Kavita Chhibber in conversation with Singer Extraordinaire Shri Agam Kumar Nigam.
“I am a firm believer in Destiny.”
Kavita’s note: The idea and the title “Extraordinary Measures” came when I once said to my husband Ajit, “We are all ordinary people. But we are made extraordinary by that ‘extra’ measure of love by someone else, the courage or bravery we show when all seems dark. And he said, “Why don’t you feature such people and call the column ‘Extraordinary Measures”?
I first saw him in the early 2000s in Atlanta. I distinctly remember the three songs he sang that night. But it was the second time, again in Atlanta, a few years later. when he sang “Rang aur Noor ki baraat kisse pesh karoon” and “Yeh Duniya yeh mehfil mere kaam ki nahin” to a standing ovation, that I realized what an impeccable singer this dignified master musician was. I went backstage looking for him, but he had already left.
His son who is a global icon, has said that his father’s voice carries far more weight than his and those who love and are fans of Sonu Nigam’s father Agam Kumar Nigam, will tell you how every single private album that he has released has sold millions of copies.
I have all the albums and have given “Bewafai” (the first album I bought) to many Indians and non-Indians alike. I have many personal favorites.
This interview should have happened a few years ago when there was talk of his coming to Boston with Sonu to perform, but everything happens when it is meant to be.
In his very first interview with me more than 14 years ago Sonu Nigam had said to me, “My father’s story is that of loneliness, isolation and hunger. I was under his protection and we were not living hand to mouth. So, his journey was more rigorous, and mine, more emotional.”
This interview went on for four days and I realized that the story I had been hearing in bits and pieces over the years from his kids, could be made into a movie.
I still feel I have only touched the tip of the iceberg in this interview.
Agam ji’s sense of humor, his sharp memory, and wit and his story telling skills had me riveted.
His pride at the fact that he has continued to carve his own path while being equally proud of his son’s fabulous journey, initially masterminded by him, is inspiring. He is also quite the actor. He had me in splits every single day. It was really like being in a one man show!
I can see where the mischief and acting ability comes from in Sonu and his youngest sister Teesha. She was instrumental in organizing this interview.
Thank you Teesha!
And I am so happy that this special column continues with another story that is all about Extraordinary Measures.
In this extensive interview Agam Kumar Nigam, shares his life’s journey, his music, and how he made sure his son did not make the mistakes he made, and much more.
You do not belong to a musical family. So how did this passion for music happen?
Actually my father was an outstanding flute player and he sang very well. But it was mostly for pleasure. I think it was some kind of a divine gift for me because for as long as I can remember I was always singing. I was born in Agra and sang very well at the tender age of 4. The neighborhood girls who were like older sisters would fill my pockets with firecrackers on Diwali day and I would happily go home and say, look at all the firecrackers I got! Let us go and play with them.
When I turned five, we moved to Faridabad and I distinctly remember there used to be this last hour in school, called Bal Sabha, where all the kids would do something creative. I always sang. And it was not just in my own classroom. Students from other classrooms would come and whisk me away saying their teacher wanted me to sing there as well.
The first validation came in 1955, at a school function, where General Jagan Rao Bhosle was the chief guest. I led a group of kids singing the famous song “Aao Bachchon tumhe dikhayein Jhanki Hindustan Ki” (Come children let me show you glimpses of Hindustan). I sang the entire 5 verses and I was only in 4th grade.
When the time came for prize distribution and it was done, General Bhosle asked, “Where is that boy? And why wasn’t he given a prize?” He was told I had not qualified for any award. But the General insisted I be called on stage. He took out a 20 rupee note from his own wallet and gave it to me. That was 1955, and it would be equal to 2000 rupees today.
Music was always an obsession. I would listen to a song and go climb a tree in a park or an orchard behind my house and just sing. I would go with my friends in the mountains and sing. It was a junoon, a single-minded madness for music.
And then in 1962 when I was 15, I ran away from home with my childhood friend Balkishan Dhawan who I had known since 2nd grade, to try my luck in playback singing. I had no classical music training. I used to just listen to songs and sing.
Many years later I asked Balkishan why he ran away with me when he had no interest in becoming a musician. He said he wanted to be the one earning the money to support me in my struggle, since I will not have time to work and pursue music at the same time. We were really two bodies and one soul.
In Bombay we met the famous music director Usha Khanna. I told her I needed guidance and wanted her to hear me sing and tell me honestly if I could become a playback singer.
She heard my songs, and said I had all the makings of a playback singer but needed to train in classical music for 6 months, return and then she would give me additional training.
Money was running out and even though she was kind enough to find us a job, we decided to go back home. I had left a letter for my parents, but they were relieved to have me back.
I used to sing songs of Mukesh when I met Usha Khanna and was known as Mukesh in Faridabad.
Unfortunately, I could not get the classical training that Usha ji wanted me to receive but I was not interested in anything else either. I dropped out of high school and did some odd jobs here and there, but I just did not feel happy. My only passion was music.
I visited Bombay in 1964 and 1965, but never went back to Usha Khanna. I was afraid she would ask if I had gotten my training and I would be rejected. Instead I took part in a program called Cadbury’s Phulwari where they gave an opportunity to good singers to sing.
So I would sing and all of Faridabad would tune in that day to listen to their hometown boy singing on radio. I was very appreciated, but I still did not go back to see Usha ji. I do realize now, that even if you do not have a formal guru, if you just listen to all the greats with a keen ear, you will still learn a lot. In those days the caliber of music and singers was so high that classical music training was a great asset. Today the kind of songs you hear, it’s not necessary to have that base.
I finally decided in 1967, that I was going to move to Bombay and this time for good. I was not going to keep going back and forth. I would give it a shot.
How was the Bombay of the 1960s?
People were extremely decent in those days, but life was not easy. I left for Bombay in August of 1967. But forgot that it was the monsoon season. I would often get drenched and run from place to place to find work and shelter. Before 1967 I would visit Bombay for a couple of days, stay in some nondescript place, record the song, and go back. But now it was different. There was no going back. Initially I did not have a place to stay so I got myself a railway pass. A third-class pass from Andheri to Churchgate cost 8 rupees. I would spend the day looking for work. Sometimes I would end up at a studio and watch a recording. Another time I would be watching a film shoot. Then I would have a simple meal and get in the train. Take a window seat and sleep, wake up and see the stations go by and would finally get off when the train came to its final stop. I would get down, stay at the railway station for a couple of hours. Then board the 4 am train when the service started again and go back to sleep till about 7 or 8 am.
There was a time I stayed in a taxicab driver’s kholi (small tenement) but there is something quite amazing about the slum dwellers of Bombay. They intuitively know who is an outsider or a person in transit. They knew who was seeing rough days but will fly away as soon as he was able to find an opportunity. As a result, they were exceedingly kind to me, and would often address me as “Hero”.
Always reminds me now of that dialogue from Deewar: “Yeh lambi race a ghoda hai, tum dekhna yeh ladka zindagi bhar boot polish karta nahi baithega. Jis din zindagi ki race main isne speed pakdi, yeh sab ko peeche chod jayega.” (This boy is a horse meant for the long haul. He will not be polishing shoes forever. The day he picks up speed in the race of life, he will leave everyone behind).
Sometime later I found a place to stay. It was quite far from Bombay and I would travel for hours just to sing for 25 rupees and then return home by 3 am or so and start the grind all over again. My friend Balkishan, whose business had started doing well, and my father would send me some money. But it was never enough, and I would often go hungry. Slowly however I started making friends and people were always kind. Finally, I did find a place in Bombay when I did Ganpati shows and received a lot of love and respect. The Guru ji of a Sangeet Vidyalaya in Dadar found out I was travelling from far and immediately handed me the keys to his place and said come and stay here. He did not even ask me for an identification or did a background test. Just handed me the keys. It was just based on his instincts. People were kind then.
Another remarkably interesting incident happened in 1968. I was till struggling with an odd show here or there when my father sent me a letter that my sister was getting married. I left for Kanpur, attended the marriage and returned to Faridabad.
Then it was time for me to go back to Bombay and I had no money for even a train ticket. My friend Balkishan gave me money but it was for expenses in Bombay. I still did not have money for a train ticket. So he finally got me a ride in a truck with a father and son and their cleaner. He even told them to feed me along the way as I had no money for food either. As we approached the Gwalior Shivpuri route the truck’s axle broke down. The father told us he would go and find help but would not be able to return until the next day. It was December and very soon we started feeling cold and hungry. There was no shop around to even get a cup of tea. Suddenly I saw a group of village girls walking past us. And I started to sing, not looking at them but hoping they will at least appreciate my voice. Cold and hungry, there was nothing else to do.
Soon it was dusk, it got colder, our truck windows started fogging over. And then suddenly we saw them, men wielding sticks and lanterns approaching our truck. They were villagers. I panicked and thought, those girls must have complained, and these guys have come to beat us up.
They knocked on the window. The driver’s son cracked open a bit while I hid behind quite terrified. One of the men asked, “Who is the singer here?”
After denying there was one and they refusing to budge saying their girls have heard him, I finally came out of hiding very reluctantly and said, “I am the singer”.
They looked at me and said, “The village head has called you to the village.” I thought okay now they are going to beat us up as a group and we will make the headlines in tomorrow’s paper. We made our way to the village quite terrified until I saw the village head’s face. He did not look angry. Instead he was very warm and said, “We heard from our girls that someone was singing very well. So we would like you to sing for us.”
I heaved a sigh of relief and said, “I will sing but please feed us first. We are cold and hungry.” Immediately we were served hot food and tea and then I sang songs that they would have liked, Duniya banane wale, Sajanva bairi ho gaye hamar, some bhajans. They wanted us to stay the night, but we did not want things stolen from the truck so went back. The next morning, they invited us back for breakfast and to my surprise, the young girls washed my feet, a sign of respect and reverence. Then the village head spoke to the driver’s son and said, “Leave this singer here, he can marry my daughter. We will take good care of him!”
It was one of the most surreal experiences. Shivering and singing to forget hunger and cold and then this happens.
That is why they say music that has soul reaches God’s ears. Talking of God, you love Rafi sahib and Sonu ji has often said he is his soul father. Did you ever get to meet the man many call the angel of music?
I never got to sit down and talk to Rafi sahib but there is an incident forever imprinted in my heart.
It was comedian Johnny Whisky’s wedding in 1970. He was very close to Rafi sahib and used to emcee all his shows. Our orchestra was performing that day. We knew that Rafi sahib was coming for the wedding. It had already been decided that as soon as he enters, whoever was performing onstage will stop and I will quickly get on stage and sing one of his songs.
The wedding was at Khar Gymkhana, and the entrance was near our stage with the mandap on the right side. So Rafi sahib would have to approach us, although from afar, and then turn right to go to his seat. As soon as we found out he had entered the hall, the girl who was singing quickly completed her 2 lines and left. I came on stage and started Rafi sahib’s song, “Nazar woh jo duhshman pe bhi meherban ho” and Rafi sahib who was headed towards the right side where he was to be seated, stopped in his tracks, changed his path and came and stood right in front of the stage, in front of me, and heard an entire verse standing there. He then showed me his appreciation in his signature gesture indicating that I was outstanding. Then he walked to his seat.
I think instead of feeling nervous, I feel I sang even better in front of my idol to show my respect. It is among the most precious moments of my life.
So here you are in Bombay doing well by 1969 on stage with a live Orchestra. I believe stage shows filled a major requirement, because it was either the artists themselves or stage artists doing popular songs. There was nothing in between. No social media. What was that like?
Initially I started trying to find an orchestra so I could join them and sing with them. I would look for ads in the newspapers, but it took me almost 7 to 8 months to find an orchestra. And it was a strange twist of fate again. I was supposed to be going to Dadar but being new to the city, got down on the wrong stop. I figured I could take a short cut through the bylanes and reach my destination. I was walking into unknown, uncharted territory when suddenly my eyes fell on an advertising board which said, “Manohar Kamath and Party”. That was exactly what I was looking for. So I rang their doorbell. They said they were not doing too many shows but gave me the name of another troupe. I started doing their shows and later, Bajaj and sons who were very famous took me on. Very soon I became known among the best voices in Bombay and started getting a lot of work.
My forte had been that I could sing Mukesh and Rafi songs equally well and had been known as Mukesh in Faridabad. When I first reached Bombay in 1967, I had contacted Narendra Singh Kaka who was the number 2 saxophone player In Bombay after Manohari Lal. He was always with Mohamed Rafi. He took me to another renowned personality, Hazara Singh, in the hope that I could find work there. Hazara Singh asked me to sing. I sang a Mukesh song and he said, “Can you sing a song from Teesri Manzil?” I was taken aback. I had never sung those songs even though I sang Rafi songs but at one point even I was confused. What should I sing? Mukesh or Rafi? Hazara Singh told me kindly, “If you want to survive in Bombay, you will have to sing Rafi.” I became an all-rounder eventually singing songs by every singer. But focused more of course on Rafi sahib.
You did not think you should be trying out for playback singing now that you had become a well-known voice in Bombay? Go back to Usha Khanna?
I do not know what it is, but I have never felt comfortable asking for work for myself and looking back I think it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. If you look around: Every great artist, or actor, has got work because he asked for it. But I just could not. I thought maybe now that I am well known, someone might come to my show and offer me a song. But that never happened. Even after I became such a recognized voice, even after all my private albums were super hits and even after Sonu became famous.
I really believe in destiny. It is hard to explain otherwise why this should have been the case.
I just focused on stage shows and they were a big success. At that time, a trio of 3 promoters came from East Africa in 1970 with the intent of hiring some promising singers and taking them back to East Africa for a series of shows for six months in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. They had a live orchestra and a proper audition, after rehearsals on stage. I was chosen among the male singers.
We did a series of highly successful concerts. Our audience was predominantly Gujaratis and Khoja Muslims. On our return I met Anup Jalota in the ship. He too had been performing concerts representing the Shipping Corporation of India. We spent a lot of time together. I have known him since then.
From then onwards our performances became very well known and respected all over the world and I was doing very well. After I came back from East Africa in 1971 Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations were round the corner. We would get 11 shows and looked forward to them because we could earn a lot of money and consolidate.
And those shows brought an incredibly special someone into your life.
During that time there was a young lady who I knew for about a couple of years, but we were mere acquaintances. She used to be profoundly serious, her primary career was working in an office and she would sing part time. I was told that I had the contract for the 11 days concerts and my co-singer was this very girl by the name of Shobha Sharma.
I was extremely disappointed. I said, “That girl is very serious and sings only part time. Why can’t you get someone who is vivacious and fun on stage?” They said sorry we have already given her an advance payment and so it cannot be changed.
I was not too happy but said okay fine. But from the moment we sat down in the train, things changed. From acquaintances we become friends. At the end of the 11 concerts I realized that this was the girl who I wanted to marry. It was like a new chapter just opened for us seamlessly. When we returned, we were even more drawn to each other. But her parents were not in favor of the marriage.
(Laughter) I was planning to just say we got married against her parents’ wishes and had a simple Arya Samaji wedding. But you have let the cat out of the bag! I did not want to bring up that elopement part. (Laughter)
But yes, we got married against the wishes of her parents in July 1972. It
Agam Kumar Nigam and Shobha Nigam
took another 10 years before they reconciled to the marriage. In fact, years later we would talk about it and Shobha ji would say I cannot believe that I actually eloped with you. There is NO way I could have done that, but I did. Maybe it was because the universe was aligning to bring Sonu Nigam into this world to conquer it. Otherwise she said she never would have had the courage. Another thing she said was that she intuitively knew I was sincere and loyal and that I would never let her down.
Soon after our marriage the organizer I used to sing for very regularly, Bajaj and Party, and did most of the biggest shows in Bombay came to visit us in Delhi where we had moved. He asked if we would go to Hyderabad and sing at a hotel. I initially refused but he assured me that the hotel had very decent Sindhi patrons who loved good music, and that we could leave if we did not like it. So we went and ended up staying there for 3 months and performing there. Soon after Sonu was conceived and we moved to Faridabad so my mom could take care of Shobha ji. I still had a house in Delhi, and things were becoming slow in Bombay. The Kishore Kumar wave had started, and people were not in a mood to listen to Rafi. I had restarted singing Mukesh songs. Balkishan told me to move back and get involved in his business. Initially we had just come for my wife’s delivery.
I came to Bombay to do the Ganpati shows but even they got cancelled. So Balkishan packed my luggage, booked a coupe, threw the luggage in, and brought me back to Faridabad. The dilemma started again. What do I want to do with my life? I did some work with him but my heart was still in music. When I was in Bombay, I used to come to Faridabad and Delhi with some big artists to do shows and people from Delhi and Faridabad would get very excited seeing me perform on stage, with these big stars.
At that time, this big annual show was about to happen. It was attended by 20-30,000 people. But Delhi had not really gotten into Orchestra performances. At that time, legendary artists from Delhi and Punjab performed in and around Delhi. And it was usually couples. Before I left for Bombay, I had tried to find someone to sing duets with, but I was too young, and the women around were a lot older. There was no concept of a solo male singer at that time.
The promoters heard I was in town and I had not told people that I had moved back to Delhi. They pleaded with me to sing. I said I am used to singing with an orchestra and here it is tabla, dhol and harmonium. But after a lot of cajoling I agreed. They said they will pay me a token 100 rupees. I had agreed but I did not know what I was going to sing.
I was just walking past a shop when I heard this song which stopped me in my tracks. I went in and asked what is this song? They said the film had not released yet but it was a song from the film Bobby and was sung by Narendra Chanchal. The song was Beshaq mandir masjid todo. I got the album and heard the song, wrote down all the Punjabi words, practiced the extremely high notes and prepared that song.
When we reached the venue, Shobha ji sat in the green room with Sonu who was 3 months old, and all the other artists were also hanging around chatting. People in the audience were also chatting. The moment I sang the first line, the great singer Surinder Kaur said, “Be quiet and listen to what the young man is singing!” All the artists who could, came and stood in the wings listening. As soon as I ended people went crazy. Then I sang Jhoom barabar Jhoom after that and brought the house down. People were showering currency on me. On top of that all the artists came and handed me money as a blessing. The notes were so many that my jacket went out of shape stuffing them. It was a very surreal moment in my life. I have seen this happening for little kids. But for an adult to be showered with appreciation and money not only by the audience but all the artists themselves was the greatest form of appreciation and blessings. A very special moment in my life.
Afterwards Surinder Kaur ji called me over and asked, “Where do you live?” I lied again and said Bombay. She turned to my wife and said, “Tell your husband to quit Bombay and return. He will sweep people off their feet and will rule Delhi.” I came home and spread all the money that had been thrown at me. I had not seen so much money in a long time! Or let us say I had never seen something that was like a loot!
In the meantime, a big businessman who was friends with Balkishan, also knew me and would always ask me to sing for him, invited us both to his daughter’s wedding. There was a live Orchestra group called Brij Rangeela and Party who were performing at the wedding. The host told him “I want my friend to also sing.” The organizer kind of brushed him aside each time saying “Yes, yes… I will set it up for him to sing,” and would not. Finally I walked up to him and said, “Look I am a professional singer from Bombay, if you do not want me to sing, just say so. But do not act this way.”
He set up the orchestra and again I sang those two songs Beshaq mandir masjid todo and Jhoom barbar jhoom. Again it brought the house down and again currency rained. The only difference was that this time the denomination was way bigger!
The female singer’s father was a musician in the orchestra and met me after the show. He said, “We have a show in Ludhiana. Can you sing with us?” I was told I would be given 150 if I made more than 400 rupees from the audience and 200 if I made less. I went with them and made 600 extras. After that there was no looking back. Brij Rangeela who had been acting pricey gave me an unlimited number of dates to perform with them and filled up my calendar.
I used to go to Delhi from Faridabad to do shows in Delhi. When the demand became too much we shifted to Delhi. Meenal, our second child, was born in the meantime. She is 11 months younger than Sonu. Everyone in the group became our extended family. Soon there was a shortage of female singers and they asked if Shobha ji would step in since she used to sing with me in Bombay, Initially I hesitated but she told me it was okay because all the people around us would be our extended family of musicians who we were anyway spending time with. I told her okay let us sing but once we collect 1 lakh rupees you can stop. Shobha ji started singing with me in 1976 and by 1979 we had saved 1 lakh. An exceptionally large sum in the 1970s.
We should have stayed on in Delhi but were misled by someone who had his own interest in mind to return to Bombay. I was the number one singer in Delhi by then. I had broken the mold of couples only singers and introduced Rafi to the Delhi audience. But that itch to go back to Bombay would not leave me. My wife was incredibly supportive of my dreams and whenever I would say, “Shall we go back to Bombay?” She would agree.
So we returned to Bombay and I introduced Sonu as a child artist in the early 80s and tried to reestablish myself but something or the other would start going wrong. All the mothers would accompany their kids and I would be that odd dad bringing Sonu. No one paid any attention to us. At that time, I started buying lottery tickets out of desperation for a few weeks, but nothing happened there either!
At that time, I was introduced to an astrologer. We became friends and one day I invited him home for a cup of tea. Sonu was sitting near the window. as we were having tea I said to Gyani ji, the astrologer: “I was doing very well in Delhi but every time I return to Bombay the struggle begins to reestablish myself. Sometimes my throat would be messed up, sometimes the movie would be shelved. Financial crisis is looming, and I am getting more and more worried.” And I said to him jokingly, “Gyani ji can you give me some lucky lottery numbers?”
At that point Gyani ji’s eyes fell on Sonu. He looked at him carefully and asked me “Is that your son?” I said jokingly: “That is what it seems like so far. That he is my son and I am his father!”
Gyani ji again looked at Sonu’s face very carefully. Sonu was busy reading something.
Gyani ji then turned to me and said, “Oh Nigaaammm ji, eh tuadi lottery tey tuadey kol payee hui hai tusi bahar kithey goom raye ho lottery wastey? (Your lottery is right near you. Why are you roaming outside looking for a lottery?)
I did not understand what he was saying and asked him again “What do you mean?”
Gyani ji asked Sonu’s age. I said he was 11, then he replied, “Let him grow up a bit. He is going to be your bumper lottery”.
I still did not pay attention. I said, “He is not even a mini lottery yet, and you are talking about bumper. Well anyway what am I supposed to do in the meantime?”
Gyani ji replied, “Leave Bombay. Right now your fortunes are so bad, that if you touch gold it will turn to mud. Go back to Delhi. You will not succeed right now. But when your son grows up, he will be your bumper lottery. Mark my words.”
Predictions are not always right, nor are they always wrong. That prediction stayed with me because Gyani ji had no clue what Sonu excelled in, and he never asked me anything.
Immediately after that I got an offer to perform in Dubai. I left the family in Bombay, earned for 3 months, and we decided to return to Delhi. Our youngest Teesha was also born by then.
So, we returned to Delhi. There used to be a competitive show called Yaadgarein Rafi and the best singer was given an award. The great music director Anil Biswas was the judge. People came from all over India to compete. I won that night and he said he was giving that award to me because my voice had pain, pathos, soul, and clear enunciation.
In 1985 Gulshan Kumar, the founder of T- series, had come and had taken the winner Vipin Sachdeva under his wing, He told me candidly that Vipin was his protégé, so he had to go with him.
At the after party that night when people were appreciating me, I said in 1988 my son will win this competition. People were taken aback. They said how do you know? And why not 1987 why 1988? I said because he is only 13 right now. His voice has to mature. He will be 15 in 1988 and he will win. My prediction came true. Sonu sang Chal udh ja re panchi and won that competition.
At what point did you know that Sonu was very gifted?
He always sang well, and he was never told to sit down and practice. He would do that himself, and play the harmonium. But it was in 1988 when he won, that I knew for sure that with the right guidance he will become a playback singer. And that he will go extremely far. In 1990 we decided that Sonu and I will return to Bombay to start his journey.
At that point I thought that I am taking him to Bombay, but he has had no classical training. I looked for a teacher and heard Ustad Mohammed Taahir who was an exceptionally fine singer. I asked him to come to our house and meet Sonu. Then I told him, we are leaving in 4 months for Bombay so whatever you can teach him in four months please do so.
Ustad ji looked at me and asked, “Why, are you getting transferred?”
I said. “No, I am taking my son to Bombay to make him a playback singer.”
The Ustad ji was even more surprised and asked, “And what do you think he can learn in a mere 4 months that he will become a great playback singer?”
I said, “Well at least try and teach him what you can. Check him out.”
A couple of days later he himself said to me, “Agam ji, you were right, He is very tayyar.” What he did not know was that some divine grace had given Sonu skills and talent that can only be God-given. He was already years ahead. Ustad ji taught him whatever he could in those 4 months and then in October 1991 we left for Bombay.
When I brought Sonu back to Bombay in 1991, we had such a good life in Delhi. Our own house, car, and all the comforts but I was ready to start all over again and put my career on hold.
What were the mistakes that you did not let him make?
I did not let him do stage shows and I went and asked for work for him, something I did not do for myself. And I say again: It was the biggest mistake of my life. I do not know why but I could never do it for myself but in hindsight I should have asked. Everyone starts somewhere. And that is the advice I would give every newcomer. Ask for work. There is no shame in it.
But I do think when you have to ask for yourself and tell someone “I am hungry, please give me work. Give me ten bucks,” it is difficult. But if you ask for your child and say, “My child is hungry, give them food,” it is a lot easier. When we moved to Bombay, Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan were the reigning singers. And Sonu was young. People were skeptical but we both were determined to succeed.
So guess where I finally took Sonu after 29 years?
Let me guess. To Usha Khanna?
Yes! And what I am about to tell you, I have not shared with many people.
So here we were, back to see Usha Khanna. After 29 years she did not recognize me. We had a lot of mutual friends, but I refused to go to them and let them introduce Sonu to her or ask favors. I have always believed that your merit should bring you work. Usha Khanna was a big music director by then. Many great singers were singing for her.
So she looked at both of us and said, “Who is the singer?” I pointed to Sonu. She tried to brush us off and said, “I am terribly busy, just leave your audition cassette.” Our common friends had already told me she threw away those cassettes in the bathroom and never listened to them. So I said we have no cassette. Then she said I am busy for the next two days. We said we will come after 2 days.
Finally she said, “Okay come to Sargam Studio in Khar in 2 days.” We went, made it a point to meet and wish her and then sat down to wait. Alka Yagnik was recording.
Then it was lunch time and Usha ji said she was hungry and going home but stopped when she saw Sonu sitting there waiting for her. She felt bad and said “Oh this child is still here. Okay come and go to the microphone.” She sat down next to the recordist. His name was Balram. I quietly went and stood behind them to see their reaction. I had already told Sonu what ghazal to sing and he saw a harmonium and quickly found his pitch. Before he started, the recordist asked Usha ji softly, “Should I give him reverb?” And she said to him clicking her tongue, “No need. We will hear two lines and dismiss him.”
Then Sonu started on the first line, and she was stunned. She quietly said to the recordist, “Give him reverb.”
Sonu sang one stanza, then the second and then the third and she did not move. She sat there listening until he finished and then got up and cheered as did all the others around us. The recordist said this boy is a tremendous singer and she said “Yeh seekha hua hai.” (He is trained singer). And then she asked him where he was from and called us home. We became friends and she our well-wisher. One time she was doing a background score and we went to meet her. She instantly created a piece for Sonu to sing in the song and then handed him a 500 rupee note and said “This is your first earning and it is with my blessing. Do not forget that.” It was because of her that Sonu got to sing for T series.
How did that happen? I used to hear that Gulshan Kumar had his own team of singers and he did not allow anyone else in.
Usha Khanna once asked Sonu to sing a dummy with Anuradha Paudwal. It was to be dubbed later by another singer. When they finished Anuradha said this was THE best voice she had heard on T-series. The song was dubbed but then when another song came up “O aasmaan wale” and they were considering singers, Gulshan ji said, “Let the young boy who had come in to do the dummy sing it.”
When Sonu sang it, the recordist told me that Gulshan Kumar was so floored, he heard the song on a loop 7 to 8 times.
After that Acha Sila diya tune mere pyar ka was composed and then again came the question who should sing it. All the top singers were there, Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan, Suresh wadkar. But again, Gulshan Kumar said: “Get Sonu. He has pathos in his voice.” The song became a super hit and Gulshan Kumar had all of Vipin Sachdeva’s songs dubbed by Sonu. Rafi ki yaadon mein which was originally sung by Vipin was dubbed by Sonu.
As long as he was alive, Gulshan Kumar was very fond of Sonu and at one point of time wanted him to star in one of his movies as well. I still remember sitting with him along with Sonu and Gulshan ji talked for a long time about what all he wanted to do. While he was a staunch businessman, Gulshan Kumar was also a kind man.
You have studied a lot of greats and have taught yourself and Sonu what nuances to capture. Can you give your take on what is good singing? What all did you appreciate in them?
Good singing has accuracy, clear enunciation, soul, and sensitivity. And it is never over embellished. And if you are singing the song of a great artist then sing it accurately. Do not add unnecessary movements. Do you think Rafi did not know how to do those movements? I never over sang a song. Just singing exactly like a great artist is itself an exceedingly difficult task. It is hard to even reach that level. You will see one thing in all great singers. They do not over sing a great song. Look at Sonu, when he sings his own songs, he has the freedom to mold that song as he wants. But when he sings Rafi sahib, he sings the song with great accuracy. And maintains its sanctity.
As far as special things about some greats, I can only appreciate how many of them surpassed their idols. Lata ji said she was a huge follower of Noor Jehan, but she became better than her. Rafi sahib followed G.M. Durrani but became better. Kishore Kumar followed the great K.L Saigal and became exceptional. I noticed one thing. Directly or indirectly whoever followed K.L Saigal, captured his timbre and emotions, became legends themselves. But that was a golden era. None of these greats can ever be cloned. In ghazal singing there has been only one great ghazal singer in India and that is Jagjit Singh.
Things are not the same now. Nepotism, Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, depression, what is your take on all this? And someone as great a singer as Sonu has had his songs dubbed. Now the names are out in the open, Salman Khan, the movie and music mafia. Do you think sanity will prevail?
I think the more the delay, the shorter the memory. I do not feel anything will change. As people calm down and time elapses, it will be the same old stuff.
Music is no longer music. It is all mediocrity and a jungle of mostly untalented people promoted by music companies and social media and promotions controlled by them. Music directors are busy doing remixes, most singers sound the same and I do not know who is composing what. It is not because he is my son, but Sonu is still the best singer in our country and among the most well known in the world. About ten years ago they started to sabotage his career. Some of them will be punished. But for most it will be the same old routine once things die down. This is now an unhealthy industry.
What is the strangest question you have ever been asked?
Your son Sonu Nigam is singing so well. He is so successful. How do you feel?
What kind of question is that? And what are you expecting me to say? “Oh I was really hoping ke mera beta nalayak niklega par bade afsos ki baat hai ki who toh superstar ban gaya. (Laughter).
Or when once after a standing ovation, these three women came running to me and said “You should be immensely proud of your son!” And the son did not even sing a single song! (Laughter.) And these were the very women going crazy and cheering!
When you look back what is it that you are most proud of?
I must share this story. When we were returning to Delhi in the mid-80s, I bought train tickets but when we reached the station, there was a mess up and they were trying to get us to sit on someone else’s seats which I was refusing. The coolie looked at me and said “If you have such an attitude problem, why don’t you go by plane?!” I said: “Fine get my luggage out.” We went back home and left by air the next day.
This attitude has always helped me. If someone tries to push me around, I push right back. If someone says it cannot be done, I will find a way. And I am always ready to start from scratch.
The fact that even when I took some time out to oversee my son’s career, I did not lose my own identity and continued my own career after he started seeing success. It seems very strange to me when a celebrity father will say “Oh earlier on, I was known by my own name, now I am known as my child’s father.” I heard actor Shakti Kapoor say that. Who does that? People know who Shakti Kapoor is.
Many men would have just packed up and been a star father, but I have never believed in that. I have enjoyed Sonu’s journey and we started again from scratch which used to surprise people at times. People said to me “How could you have left such a successful career and gone back to wash dishes, sweep floors, cook and start all over again with Sonu?” It is because they did not have a son like him. Sonu’s voice had such luster, that extraordinary quality, that I knew this is a special soul with a very extraordinary talent that must be nurtured at any cost. He was also good looking and both highly intelligent and driven from a young age.
But after he became phenomenally successful, I did not think even once that my identity is limited to being “Sonu Nigam’s father.” I never thought now I should just sit at home, drink, get fat and lazy and do nothing. When I embarked on my tour of USA in 1996, no one knew I was Sonu Nigam’s father. I got a standing ovation in the very second show on the tour.
I lost my wife and my best friend Balkishan within 6 months of each other. It has been a big heart break and I struggled. I could not do my Riyaz (practice), but then I pulled myself up and started getting busy.
Today I have no regrets. I am a firm believer in destiny and realize that you will only receive what you are meant to. Just focus on doing good, use your time wisely and never lose your own identity.
--IANS sms\rm (This story has not been edited by BDC staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed from IANS.) Writers are welcome to submit their articles for publication. Please contact us through Contact Us in the Menue