With the passing away of Bhupinder Singh, one of India’s finest musicians, we realised yet again, that there is more to immortal voices than musical merit. Bhupinder interpellated through his music, time, memory, manners, and stories. The most unbelievable aspect of his death was that he was 82 years old, since in the mild oscillations of his gentle voice Bhupinder had put time on hold. While one continues to savour, ‘Huzur is kadar’, ‘Thodi si zameen, thoda aasman’...Bhupinder made a quiet exit.
His life was about heartwarming stories of how friends turned him — an exceptionally talented, but anonymous guitarist — into one of the country’s top playback singers . He was among those struggling young musicians in Mumbai, sharing room, clothes and food, and who also crowd-funded a friend’s marriage. Apparently, when this couple would get into a fight, Bhupinder would remind them to not waste the ₹45 he had spent on buying their wedding garland.
Bhupinder’s journey carried in its fold several anecdotes relating to Pancham (R.D. Burman), Kishore Kumar, Madan Mohan, Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Manna Dey, Manohari Singh and Bhanu Gupta. Most importantly, he epitomised a musical narrative that represented multiple regions, idioms, ideas and imaginations. With his passing, we are reminded of today’s music, which is about lost co-existence and synthetic texture. Bhupinder had said in an interview: “I can’t understand today’s music. For us, music was about the coming together of creative minds and ideas. Today, you can’t even see such a process happening. It is invisible.”
Bhupinder’s voice was in many ways similar to that of Talat Mehmood, Hemant Kumar, and Jagjit Singh. It carried a quiet majesty. His singing appeared simple. It celebrated leisure, defined melancholy, and was reflective and resonant. It seemed like there was a choice to forget the world around you. Poet and lyricist Gulzar, a close friend of the late musician, says Bhupinder had a “Sufiana spirit”, not because he sang songs that had intense poetry but also because he had a voice that could say so much effortlessly. Gulzar had once told Bhupinder in his poetic andaz: “Make an amulet of your voice and I shall wear it.”
As a guitarist
Before Bhupinder took to playback singing, he was among the finest guitarists of the Hindi film industry. In Gulzar’s memoir, Actually… I met them, in the chapter on R.D. Burman, he writes about Bhupinder’s exceptional ability. They were recording the song, ‘Ek hi khwab’ for the film Kinara. R.D. Burman had composed the tune, and turned to Bhupinder and said: “Bhupi, take the guitar, go to the recording room, listen to the song with your headphones on, and wherever you feel a phrase is required to complete the song, play those notes. I’m giving you a free hand.” Bhupinder, who was the singer of the song as well, did as instructed. Gulzar writes, “With Bhupi’s notes the song seemed to find an extra dimension.” An unconventional song of dreamy langour, composed by R.D. Burman as if it were a conversation, sung beautifully by Bhupinder, whose freewheeling improvisations on the guitar elevates the experience.
What would the Gulzars and R.D. Burmans of the world do if there were no artistes like Bhupinder to realise their dreams? Yet again, one has to seek Gulzar’s help for an answer. He had introduced Bhupinder to Madan Mohan for the film, Mausam. His response on listening to the two versions of ‘Dil dhoondta hain’ explains the extraordinariness of Bhupinder: “Bhupi is a bit of a fakir. Woh ek sai aadmi hai, just like the sufis and sadhus. They look lazy but they are very focused and attentive. There is a bit of ruhaniyat in him. There is no greed or haste.”
Bhupinder indeed sang like a philosopher and not like a jilted lover or a weary traveller of this world. There were no answers to the struggles of life in his approach to music. It sought the unknown: it looked at life in wonder, trying to understand the meaning . Listen to ‘Aaj bichhde hain’ ( Thodi Si Bewafai, Khayyam, Gulzar) or ‘Karoge yaad to har baat yaad aayegi’ ( Bazaar, Khayyam, Bashar Nawaz). The mesmerising ‘Zindagi mere ghar aana’ ( Dooriyan, Jaidev, Sudarshan Faakir) appeals to this wisdom. Music, like life, can never find a haven. It has to constantly unsettle itself to find new frontiers.
Bhupinder hardly spoke. Even when he did, it was rarely about himself or his music. How could he speak about something that was constantly seeking new forms, new meanings within him? The tone of rumination gave his music a refreshing quality. One has to keep revisiting Bhupinder if one has to find spots of meaningful silence in this noisy, overcrowded world.
The Bengaluru-based author writes on art and culture.