The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tongue French, voice Hindi

New Delhi, Nov. 30: Remember An Evening in Paris, the 1967 Shammi Kapoor hit, where Sharmila Tagore cavorted in a sensational swimsuit' Remember its title track sung by Mohammed Rafi'

Who would have imagined a French singer crooning the same number in New Delhi 36 years later. Or, for that matter, yodelling like Kishore Kumar in Zindagi ek safar hai suhana in the 1971 blockbuster Andaaz.

On Monday evening, Pascal Heni will be doing exactly that at the capital’s Kamani Auditorium. Heni speaks only French and English but his repertoire includes songs in French, German, Italian, Dutch, Turkish, Hindi and Tamil. Even Bengali numbers such as Kishore Kumar’s Aaamar naam Antony, kajer kitchiu shikhini.

“I am fascinated by language. And music is a universal language,” says the 40-year-old Paris musician.

In the past, Heni has been a performer of many parts. He has worked in films (Souvenir, Souvenir and Liste Noir), acted in plays, done commentary for documentaries, composed and sung for publicity projects.

He has sung French poet Rimbaud’s works and Dante’s Divine Comedy and performed all over Europe. But in the past two years, he has been actively pursuing a career as a French singer of Hindi film songs, with a dash of Tamil tracks and Bengali numbers. “It is my dream to sing in Hindi movies,” he declares.

Heni doesn’t speak, write or understand Hindi. So he writes down the Bollywood songs in English and translates them in French to get a feel of what he is singing. His songbook makes for interesting reading. Itna na mujhse tu pyaar badhaa, ke main ek badal aawara is written in English followed by its meaning (film: Chhaya, 1961) in French: Autant ne moi avec toi amour augmentez, parce que je un nuae vagabond.

Pyarelal (the famous half of the Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo) is impressed by his voice. The French singer has recorded a three-song demo on compact disc. The veteran Bollywood music director has conducted the orchestra. “He wants to compose for me and I want to sing for him. I plan to do a complete album of old Hindi film songs with him,” Heni says.

Watching him rehearse with a local orchestra — five violinists but the lead guitarist is missing — it is evident Heni sings from the heart. There is a joie de vivre about his singing. Much like Kishore Kumar, whom the Frenchman adores and regards as “a genius of voice and acting”.

He also admires “the quality of Mukesh’s timbre” and believes that Rafi is “a technical master”. But his favourite is S.P. Balasubramanium. Among the composers, SJ and LP, are the top two favourites.

Heni chanced upon Hindi film songs while shopping for cassettes at a small shop in Kuala Lumpur in 1988. The first Hindi song he heard was Zindagi ek safar, one of the last tracks composed by the late Jaikishen. “The arrangement was incredible,” he gesticulates violently with his hands as if trying to overcome the gap between his feelings and his limited vocabulary of English words.

Since then, he has been in love with Hindi film music. Although it was only around 1998 that he actively started building a collection with a career in mind. “I wanted to sing Hindi songs. But it was a difficult decision to make,” he says. Soon, he had bought about 2,000 CDs from the music shops of Paris and London, the latter especially for Bengali songs. “It was an orgy of buying,” he says.

By 2001, he had made up his mind. With films like Lagaan, Devdas, Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham doing well in France, taking a decision became easier. The French singer believes it is possible for him to make a living singing Hindi film songs in France. “India is fashionable these days. But I am not an opportunist,” he points out.

In India, he has sung at chic Mumbai parties and Pondicherry hotels but Monday will be his first public show. The singer’s Delhi performance is part of the European Union’s Cultural Weeks celebration in six Indian cities, including Calcutta.

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