The man who earned Rs 35 crore last year is in dirty-grey capris and a matching T-shirt; he’s unshaven and unwashed. It’s fair to say singer Arijit Singh isn’t afflicted with vanity. His hair is curly, like a clown’s; his beard carpets chubby cheeks; he has two inches on most Indian women; during performances, his paunch is casually hidden, in the way of some of our current politicians, under waistcoats and jackets. His smile is winning — humble and sweet; his manner is one of unwavering confidence. His voice has brought him this far; it’s going to take him further still.
Singh grew up in Murshidabad, West Bengal, the child of a Punjabi father and a Bengali mother. “My dad used to be an LIC agent. Then, he had a factory that used to make bhel mixture. My mom is a housewife,” he says. He trained in the instrumental version of the Kirana gharana under the tutelage of three brothers. “I remember I was already training when I was three. Rajendra Prasad Hazari was my Indian classical teacher; Dhirendra Prasad Hazari used to teach me classical tabla; and, Birendra Prasad Hazari taught me Tagore songs and modern songs. Indian classical is a lot more than vocal training. It’s training of the mind, almost like meditation.” Even in interviews he gave ten years ago, Singh attributed his talent to his gurus. “They did their job — making me accustomed to the standard ratio of voice throwing, how I should react to music, how to plan things, how to sing in my head and implement in songs. All the credit goes to my gurujis.”
It’s tough to take Singh’s classical training seriously, because it’s rare for serious classical singers to enter popular music; rarer still for them to enter talent shows. He did go to Pandit Jasraj and Sultan Khan for further taleem, “but they said you should continue what you’ve learnt. You should cultivate that”. He adds, “I think the Indian classical industry is going to be dead in a couple of years, because people are not learning any more. People [the audience] also don’t have the patience to understand. I remember I used to attend concerts in which they used to sing for four to five hours, only implementing things in one raga. That’s not happening anymore.” On his stint in Fame Gurukul on Sony in 2005, in which he placed sixth, he says, “Talent shows added to my experience. You face difficulties, you face extreme happiness. You start to know yourself better. I saw it as a message to move forward.”
After working as a music programmer for a few years, Singh got his break in the movie franchise that’s made so many careers, Aashiqui. “With Aashiqui 2 what happened was that everyone suggested my name to Mukeshji [Bhatt, producer]. I think there was a moment when I was the centre of gravity. The mixing engineer also suggested my name, the programmer also said, Jeetda [Ganguly] said, Mithoon [Sharma] said. Whoever was involved in that project knew me as a programmer, and they knew I had an interesting voice. I sang all the songs because they wanted one voice for the film.” Singh is aware that Aashiqui 2 has done everything for him as a singer. “Everyone dreams of this situation that I have — singing so many songs, so much work. People pray for that. But, I have got it because of Aashiqui 2, for sure.”
Singh sang more than 50 songs last year, including some in Bengali. If he never sings about love again, he would do lovers a favour. So many of his songs, such as ‘Sawan aaya hai’ from Creature 3D or ‘Sun le zara’ from Singham Returns, sound like an unbroken medley. Yes, the composers are to blame, but so is the singer. You just need to compare his ‘Phir le aaya dil’ from Barfi! to Rekha Bhardwaj’s to know his weaknesses. He says, “I work hard on all my songs. I do more than 500 takes per song. I haven’t calculated [how many songs I’ve done]. It looks like I’ve been working on many songs, but it’s not like that. In 2011, I sang so many songs which are still releasing. People don’t understand that. They think he’s doing so much work now. Yes, I’m still doing a lot of work, which will release next year.”
Nevertheless, there are some songs of his that do soar above the clutter. The entire country cannot be tone-deaf. Songs such as ‘Tum hi ho’ from Aashiqui 2, ‘Saanson ko’ from Zid, ‘Aye dil bata’ from Ishk Actually, ‘Jiya’ from Gunday, ‘Tose naina jabse mile’ from Mickey Virus, and a particular favourite, ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’ from Haider. “Because it was a Mehdi Hassan song, and an opportunity to sing for Vishal Bhardwaj, and a project on which Gulzar worked, it was very exciting.” In four years, he’s worked with the entire gamut of music composers. “I’ve learnt patience from Mithoon. Being casual about everything and being cool and calm about whatever you do from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Even when they’re recording, they don’t worry about what’s happening. They’re not that ambitious that they have to reach this goal. It shows even in their music. I’ve learnt how to make melodies from Jatin-Lalit, sound structure from Amit Trivedi, technicalities from Vishal-Shekhar and smart progression from Salim-Sulaiman. I’ve learnt how to manage even the worst situation in life from Pritam. There’s so much work, but you’re managing everything. You’re lying to people that, ‘I’ll meet this deadline tomorrow.’ And, you don’t. I’ve learnt from him that it’s never too late. You can still work and improvise till the last moment.”
Since Singh isn’t chummy with the press, many details of his life aren’t known. He married a lady called Koel Roy last year and recently had a baby boy. He’s been an assistant director on a couple of notable Bengali films, such as Mishawr Rawhoshyo and Shabdo. The day we meet, he’s working on the music of his directorial debut, Chronicles of Love, which will tour festivals soon.
Given his natural reticence, Singh is surprisingly active on the live-show circuit. From September 2014 to February of this year, his face was plastered on BookMyShow, with tickets selling for as much as Rs 7000. Reportedly, he charges upwards of Rs 20 lakh per show. “Sometimes live shows are exciting, sometimes not. From September, it’s on, and till December I’m like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ But, that’s also a necessity, because so many people want to hear you. I think no singer has fallen sick like me. I have broken my voice, [got] fever, been in hospital, been sick for weeks. I have had to cancel the shows and then reschedule them. Even if I’m sick I’ve had to go to the venue and say, ‘Bro, I can’t perform today.’ They cry, and then I have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll do this for you.’ It’s a pain, sometimes. But, I also feel responsible to the organisers.” His onstage performances, he says, are like a “house party”. “It’s not like a Shah Rukh Khan show, you know, where bomb blasts are happening, with helicopters and stuntmen. It’s very simple. I don’t talk much onstage. I always feel like it’s a home set-up. Like friends are there, and we’re singing songs, having drinks.”
It’s close to midnight when we wind up our chat. Singh, who sleeps “whenever I have two hours free”, is heading back to the recording studio. While within earshot, we hear him cancelling his press interviews for the next day. With so much work pouring in, Singh would rather sing tunes than his own praises.