was composer Rajat Dholakia who hooked Raina up with Trivedi. “We immediately connected. Amit has been more than just a professional connection. He lent me money when my mother passed away. I feel like a brother towards him,” says Raina.

The singer slips into the role of a clairvoyant without much encouragement. “Mujhe aankhon mein dikhta hai kya kya honewala hai (I can see the future in the eyes),” he says. Of course, there are no straight answers. The aim, maintains Raina, is to pursue a higher goal. There’s another journalist who has flown down from Kolkata to meet Raina, and we leave the studio amused, yet unsurprised. An artiste without kinks is plain boring.