It’s a hot April afternoon at Shibtala Ghat, and Arijit Singh has just arrived at his neighbourhood chaayer thek (tea stall) on his bike. He is wearing a yellow T-shirt, baggy track pants, and slippers, and is clean-shaven. His house, a two-storey block of red and white, is right behind the steps of the ghat, next to it an tall building (also his), is under construction. Nearby, a goat plays, and a boat is parked on the river. Under the shade of an ancient banyan tree, adjoined to the Shiv temple, amid calls of a cuckoo, a bunch of boys are discussing the ongoing Indian Premiere League (IPL).
“34/52”… “Rajasthan Royals” … “Rs 2500”.
They are talking about placing bets.
Bappa has a lottery business, and Ajoy works in a Chanachur factory. They have all grown up in the same neighbourhood with Arijit, in Jiaganj, a small town in Murshidabad district, West Bengal, 225 kms from Kolkata. The guy who gets off the back of Arijit’s bike is Chhotu Ghosh; he likes to listen to Guru Randhawa, the latest Punjabi pop-sensation. Black tea with a pinch of rock-salt is being served in earthen pots, cigarettes are being smoked. I think I can also smell weed.
Arijit takes his bike in front of one of the two tea stalls. He tells the tea stall owner, while seated on the bike, “Ebar hocche (So, it’s), Chennai and Rajasthan phinal (final), naki (or what)?”.
The tea stall owner doesn’t seem to have heard him.
Arijit repeats himself, his tone casual and teasing, as though it’s part of some big in-joke.
One of the other boys join Arijit on his bike. He turns it towards the junction, that leads to the main road. He stops there. He is having a chat with a middle-aged man with a paunch, an uncle from the neighbourhood.
A tuktuk, full of passengers, comes from the other road and stops at the junction. The driver seems to be asking for directions from Arijit. Or maybe they know each other. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows everybody.
Then he rides off, turns right towards the main road, and disappears.
He will take the bike around town, and no one will bother him; when someone tries to take his photo from their phones, he will politely refuse. Jiaganj is his natural habitat, and its people don’t treat him like a celebrity. Back in 2006, after the reality show Fame Gurukul in 2006—his first tryst with fame— when someone had noticed him, not knowing what to do, he dove straight into the Bhagirathi, the banks of which he has grown up.
Browse through the radio at any point of the day, and it is likely that an Arijit song would be playing on at least one FM channel. At the time of typing this out, it was “Baatein Bhi Kahi Na” (Khamoshiyan) on one channel, and his rendition of the Kishore Kumar classic “Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas” on another. But India’s number one singer is also one of the most elusive people in the business. Arijit Singh is everywhere, and nowhere.
He detests the idea of appearing in a music video. He did one for a Bengali film (Bojhe Na She Bojhe Na), and vowed not to do it again. The 31-year-old was arrested (and released immediately on bail) in 2013, for assaulting a local TV news cameraman outside the court in Jiaganj, where he was accompanying his wife, Koyel Singh, to help with her divorce proceedings from her earlier marriage — they have a son, Ali.
He is awkward under the spotlight. In an award function in 2013, when he was late to go on stage to collect the award for Best Singer for Tum Hi Ho (Aashiqui 2), the song which made him a phenomenon, he unwittingly rubbed Salman Khan, who was hosting the show, the wrong way. When Khan asked him jokingly if he had slept off, Arijit had joked back, “Aap Logo Ne Sula Diya Yaar Kab Se (You guys have bored me to sleep).” It resulted in not being allowed to sing for any of the films of Khan, known to be a bully about such things. When one of his songs in Sultan was dropped and replaced by another singer (Rahat Fateh Ali Khan), he posted a public apology addressed to Khan on his Facebook page, and deleted it within an hour; there was a backlash from his fans online who thought Arijit shouldn’t have been so subservient to Khan.
Arijit is more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it—except when he is performing. He is writing, directing and producing a two-part feature film. He has already filmed the first instalment, and is preparing for the second part, the shoot of which begins in June. It’s a passion project, and he doesn’t want to compromise on any front. Perhaps that’s why he is making it independently, which he, as the 17th person in Forbes India Power List in 2017, ahead of Amitabh Bachchan and Alia Bhatt, and the only musician after AR Rahman (12), with an estimated earning of Rs 48.67 crores a year, can afford to.
He talks like a cinephile; he’ll say things like how he didn’t like a Bengali arthouse film because it has an “Iranian aesthetic” and he didn’t relate to it as a Bengali (his father is Sikh and mother, Bengali) as “it lacked the honesty”. Or how it’s helpful to edit with a ready soundtrack as music “transforms shots that are not technically great”. He has been experimenting with cameras and rigs for the last few years. He wants to die a filmmaker, he once said in an interview. He has put together a team of amateurs—friends from his hometown with a creative bent but limited exposure—who doubled as make-up artists, costume designers, and production help. It’s a story close to his roots. The first part has been shot secretly guerrilla style in villages in Murshidabad, including the patch of Shal forest he owns, where the shooting party set up shop.
Everyone in this sleepy little town knows about Arijit’s film. A guest house owner, who hosted many members of the crew, says the film is called Lalu. A chap on a bike tells him the title has been changed. What else does Jiaganj know that the world doesn’t? “He is a very nice guy, don’t get me wrong. But he has done all sorts of unruly things,” the guest house owner says affectionately. He has played cricket in lanes, bathed in the river, danced in bishorjons, and got into trouble; he is the street-smart mofussil boy who made it big. A tuktuk driver says he provided with pandal services, a business he does on the side, for the shoot. But Arijit’s inner circle of friends, with who he is making the film, are hard to access. They are aware of the singer’s discomfort with the media.
Everyone in this sleepy little town knows about Arijit’s film. A guest house owner, who hosted many members of the crew, says the film is called Lalu. A chap on a bike tells him the title has been changed. What else does Jiaganj know that the world doesn’t? “He is a very nice guy, don’t get me wrong. But he has done all sorts of unruly things,” the guest house owner says affectionately.
Arijit has refuted having given an interview (Forbes, 2014), and has now altogether stopped giving them. In some of the interviews he has sounded utterly disinterested. And in some, he has said things that are too close to the truth, things we aren’t used to hearing from our pop culture icons, who are often narcissistic and insecure. He has picked an album (Bombay Velvet) that didn’t feature any of his songs, and called it “a benchmark for Indian composers”. In an interview with Mid Day in November, 2016, he was quoted saying, “I don’t think I’ve a long way to go. This might be my last year. Normally, fresh voices replace current ones every five to seven years in Bollywood. Given that trend, I will fade away in 2018.” An estimation substantiated by Hindi film music history — from the end of Mukesh’s heydays in ’50s with the end of the Raj Kapoor era, to the falling out of fashion of Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan and Abhijit, who reigned along with the three Khans through the ’90s, to the gradual exit of Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghoshal, singers who had once seemed indispensable: the shelf life of the Hindi playback singer has become increasingly shorter.
But it doesn’t seem like that for Arijit, not right away, say his colleagues. “He adds so much value to a song, it is difficult to find a substitute. You will give him a basic song and he will take it places. You can trust him,” says lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, who has penned songs like “Kabira” (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani) and “Channa Mereya” (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil). Arijit’s work has been spread over so many genres, composers, actors, and directors, that it’s tricky to categorise him–although “Arijit Singh Sad Romantic Songs” is a thing, found in the form of curated playlists YouTube and music streaming services. “Woh aadmi kuchh bhi gaa sakta hai (That man can sing anything),” says Ashish Narula, Head of production and manager of composer Amit Trivedi. Two of his songs from this year couldn’t be more different. “Aaj Se Teri” (Padman), a simple, sweet song, that makes you wonder if this is how Udit Narayan would’ve sounded if he could sing folk. And the positively shocking “Binte Dil” (Padmaavat), an audacious Arabic-sounding song, in which Arijit’s wild inflections are in remarkable control (in the song promo on Youtube, the singer’s name appears before A-list stars like Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor, an achievement by any measure). It is pictured on Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khilji’s homosexual slave, who sings out his repressed feelings as Khilji makes love to a woman, and is an excellent example of how the playback singer inhabits a character as much as he sings. A singer who was offered to sing the Telugu version of the song gave it up because he found the style of singing too difficult to replicate, and anything else simply wasn’t good enough; the song went to someone else.
This lesser known side of Arijit, the cinema lover, does it inform Arijit, the singing sensation? Make his approach for signing for the screen more holistic? “Shankar Mahadevan and I were talking about him, and he is right when he says that after a long time we have a singer who is the perfect package, who has got the tone of a hero’s voice, who will sing anything you want him to: Sufi rock, item number, bhajan, ghazal… and has kamaal ki taiyyari,” says Bhattacharya.
The inner circle of filmmakers, lyricists and composers talk about his ability to modulate different tonalities, as though a prodigy with a bag of amusing tricks. “You can tell him you want the default tone, the husky tone, or full throttled. Since his classical base is quite solid… he never sounds laboured, which is a big thing,” says Bengali filmmaker Srijit Mukherji. He takes off his chappals before entering the studio, treats it as a holy space. No other singer today, according to Mahadevan, who was one of the judges in Fame Gurukul—which Arijit didn’t win but was the brightest participant—writes down the notations when a composer first plays him a tune. His guru has taught him well.
Arijit was 3 when he used to see his mother do riyaaz with the harmonium, says Kakkar Singh, whose striking resemblance with his son is evident despite the turban and the white beard. He sits by the river at Shibtala Ghat, and calls for tea. “Arijit would run the bellow of the harmonium, as her mother practised. ‘Maa, I will do this, and you sing?,’ he would say. He was a calm child. People won’t believe, but with the bellowing with left hand getting sorted, he learnt playing the sargam within 2 months.”
His mother started sending him to Birendra Prasad Hazari, who used to teach her modern Bengali songs and Rabindra Sangeet. Soon, he was learning tabla under the second brother Dhirendra Hazari. Kakkar Singh remembers the day Rajendra Prasad, the eldest of the Hazari brothers, who taught Hindustani classical vocals, asked for his son to be sent to him. 6-year-old Arijit sang the Nazrulgeeti, “Radha Tulsi Prem Piyasi” in a program in a music school that day.
“You have so many students,” Rajendra Prasad told his brothers after he saw him perform, “Give Arijit to me. I will mould him differently. I think he has the potential.”
Rajendra Prasad took special interest in the boy; he’d started calling him twice instead of the usual one day a week. He was 70-years-old at the time, but he would frequently come to their house — “I’ll eat at your place today”, he would tell Arijit’s mother — Rajendra Prasad sang, his student would sing after him, and this would go on all day, as though they are intoxicated. “He gave Arijit 100 per cent, it’s his bad luck that he got stuck in a place like Jiaganj,” says Kakkar Singh. Rejendra Prasad insisted Arijit leaves Jiaganj to pursue more popular forms of music, because he thought that Hindustani classical does’t have a future. The film Arijit is making is about his guru, it is about Hindustani classical music. He has composed the soundtrack, which feature artists such as Anoushka Shankar, Rashid Khan other than himself.
If the rigour of Rajendra Prasad’s training brings an openness to his singing, growing up in the musical culture of Bengal has lent it a certain folk-rock gruffness. Arijit’s influences are diverse, his playlist includes everything, from Bismillah Khan, to John Mayer, to Elton John to Jagjit Singh. His friends and colleagues in Kolkata, who’ve seen his private performances, describe his rendition of the works of the old Bengali masters like Hemanta Kumar, Shyamal Mitra and Akhilbandhu Ghosh as a “heavenly experience”. On stage, guitar in hand, he performs with the personal touch of a singer-songwriter, with a tight set of musicians, making playful improvisations of his own songs as well as others’ — his concerts, whether they are in India or U.S. are sold out events. An old video of one of his live performances, that has the singer, angsty vocals, distorted guitars and all, shouting “Somebody fucking fix this mic” in the middle of of a rendition of ‘Naadaan Parindey’, went viral. Comedy collective All India Bakchod started an actual petition: “Arijit has single-handedly helped millions to get over a break up… There has been a constant rise in the amount of population that opted for Channa Mereya instead of Old Monk to get over their exes.”
There is a palpable “too-much-of-Arijit” feeling. The data provided by myswar.in, a website about Hindi film music, throws up interesting results. The number of songs sung by Arijit at his peak period is far less than that of other popular playback singers from the past. He has sung 5% of the total number of songs released between 2013-2017, compared to Kishore Kumar’s 19 %, Lata Mangheshkar’s 22 % and Kumar Sanu’s 23 % in their respective peak periods. This could mean several things: that we are consuming more music than before. And the feeling that Arijit is singing too much has got more to do with the quality of songs rather than quantity, that Hindi film music is going through a creative slump, a growing sentiment that’s shared by many, including Arijit himself.
“I can’t hear good stuff these days… no one is trying to sound different with each album,” he said in a particularly revealing interview with Mumbai Mirror in 2015, in which he was critical of some of his own songs. Quite a statement, from someone who is pretty much the face of Hindi film music at the moment. He said that there is too much emphasis on melody, the traditional approach in music making in Hindi film, rather than instrumentation, arrangement, and production. Arijit also thinks like a music programmer and a composer; one of his first works was the title track of the Sourav Ganguly’s quiz show “Dadagiri”, which he composed and sang. He has worked in programming team of composers Mithoon, Vishal-Shekhar and Pritam before breaking out as a playback singer with “Phir Mohabbat Karne Chala” (Murder 2), and “Raabta” (Agent Vinod). He has composed for a couple of Bengali films which are expected to release this year.
He seems like the kind of person who knows that a lot of what he gets to sing is just trite. He has cut down on the songs, has become increasingly selective. In one of the above mentioned interviews, he offered a solution. He said that he wants to focus on specific genres, and has spoken about his desire to achieve a sound “that combines the old-school Indian vocal styles with the big band sound of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Andre Previn”.“That way,” he said, “I can emerge as the only singer who can sing songs of those genres.” How does the same guy negotiate with something like Half Girlfriend–his “Phir Bhi Tumko Chahunga” from the film, one of the biggest chartbusters last year, is exactly the kind of sappy, whiny songs he should stop singing. But there is only so much that a singer, even at the height of stardom, is able to do in Bollywood, where you are always at the risk of upsetting a big star, a top producer or a powerful music label if you say ‘no’.
He said that he wants to focus on specific genres, and has spoken about his desire to achieve a sound “that combines the old-school Indian vocal styles with the big band sound of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Andre Previn”.“That way,” he said, “I can emerge as the only singer who can sing songs of those genres.”
Isn’t his independent spirit bound to be in conflict with Bollywood’s nature of manufacturing a daily quota of songs? Is Arijit Singh, at the peak of his success, going through an artistic crisis? Is that something that he will address in the film, which is about music? Soumyojit Majumdar, actor, and founder of Kolkata-based creative art collective LOK, that worked with him, wouldn’t say much about the film. “It’s too personal to speak about right now,” he says, “But he has this raw affinity for storytelling, and it reminds you of the ’70s Bengali art films, especially those set in rural Bengal. There is an influence of Satyajit Ray and he is very drawn towards Bengali literature and culture.”
Kakkar Singh, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to be aware of his son’s reclusiveness so much. “Why would he not give interviews?… I wouldn’t know … But yes, he likes to stay in the corner, wants to live a little peacefully.” Earlier Arijit wouldn’t come to Jiaganj so often, so his parents would make frequent trips to Mumbai. “Now he runs away to Jiaganj, he says, ‘I can’t take it anymore,” he says. “But you have to sacrifice a bit, how else will you earn money?” he says.
“How many mangoes in your garden?,” someone asks Kakkar Singh.
“Lots,” he says, “These 2-3 days of rain have helped a lot.”
“You only have Amrapali, no?” the man says.
“No no, all kinds, Ranipasand, Amrapali, Mallika,” he says.
The culture of mango orchards in Jiaganj harks back to the time of the glory days of the Nawabs in early 1700s, when Murshidabad was the capital of Bengal, before the British took over, after winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757. In some of the lands that have been bought by his son, Kakkar Singh, whose family came from Lahore during partition, has been trying to grow mangoes. He also runs a restaurant.
The sun has set by the Bhagirathi, and the noise of the motorised wooden boat, which takes people to and from Azimganj on the other side has stopped. The distant whistle of the train can be heard. An IPL match is playing on the TV at Shibtala Ghat.
“Arijit likes cricket. Big fan of Sachin and Sourav,” Kakkar Singh says, “Now, he has become a fan of Virat”.
“Ei Partha, do you know?,” he tells a regular at the evening adda. “This Virat-Anushka wedding, Virat invited him. Soumya (Arijit’s nick name) went to Italy… Italy. He he.” It could be a proud father telling the neighbourhood uncle that his son has got a promotion.
What eludes Arijit Singh? What, indeed? 13 years since he wandered off from home, he might still be looking for an answer. Or what’s more confounding, he has realised there isn’t any.