If I Sing One Song For Ilaiyaraajaji, That Will Be Bigger Than Any Other Achievement In My Life: Sukhwinder Singh

It has been a while since Sukhwinder Singh has sung a Tamil song, and I am curious to find out if he’s in Chennai to record one. He has sung in diverse styles — the plaintive Jaane Tu Mera Kya Hai (Jaane Tu … Ya Jaane Na), the Hindi bluegrass Slow Motion Angreza (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag), the folksy Tamil Salaam Gulaamu (Hello), the rousing Ruth Aa Gayee Re (1947 Earth), the explosive Thok De Killi (Raavan), and the one song that Spotify algorithms are seemingly programmed to always add to your workout playlist, Chaiyya Chaiiya (Dil Se). I want to try and find out what went on in his mind as he prepared to sing these songs.

Singh appears relaxed, even gregarious. When I interject his answers with a question, he listens intently and absently tip-taps his feet, before articulating himself, slowly and clearly. He tells me that “a slow form is very good, it is glamorous, a slow form creates energy”. Slow-and-steady is a theme throughout our interaction. Singh tells me that he prefers letting things become instead of trying to make them happen — quality over quantity, satisfaction over success.  

Before we begin, he’s busy wrapping up a few phone calls, and keeps apologising for making me wait. But, when he sits down to talk, he’s all focus. He talks about his process, his priorities, the kind of Tamil songs he wants to sing, and what he thinks of hyper-competitive reality TV singing shows. 

It has almost been 25 years since your first Tamil song…

My first song with Rahman in Tamil was for Ratchagan. And the best thing was that the song was picturised on the legendary Mr SP Balasubrahmanyam. I was wondering how I could sing the lyrics correctly. Rahman told me that since I would not anyway deliver it in the correct accent, I should concentrate on the singing. Even if I got 60-70% of the accent right, people would accept it, because they know that the singer is not a native speaker of Tamil. Slowly, over a few songs, I began to improve.

When you met Rahman for the first time, he actually thought you were a lyricist and got you to write him a song…

I’ve written 30 songs just for Rahman. I’m glad that my songs were accepted, but with legends such as Gulzar, Javed Akthar, and Sameer around, I don’t need to write every song. There are also a few good newcomers now. 

Does being a lyricist help you with the diction and the rendition of a song?

I love good poetry. If you understand the exact meaning of a piece of poetry, you can understand the song better. Gulzaar saab writes poetry, we only copy it down without understanding it. But before you sing, you should become one with poetry. I take my time to understand it well. I keep the tempo of my understanding very slow. Usually, a song is 10 to 12 lines. If it’s a Tamil song, I write it down in a modified Hindi script, and also try and understand its meaning. Lyricists can sometimes help replace a difficult word with a simpler one. Then, I match it with the composition. 

I then practice the song at a much, much slower speed to get the tune, mood, and pronunciation right. It’s like a slow motion shot in films. You can observe each small detail clearly. And then once you understand it, you can speed it up. Learning has to be slow. You cannot run and read a book at the same time. 

If I Sing One Song For Ilaiyaraajaji, That Will Be Bigger Than Any Other Achievement In My Life: Sukhwinder Singh

So, you seriously prepare before the first take…

I would rather say I’m sincere, not serious. I prefer good work rather than hard work. If you have all the details, all the information you need, then you can work hard. With creative work, you can only try to do good work. Getting the mood right is more important than working hard.

Has the validation you get from awards shaped your process as you’ve described it?

Not really. I have won a Grammy, three National Awards… awards are gifts, I don’t run after them.

When I was five and visiting Shimla, I threw a tantrum to sing in a competition presided by the Governors of two States. When I was finally allowed to sing, the crowd kept asking for encores. In the end, it was announced that I was going to be given a trophy. I was really excited because I heard it as toffee. When I was given the trophy, I took the toffee that came with it and left behind the trophy!

I don’t believe in competition, or in challenging someone or accepting challenges. I don’t count on the achievements of the past. Also, I don’t depend on just film music or albums. In a couple of days, I will be performing with Rahman in a small spiritual gathering — mehfil — in which I will be singing my Sufi songs blended with Carnatic music. This is for my own satisfaction, for a small group of people… not for films, or for music albums.

You mentioned that you don’t believe in competition. What do you think of reality TV singing competitions, especially with children?

Seven or eight years ago, some contestants were very good. Now, the kids sing well. I started singing when I was five, too. If the children in these shows are appreciated a lot, they will lose the urge to learn. Also, judges should not shout at them; they should lovingly give them tips to improve. When I judge a reality show, that will be the best show. I can’t reveal what I will do, but it will be the best. This is the one challenge from me!

You’ve been selective in Tamil…

It’s mainly because of the language barrier. I am doing a show in Chennai in February [2020]. In a few days, I am going to sit with Rahman. I have an intuition that we will work on a fantabulous song. I am going to put in my entire experience into it. 

I have also spoken to Yuvan {Shankar Raja}. This time, I want to sing a hardcore Tamil dance number. A typical Tamil song. May be, I can do a folk song. It’s just half-a-day’s game. I can promise that Sukhi is going to sing the best dance number in Tamil soon.

I have even met and spoken to Ilaiyaraajaji a while ago. He is very simple, very reserved… there was pin drop silence when I met him. Within 20 minutes, he was laughing, and asked me to have lunch with him. His assistants told me this has never happened before. I really love him. He wanted me to sing for him. If I sing one song for Ilaiyaraajaji, that will be bigger than any other achievement in my life. 

You are devoted to your daily music practice and continue to hone your voice. Do you think that with technology, memorable melodic lines and musicality are reducing? 

The quality of our health and food has started deteriorating. We have more hospitals and pharmacies, but we are not healthier. We have fast food, quick fixes, but they are often harmful. Something similar is happening with music. But, melody will never die. Previously there were 50 melodic songs a year, now there are five. And I hope to be associated with at least one of them.

To become special, you have to act special. But that cannot be done in the mind alone. You have to practice every day. If you use a machine to correct your voice, then you are not special, you cannot create peace through your singing. After so many years in music, I have now joined a music academy to better understand Western music. I have classes twice a week. If I’m travelling, I watch a recording of the class. I want to reinvent myself. Renew myself.

You continue to learn…

When you feel thirsty, you ask for water, you run for water, and the moment you drink it, you feel so relaxed. For me, the learning process is like that. 

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