Has it become difficult these days for new artistes to make their name in the music industry, compared to the time when you began your career?
A. Nothing is difficult, and it was never difficult. You can enter and excel in any field if you start believing in yourself. I feel when you accomplish something by overcoming all the difficulties on the way, you would always value whatever you have achieved. One does not understand the value of something until one has struggled to get it. And I think in the field of art, nothing should be easy. So to get into music, one should face all the challenges and never avoid them.
Q. You learned music by listening to it and not through any formal training. How important is the role formal education plays in the life of a professional musician?
A. Not only when I was starting out, even today I learn music by listening to nature. Sun na hi gun na hai [Listening is also a form of singing]. Listening teaches you a lot as when you are quiet, your body absorbs the music and you observe things. So this has always worked for me. But when we are talking about professional training, it is really important because learning its fundamentals is really essential to understanding music. I must say, though, that I am an exception. I did not take any formal training in music. This is not the case for everyone. It is important to study to be able to understand art; to project your talent in a proper manner. And for that you need to acquire proper knowledge.
Q. Your voice is unique in its own way and very different from contemporary singers. How has that rewarded you in your career?
A. I have a real voice and the texture is also original. It’s not run-of-the-mill. At the beginning of my career, this felt like a drawback, but now people label it as a soulful voice. I thank God for giving me such a voice and thank my audiences for liking it.
Q. You have sung songs in many languages. How do you manage that? Do you learn the language before attempting to sing in it?
A. Every language has its own syllables and I have to practice really well to make a song. Then, when you are done with learning the lyrics, you fill it with emotions to make it a song. Ek bhasha aur bhavna ka sangam karte hue ek dhun me pirone se sangeet banta hai [When you make the language and emotion meet, and weave them all into a melody, you create music]. It is an art in itself. I learned Sanskrit till my graduation, and it has helped me a lot. In all the South Indian languages, we have shades of Sanskrit, so it became easy for me to make songs in those languages. I did not actually have to learn the languages specifically. Other Indian languages also have a lot of Hindi and Sanskrit involved, which acted as an advantage for me. I make music in different languages because, jo logon ka shauk hota hai wo mera junoon hai [where people have hobbies, I have passions]. I do not have any hobby, I just have passion for music and that’s it.
Q. You are also a music composer. Some of your best-loved songs, like “Teri Deewani” and “Allah Ke Bande”, were written by you. Tell us about your style of writing music.
A. The lyrics reflect what you see deep inside your soul. If you have a romantic soul and are true to yourself, the thought that you come up with would automatically reflect it. I am a nature lover and I get lost in nature when I write my songs. Another thing about my songs is that I am good with the Hindi language. I use unique words when I write my songs. Despite being in a world where English is quite common, I try not to lose my grip on Hindi. That’s why I’ve written songs in pure Hindi.
“Every language has its own syllables and I have to practice really well to make a song. Then, when you are done with learning the lyrics, you fill it with emotions to make it a song. Ek bhasha aur bhavna ka sangam karte hue ek dhun me pirone se sangeet banta hai [When you make the language and emotion meet, and weave them all into a melody, you create music]. It is an art in itself.”
Q. One can also detect very strong Sufi and folk influences in your singing. How did that come about?
A. I have always lived alone since the age of 15, and when you are alone you see the world differently. There is no one out there to pamper you and everyone is there to exploit you. So when you see this side of the world while growing up, you get to know the reality of life. I have gone through many difficulties all alone and because of them, I came to know that the world is fake. I was left with the only option and that was to sing the reality of life. Reality and purity are the biggest forms of spirituality. There is a huge difference between religious and spiritual styles. My style of music is spiritual and not religious. My songs are being appreciated by all types of listeners, whether they’re in a club or some ashram. Everyone enjoys my songs. For this, the credit goes to all the bad times I had. The more time tortured me, the more I became this way. And now the result is that people from all walks of life love my work.
Q. How has Hindi film music evolved ever since you became a part of the industry?
A. The main change in the industry is that now, if a creative person wants to showcase his or her talent, he can easily do so, thanks to this era of digitalisation. One can reach out to a massive audience with minimum resources.
Q. You have done a lot of playback for Bollywood films. How has that experience been?
A. Yes, I have worked with Bollywood films a lot. If we are talking about freedom of creativity in this, let me tell you that it depends on you. If you choose to believe in yourself, no one can dictate the terms to you, and everyone will respect that, and they would always agree to work according to you. But if your work is mediocre, people will come and ask you to do things their way. This happened to me in my early days. There was a music director for whose film I was singing, and he was constantly telling me to try thinking about, and singing like [Mohammed] Rafi sahib, to get his style. I refused to do that, as I have my own way and I am confident about it. But this was long ago. I love working in Bollywood and it has been a great experience. I am never excited about getting my songs on the top charts; but my songs should leave a deep impact, even on the youth. That is the aim of music. It shouldn’t just be a medium for entertainment, but also something that has the power to change you.
Q. You received the Padma Shri award for your work last year. How much do awards and recognitions matter in your life?
A. When you hit rock bottom, and become stale, and think that you are not a successful person anymore, such awards come to matter a lot. When you receive such an honour after being so disheartened, it is absolutely a great pleasure.
Q. You have judged many singing reality shows. Are such platforms helpful for young artistes looking for recognition?
A. These are good platforms to showcase new talent for the world. But it really depends on you—how you use that talent in a good and useful way. Things have become easy these days as earlier, people had to struggle a lot to achieve their dreams. But now things have become easy. But there’s still a need to figure out how to use such forums in the best possible way. Because in many of these shows, a young person can get overwhelmed by the admiration, and by the glamour. So you have to be very careful about it. Just because you are being appreciated by celebs doesn’t mean that you have achieved everything in the world. I feel that musical reality shows are good learning platforms, and nothing more than that.
Q. Tell us about your new song, “Bharat Ke Veer”.
A. Our government has launched a web portal, “Bharat Ke Veer”, where people from any walk of life can contribute to the families of our martyrs. When I came to know about this initiative, I felt that it was wonderful and wanted to do something more than just pay them a tribute through my song. I recently met with many of our soldiers and was deeply inspired by them. These soldiers die for our nation and often their sacrifice goes unnoticed. So that is when I decided to make an anthem dedicated to them.
Q. What are your upcoming projects?
A. For now, I have a new song “Bharat Ke Veer”, which is available on my YouTube channel and on the online streaming service Gaana, exclusively. Also, every subscriber counts when it comes to my YouTube channel, as all the money that my channel make goes to the “Bharat Ke Veer” fund. The song will be available on all the other digital stores on 20 February. I am also working on my new album, Kailasa, which would be released soon.