A Wanderer Finds His Home

Rabbi Shergill delivered a major Bollywood hit with Challa Ki Labhda Phire, but this folk musician’s heart lies in Punjab
Music
Rabbi’s attitude to Bollywood borders on irreverence, perhaps even disdain. It comes across when he speaks of the time he began his music career back in the 1990s (Photo: ASHISH SHARMA)

Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan may have bewildered many with what has been interpreted as one big muddle of a triangular Sufi-Bhakti-divinity dialogue, but the song Challa ki Labhda Phire from the film was widely appreciated. In the age of bhangra beats and bass speakers popularised by pop singers like Yo Yo Honey Singh of Angrezi beat fame, this song about a perpetual wanderer gave JTHJ one of its high points. It also gave a boost to Shah Rukh Khan’s sagging career. And it brought the talented but somewhat mysterious Rabbi Shergill, himself a bit of a wanderer, back onto iPod playlists; Challa’s lyrics were composed by Gulzar, the music was AR Rahman’s, and it was sung by Rabbi.

When we meet Rabbi at Hotel Siddharth Jaypee in West Delhi, he seems keen to remind us of his success as an artiste before Bollywood adopted him. “I just released my third private album called Rabbi III this year. I just wasn’t singing for Bollywood,” he says.

Huddled with his BlackBerry on a sprawling lounge sofa, Rabbi is quite unlike the thin Sardar whose photographs one saw in magazines when his first album went up the charts in 2004. Eight years on, Rabbi is rather portly. He is wearing a light brown suede coat over a linen shirt and chocolate brown corduroy trousers. He orders coffee for us and reads a text message through his amber-coloured shades. Rabbi does not speak much, and there are often lulls in the conversation. The silence is interrupted by two brides-to-be jostling for space around the hotel’s reception desk. 

Rabbi ignores the commotion and puts his phone away. “I live out of my phone these days,” he quips.

Rabbi grew up in Delhi and is an alumnus of Khalsa College. He lives in Noida these days, and visits Mumbai for recordings. His life revolves around meetings in Punjab and Delhi, private gigs and weddings. Earlier in the day, he was at an extended celebration of his daughter’s seventh birthday with the family. Speaking about his latest hit, he says, “I have been busy releasing my third album over the past year, but it’s strange that people feel that Challa is a ‘comeback’.”

Rabbi first achieved fame with Bulla Ki Jaana, his hit single—a Bulleh Shah number—from a self-titled album released in 2004. The makers of Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II wanted to use the song for the film, but Rabbi refused to part with the rights. The Arshad Warsi-starrer went with Kailash Kher’s Allah ke Bande instead. Rabbi then composed the soundtrack of Dilli Heights, known for songs like Tere Bin and Kitni Der Tak.

“I see myself as a songwriter first; movies happen if I like the idea,” says Rabbi. Of the experience of working with Rahman and Yash Chopra, all he says is: “They are both masters of their art, so it was a good experience.”

Rabbi’s attitude towards Bollywood borders on irreverence, perhaps even disdain. It comes across when he speaks of the time he began his career in the 1990s. An MBA dropout, Rabbi took to singing jingles before he got to release his first album—five years after it was first scheduled. It was initially to be launched by Tehelka, but it backed out after getting embroiled in a sting operation controversy that involved questionable decisions on Indian defence procurement.

Rabbi resists being tagged as a ‘Sufi singer’, or any kind of singer for that matter. He admits later, though, that he is a ‘pop singer’. But the Indian pop music scene today has no takers, he says. “Back then, one could think of releasing a private album because there was a flourishing Rs 400 crore industry that promoted indie music. Bombay has destroyed it over the years.”

Minutes later, as the coffee arrives, Yo Yo Honey Singh is back in the conversation. Rabbi brings him up. “Today, you either join them or beat them, and you see the likes of Yo Yo Honey Singh doing that. One video grabs about 100,000 ‘likes’ in an hour,” he says. It is a phenomenon, he says, the emergence of alternative regional industries. “The music industry is bursting at its seams and is beyond the control of a few corporates in Bollywood. So you see some sort of ‘Balkanisation’ of movies and music in other regions. Punjab is quite a winner here,” he says, referring to Yo Yo Honey Singh’s Bollywood turn. “His popularity in Punjab has forced Bollywood to recognise his voice.”

Rabbi also sees Punjabi films giving Bollywood a run for its money. It is an audience he wants to appeal to. “I am popular and have the advantage of singing in Punjabi, so why not?” he asks. But how would his soft music fit in with all the loud bhangra pop that has become synonymous with Punjabi music? “Of course I cannot make vulgar videos and sell my music. But you cannot ignore the sheer volume and potential of an industry right at your doorstep,” he says.

A regular at several jam sessions in the capital, Rabbi says with a trace of disappointment that he often ends up singing a Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin track to enliven the audience. “It is amazing how we recognise Western music but fail to recognise music that is our own,” he says.

Punjab is also significant to him in other ways. “My roots are there and though I am deeply influenced by Western music of the 1980s, it is while travelling through Punjab that I draw inspiration for my songs.” His music is often seen as a blend of Punjabi Sufi and rock influenced by Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen. “I grew up in Delhi in the 1980s, so the music of that time was what I grew up on,” he says. “But we city slickers often forget what we have in our own culture. We are so Westernised, we don’t realise what we are. I keep going back [to Punjab], as it inspires me and forces me to react to everything that plagues Punjab—the collapse in social structure, the cancer belt thanks to the Green Revolution, and nature.”

Two days later, we meet Rabbi again. He is rehearsing a private show to be held in Ludhiana. The studio, which is basically a guitar school sandwiched oddly between two marble godowns in West Delhi’s Mansarovar Garden, belongs to his friend Sandeep Dahiya. Practising with his band, Rabbi takes the lead, lets his fingers loose at the guitar strings, and the tiny studio is soon strumming and rippling with his rendition of Challa.

As he fills gaps in conversation with a lazy twist to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms over a chai break, he is in a more candid mood than during the previous meeting. Asked about his moody reputation, Rabbi searches for a reason. He denies being reclusive, but admits to being lazy. “I am not a regular musician who would party hard. I cannot party,” he says, stretching his hands—which are sore after the three-hour practice session.

Aman Ahluwalia, Rabbi’s former manager and friend, agrees that Rabbi was once a bit of a social misfit in music circles. “Rabbi found it hard to integrate with an industry that required [him to be] seen, saying the right thing and networking,” Ahluwalia says. “He has become better now and makes an effort to talk. Earlier, he was clueless and just wanted to stick to playing his music.” Ahluwalia runs an ad agency and has known Rabbi since the time he was composing advertising jingles. “I first heard him sing for Tata fertilisers and knew he had something in him,” says Ahluwalia.

That was back in 1997. It was on Ahluwalia’s encouragement that Rabbi made the effort to record a demo album. Minty Tejpal, brother of Tehelka’s editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal, showed interest in the venture, only to pull out after the sting operation controversy took a toll on the media firm’s finances. “It was a tough time till his album came out,” says Ahluwalia, who later parted ways with Rabbi over differences of opinion he won’t speak of, but continues to be a friend.

Suvir Malik of Parikrama says that every musician has a unique style of working. Rabbi, he says, is an excellent musician to jam with and likes to be on his own. “He has definitely opened up a lot more since the release of his last album, and it’s great to have him around,” he says, recalling a gig that Rabbi did with Parikrama in Delhi.

Still struggling with messages and phone calls, Rabbi says that he is looking for a manager so that he can “concentrate” on his music. “One has to keep up with the times,” he says. He switches to Brothers in Arms again before getting back to his band for a final practice session. They must head out the next morning for Ludhiana. It’s Punjab, after all, and there is something about its hawa...