Bollywood composer Charanjit Singh, passed away peacefully on Sunday. Most famous for recording his LP Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat which is widely considered to be the dawn of acid house music. Singh succumbed to a heart ailment he’d been diagnosed to have, back in June. The 75-year old was a multi-instrumentalist who had played in the orchestras of Hindi film composers such as Naushad, RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal. In January 2014, MW had the opportunity to interact with the maestro after he had returned from the Magnetic Fields music festival in Rajasthan.
Charanjit Singh is, perhaps, the only musician in the world who looks like a bhajan singer, but gets treated like a rock star. At H2O, a lounge in Mumbai, his appearance is greeted with catcalls and whistles. Long-haired men and long-legged women are jostling for space. The flower children of Bandra are out in full force. Singh, 73, looks enthused and confused in equal measure. A session player for RD Burman and Naushad Ali, he’d never thought he’d be sought after by potheads.
H2O’s interiors and lights are so red, it could pass off as a dance bar on any other day. It’s a complicated space: two smoking lounges, a two-tier dance floor and two exits. A wall poster states, “Vomiting not allowed on premises.”
I’m half-hour late for the concert, but, still, one of the first to arrive. A middle-aged man of immense girth is with two women half his age, arms casually draped around their shoulders. As the place fills up, they can’t help but stare. We’ve turned their regular watering hole/pick-up joint into hipster heaven. The air is filled with air kisses. I overhear a conversation between two expats:
“He’s going to play old-school Bollywood tracks.”
“Yeah, I love them.”
Naseeruddin Shah’s ‘Paap se dharti phati’ is sieving through the speakers. But, Singh, despite being old-school Bollywood, isn’t here for that. He’s here because his 1982 album, Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (Disco Ragas), has gained latent popularity. Singh put ragas such as Bhairav, Todi, Yaman, Lalit and Bairagi through the electronic grind of the synthesiser. 1980s India didn’t like it much. Today, they are calling it acid house.
When I meet them at their home, in Santacruz, in Mumbai, Singh and his wife have just returned from the Magnetic Fields Festival, in Rajasthan, fairly traumatised by the journey. The driver couldn’t pronounce Alsisar and they’d gotten lost several times. The six-hour ride from Delhi bloated into a nine-hour one, and they’d spotted all of the state’s wildlife without wanting to. Singh still performed for almost two hours.
Singh doesn’t come from a family of musicians, but instrument-makers. His family owns and runs Singh Musical Instruments, a 68-year-old shop that has two outposts in Mumbai. Many of his career highs can be traced to this small detail: Singh would buy the latest instruments on his trips abroad that no one else in India had access to. Like the clavioline, a small electronic keyboard that was used in the main theme of Nagin (1976). And, the transichord, a synthesiser accordion that he used for ‘Dum Maro Dum’. Even Disco Ragas came about because he’d bought a set of newly-launched Roland instruments, in Singapore.
Although classically trained, Singh would spend a lot of time with Bollywood musician ssuch as Manna Dey, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar. He’d even met his wife Suparna, a Shantiniketan student, at a Laxmikant-Pyarelal night (an event where local musicians would play the music-director duo’s popular songs). After they got married in 1976 (inspired a touch by the film Bobby), the two travelled the world with Kishore Kumar’s troupe for five years. They have fond memories of working with him. Singh says, with a rare display of pride, “In some of the songs, Kishore Kumar would say, ‘I don’t want anyone else [on stage].’ ‘Jaane woh kaise log the jinke’ was our song, where I would support him on the transichord. He used to like it very much. In my CD also [Mood with Kishore Kumar from Charanjit Singh], he’s mentioned that ‘Charanjit would play alone with me’. He was a very nice, very jolly person.”
After Kumar stopped doing stage shows, and before Singh started touring the world with ghazals, he created Disco Ragas. Boney M was the rage and BappiLahiri’s Disco Dancer (1981) had just released. Musicians such as Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shiv Kumar Sharma had already adapted ragas to western instruments. Singh wanted to do something similar — merge disco with classical. Sometime in 1982, he took his synthesisers to the World Trade Centre, in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai, where HMV had its studio. According to his album booklet, he recorded the whole thing in two days flat, all tracks in single takes.
Except for a few airings on All India Radio, the album didn’t take off. So, Singh started touring with his wife to every country with an Indian diaspora. They’d spend months in the US, singing ghazals. They also visited Pakistan, where they found the audience to be more respectful than any they’ve encountered. (In Karachi, people sit down to listen after they’ve finished eating, when they have all the time in the world.) This was their life, singing ballads and seeing the world, until a Dutchman
In 2002, record collector Edo Bouman picked up Disco Ragas from an LP store, in Delhi. “I wasn’t ready for the mind-blowing, stunningly modern, acid house-like sounds that issued forth from my record player. The record worked as one consistent listen, providing an oriental trip from beginning to end,” says Bouman. He met jazz musician Louiz Banks at a concert, and asked him where he could find Singh. It just so happened that Singh lived right opposite Banks’s house.
Eventually, Bouman convinced Singh to reissue Disco Ragas. He also started garnering press coverage on how Singh’s album preceded the birth of acid house by three years. But, that would’ve been all there is to it, if Canadian-Indian Rana Ghose hadn’t heard the album, in 2010, and become a fan. Ghose, who is now Singh’s manager, has packed the 73-year-old’s schedule with appearances all across Europe and India in under two years.
Singh and his wife couldn’t be more clueless about the appeal of acid house and the people who enjoy it. At H2O, Suparna was standing in the shadows, tracking the people with mild surprise. Guys with dreadlocks and girls in goth make-up are a sharp departure from the dignified lawyers and doctors they are used at their ghazal shows. They’re still mystified by how people can dance with so much abandon to Indian ragas. Although, so long as people enjoy it, they tell me, they will continue to tour.
Back at H2O, Singh is wearing a paisley print Chinese jacket, black pants and gold-rimmed spectacles. His fingers are moving on the synthesiser like he’s running them through water. To a purist, his album is close to being sacrilegious. But, even I have to admit, when the ragas hit their crescendos, when the music outgrows its roots, the night stops in its tracks. The head-bobs, the raised hands, the closed eyes, the moving bodies, the slow, steady burn of energy — all come together and start to make sense.