Tribute to bhajan singer Narendra Chanchal

In one of his interviews, Narendra Chanchal fondly remembered how his mother used to call him Mohammad Rafi. The boy, however, always wanted to make a name as Narendra Chanchal and that he did. Instead of being part of a crowd, the boy with the rustic voice, who could reach the high pitch at will, wanted to be a crowd-puller and he remained one till the end.

Often called the ‘Midnight Singer’ (also the name of his biography), Chanchal gave devotional music popular appeal as his name became synonymous with jagrans and bhajans for Mata (goddess).

Born in Amritsar in a humble family, as a child he followed his mother who was often called to sing bhajans at neighbourhood functions. Sometimes he would sing too. The neighbours loved his voice. They would even pay him in appreciation. Their encouragement gave Chanchal the confidence to become a professional singer.

During his visits to Vaishno Devi, he picked up Punjabi and Dogri folk songs. He steered clear of using film song tunes in his bhajans. He often described himself as a messenger of the goddess.

He took to jagran, the all-night vigil, as a means to spread jagriti (awareness) and didn’t limit himself to singing. He often conversed with the audience on social issues. One of his songs is about the role of the father in a family while decrying female infanticide. More than the rituals, he saw Navaratras as an opportunity to celebrate the change of season.

He used to celebrate New Year’s Eve at Vaishno Devi by performing first at the holy cave and then at a ground in Katra. Over the years, it came to be known as Chanchal Mela and drew huge crowds at the peak of winter.

Richa Sharma, who also started her career as a Jagran singer in Delhi remembers Chanchal being fondly refered to as ‘Pappaji’ in the devotional music circuit. “At many jagrans I would perform in the 11-12 midnight slot and then Pappaji would take over.” A very generous performer, Richa recalls how, as her popularity grew, he would come early and listen to her singing, while sitting in his car.

Perfect stage for singers

Richa says that performing at jagrans prepares singers for any stage. “The kind of full-throated, powerful voice he had, Narendra Chanchal was bound to make an impact. Unlike me, films happened to him by chance. He wanted to spend his life singing for the divine.”

Unlike today, Richa recalls a time when jagrans were secular spaces, where Sufi songs were common. “Sufi concerts were unheard of in those days and singers would sing Bulle Shah to warm up the audience.”

Little wonder then that it was a kafi of Bulle Shah, which Chanchal sang at an Army charity event, that opened the doors of cinema for him. Raj Kapoor attended that event and found in young Chanchal a voice that he was looking for the unforgettable song ‘Beshak mandir masjid todo, par pyar bhara dil kabhi na todo, is dil main dilbar rehta’ in Bobby that encapsulated the film’s message .

The film won him the Filmfare Award for best playback singer. Narendra Bedi’s Benaam followed where he sang the title song, ‘Main benaam ho gaya’. The song was picturised on Chanchal and he became a star singer.

Manoj Kumar made him sing a crucial antara in the song, ‘ Mehengai maar gay i’ in the film Roti Kapda Aur Makaan. Chanchal sang along with Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar and Jani Babu. The song, however, that established him as a star devotional singer was ‘Tu ne mujhe bulaya sherwaliye’ from Asha that he sang with his childhood icon, Mohammad Rafi. This was followed by ‘Chalo bulawa aaya hai mata ne bulaya hai’ from Avtar . In the 1980s, these songs sparked a trend of devotional music in films.

In one of his interviews, Chanchal admitted that the fame went to his head and he lost his voice. He soon realised and went back to where he belonged — the stage. This also coincided with an era when unusual voices like his were not used much in playback singing.

Clad in bright kurtas with heavy gold chains around his neck and bracelets on his wrists, Narendra Chanchal glammed up to defy the deprivations he faced in childhood. “What I loved about Pappaji,” says Richa, “was that he was devoid of aadambar (hypocrisy).”

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2022 8:26:39 am |