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Sikh News Rabbi Shergill: Bulleh Shah For Gen Now

Jun 1, 2004
He is one of a kind. He neither looks nor speaks like a pop star. He writes his own songs. He blends strains of rock music with the depth of Punjabi Sufi lyrics as if they were always meant to go together. Meet Rabbi Shergill, the twenty-something, handsome, bespectacled Sikh lad who promises to rewrite the rules of the Indipop game.

His very first album, titled Rabbi, and its principal track, Bulla Ki Jaana Main Kaun, a skilful, passionate reworking of a timeless ditty by 18th century Sufi poet Baba Bulleh Shah, have sent music lovers across the length and breadth of the country into raptures of delight. For Rabbi’s is a sound that is his very own, wonderfully original and strikingly innovative.

The whole nation is singing along. Not since Daler Mehndi burst on the popular music scene with his robust presence in the mid 1990s has a Punjabi crooner made quite the sort of impact that Rabbi Shergill has. But Rabbi is not just another singer. Rising above the cacophony of mediocrity that has inundated the market, the mellifluous Sardar has put heart, soul and spirit back into Punjabi pop.

Among his avowed fans are Sir V.S. Naipaul, who heard him at his best at the launch of Tehelka’s weekend paper last year, Amitabh Bachchan, Dev Anand, who has announced his intention of using Rabbi’s voice for his next film, Prime Minister, and the redoubtable A.R. Rahman. The diminutive genius from Chennai has been quoted as saying: "It’s incredible to see a Sardar with a guitar. Bulla is a great track and I think he should stick to his sound."

On the evidence available so far, Rabbi, on his part, seems determined to do just that. The former student of Delhi’s Khalsa College is proud of the purity of his sound, the quality of his upbringing and the richness of the culture that his music has sprung from. "My album has clicked because it has me talking about myself," he says of his meteoric rise. He is absolutely right: in the Indipop industry, singers usually walk into studios and lend their voices to words penned and tunes composed by others. Rabbi, in contrast, stamps his own personality on his music.

Rabbi stands apart from the crowd because of where he comes from. His father, who passed away four years ago, was a rice farmer and Gurbani kirtan singer in Chak Mishri Khan village near Amritsar. It is from him that Indian pop music’s latest sensation has inherited his smooth voice and spiritual core.

Rabbi’s mother, essentially a poet, was the principal old Delhi’s Mata Sundari College. He obviously draws his creative inspiration and sensibility from her. Rabbi grew up on a mix of Sikh spiritual literature, the wisdom of Gyani Gyan Singh and Kabir’s dohas, among other things. It flows in his music.

The eclectic influences – from Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to the open-throated ragis of Punjab — have seeped deep into his soul and Rabbi has therefore never felt the need to be somebody else. "I never wanted to be a poor version of a western rocker,’ he says, explaining why he has opted for Punjabi as the language of his music.

While Rabbi remains firmly rooted in his culture, his life has changed to a great extent. He now shuttles between a home in Mumbai’s Khar locality and his old-time residence in Delhi’s East Patel Nagar when he isn’t jetting off to Brazil to participate in a World Social Forum concert.

But the joys of success and recognition haven’t come to him on a platter. Rabbi had to wait for nearly half a decade to find his place in the sun. In the late 1990s, he composed and sang commercial jingles without ever losing sight of his real ambition in life. When he thought he had enough tracks for an album, he got in touch with a high-profile New Delhi-based music producer. That liaison was short-lived as differences erupted. But Rabbi received support and active help from Minty Tejpal, brother and business partner of Tehelka editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal, music producer K.J. Singh and Anand Surapur of Phat Phish Records. The rest, as they say, is history.

What next? The musician claims that he has enough compositions in his kitty to yield two albums. But he is no hurry to push up the numbers. Rabbi Shergill has every right to allow himself the luxury of letting the first flush of big time success sink in before he begins to build on a stunning debut.