Return of the King

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By Daler Mehndi might have left with a whimper, but he?s back with a bang. Shrabonti Bagchi reports Photograph by V. Rajagopal
  • Published 16.10.04

The overwhelming emotion that has its grip on Daler Mehndi today is one of vindication: the sheer pleasure of being able to prove all the nay-sayers who thought his career as a singer was over, resoundingly wrong.

A year back, the uncrowned king of bhangra pop went through what proved to be the most harrowing time of his life. His brother Shamsher was accused of human trafficking; taking money to slip young men and women out of the country by registering them as performers in his troupe. Willy-nilly, Daler also got dragged into the controversy and had to go into hiding for more than a month ? running scared not only of the police but his fans who were baying for his blood, feeling let down by their hero.

A year down the line, he has been cleared of all charges in the case and been given a clean chit by Punjab police director-general, A. A. Siddiqui, who has made a statement to the effect that the confusion arose because Daler and his brother looked alike. More importantly for the humble sardar who says his fans have made him what he is today, they too seem to have reaffirmed their faith in him. His latest album cut a Gold Disc (in musical parlance, that means selling 2 lakh copies) in no more than a day?s time. By now, it?s probably crossed the 3-lakh mark ? and still counting ? proving once again that you can keep a good man down but you can?t keep him out.

Sporting his usual ear-scraping grin, Daler Mehndi can?t help looking pleased with life. The God-fearing Sikh lays the credit for his vindication at the Almighty?s steps and actually professes to be happy about the nightmarish time he went through a year back. ?Yes, looking back, I am happy that I got dragged into that controversy, because it?s shown me who are my real friends and who are not. It?s taken the mask off many faces ? including the media?s. Today, I know that the only thing that succeeds is success and the very people who have lauded you as a performer will call you a thief without even waiting for the verdict. Still, I have nothing to complain of, for my new album?s success has wiped the smiles off all the faces laughing at my predicament,? he says.

This is not the first time the 37-year-old has tasted success, though this is indeed an honourable comeback. He was an instant hit when he burst on to the Indian music scene in 1995 with his debut album, Bolo Ta Ra Ra Ra. Bhangra acts had been around for decades then, with singers such as Malkit Singh and Gurdas Mann, but while these performers were good enough for tacky pop acts on Doordarshan and live shows at weddings, they did not posses the marketing savvy of this cab-driver from Berkeley, California.

Soon after the release of his first album, Mehndi not only had the country?s youngsters ? from Patiala and Patna to the posh pubs of the Capital ? on their feet swinging to his lively and catchy tunes, he single-handedly made bhangra cool and hip. Not only that, he internationalised the bhangra beat, especially in the UK, where Indian music was just beginning to find a toe-hold.

Born in 1967 in Patna, into a family of musicians who sang shabads and bhajans at gurdwaras, Daler began singing even before he had learnt how to talk. Years of intense training later, he was not only an accomplished vocalist, but he had also learnt to play the tabla, the harmonium and the tanpura. His family moved to Delhi in 1983, and Daler?s professional career started with singing at private parties and in small hotels, his choice of music that time being ghazals inspired by the poetry of Qateel Shifai and Firaq Gorakhpuri. The moniker ?Mehndi? got attached to his name around this time, for he would sing ghazals made famous by Pakistani singer Pervez Mehndi, who himself was inspired by the mellifluous Mehndi Hassan.

The smartest thing he probably did for his career was to switch track ? the vision of a sardar in a brilliant diamante-studded turban singing soulful ghazals does stretch the imagination a bit. He found his metier in the flamboyant beats of the bhangra, Punjab?s traditional folk music. He added pop beats and a faster rhythm to it and had an immediate winner on his hands when his albums started topping the charts one after the other. After churning out music at the rate of one album a year (the likes of Ho Jaayegi Balle Balle and Tunak Tunak Tun), he also tried his hand at film music, singing popular numbers such as Na Na Na Na Na Re from Amitabh Bachchan?s film Mrityudaata, in which he shared the stage with his childhood hero, for an item number that looked like one of his usual 80s-style videos.

The new album, Shaa Ra Ra Ra, has some of the usual Daler Mehndi numbers, but there seems to have been some attempt at experimentation. One of the numbers is the soulful ballad Shaam Se Maine Puchha, lyrics for which have been written by Nida Fazli and the track Hauli Hauli that incorporates rhythms by ace-drummer Sivamani. He also seems to have imbibed some of the sophisticated technical wizardry that has crept into Indian non-film music videos, for his latest video looks decidedly different from the 80-dancers-to-a-stage productions that have usually accompanied his songs.

Bringing out this album was a mammoth task, he says, given that the music companies are growing increasingly wary of releasing original music, thanks to the remix rage that has killed the market for originality. ?One after the other, the music companies closed their doors on my face when I said I wanted to produce a new album. They told me bluntly that the only thing that was selling was remix albums with their disgusting videos,? says an angry Mehndi. ?Finally, I decided that my own company, DM Music, would release the album and we would also do the promotion. God must be on our side, for we have done it and proved that good music can never be ?out?.?

?After all the controversies and the back-biting, it was I who broke this myth that only remixes work today. I have shown them that hard work and creativity can make a hit and now I?m sure the trend will change for the better,? he says, oozing confidence. The King of Bhangra is back indeed, and let?s say Shaa Ra Ra Ra to that.