Press rewind to hear them

Playback singers (from left), Sarvesh Mishra, Usha Raj, Nileema Gokhaley and Anil Bajpai. Photo: R. Ragu  

Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. There is a Wikipedia entry on Professional Elvis Impersonators, referred to as ETAs (Elvis Tribute Artists) who “work all over the world as entertainers and such tribute acts remain in great demand.” What’s more? There are also ‘best impersonator’ awards.

Meet our own tribute artistes — Anil Bajpai, Sarvesh Mishra, Neelima Gokhale and Usha Raj, who recently performed to a packed house in the city at a Mohammed Rafi memorial concert (July 31 was his death anniversary) organised by Music Lovers Chennai.

Unlike the ETAs, they do not look, dress or behave like the legends, whose timeless songs make up their musical roster. But their fame and fan-following can definitely be attributed to bringing alive the voices that continue to tug at the heartstrings of millions. Call them musical historians, if you wish. For, they don’t just sing; they link eras.

Anil Bajpai, the famous Rafi voice, draws huge crowds wherever he performs. It’s so close to the original that there have been times when people have gone up on stage to check if he is lip syncing the tracks. During his childhood days in Gwalior, Anil spent a lot of time memorising his idol Rafi’s songs. “Though I never thought it would become my life’s calling. I am truly blessed to be able to live out my dream this way,” he smiles. When he moved to Mumbai, he became a sought-after singer at Hindi retro shows. Two decades later, Anil continues to enthrall Rafi-lovers the world over. He even performed at the launch of Mohammed Rafi, My Abba, a biography of the singer by his daughter-in-law, Yasmin Rafi at New Jersey.

Hasn’t he ever aspired to become a playback singer? “Nothing can substitute the energy and excitement of live shows,” he says. “What can be more satisfying than watching the many emotions in Rafi’s songs come alive on the faces of listeners? I have seen people wiping their tears, clutching the hands of their dear ones, dancing in joy and singing along uninhibitedly. The stage is where it all happens. I will not give it up as long as Rafi devotees and my vocal chords back me.”

Agrees Neelima, “people don’t seem to tire of listening to these golden ditties, so why should we?” She has a wider repertoire, as she sings the songs of Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt. “I also enjoy singing Rafi saab’s songs because his intensity and versatility are a great voice training exercise. If you keep singing them, you will get a fine grasp on modulation.”

In the age of digital music, when multiple genres are flourishing, it’s heartening to see the growing number of diehard fans of retro music. “Many of these yesteryear songs have more YouTube hits than even the new chart-toppers,” laughs Neelima, who has been part of veteran composer Khayyam’s troupe. “This love for the legends has helped us make a successful career.”

Sarvesh hastens to add, “But we cannot build a career as a singer by being a clone. You are fortunate, if you sound very close to the original; you cannot fake it for long. You should be able to render them in your own voice without distorting the flavour, mood and style of the compositions.”

Tribute shows now seem to have become a subculture all their own. Songs of Rafi, Kishore Kumar, T.M. Soundararajan, Hemant Kumar, Talat Aziz, Manna Dey, Lata, Asha, Shamshad Begum and Geeta Dutt that were usually sung when friends and families got together and played antakshari have become an important, and lucrative, part of the musical landscape.

“Many up and coming musicians cut their teeth in tribute bands before launching their own careers,” points out Sarvesh, who has travelled widely with music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal.

“Sustenance as a tribute singer, though, is not easy without good musical training. The combination of lyrics, melody and voice is so strong that it lifts these songs into a realm that is impervious to time,” says Usha, a trained Carnatic singer, who often performs at old Tamil and Hindi film music shows in the city.

“Don’t dismiss them as ‘just film songs’; their melodic and rhythmic nuances would be difficult to comprehend without knowledge of classical music. We cannot forget that they were all created by master composers who had total command over the grammar,” says Usha, looking at others who nod in agreement before launching into a heart-warming chorus — a Rafi number, of course, ‘Tum mujhe yun bhula na paoge’ ( It isn’t easy to forget me).

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 2:43:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/press-rewind-to-hear-them/article7526044.ece

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