You recently released your first album Ishq Karo on an online platform. Are you satisfied with the response the album has received?
It is just too early to assess the total outcome of the success of the album, but yes so far, whatever response I have got from my listeners, it is actually quite overwhelming. When looking at how there is no record label to support you, thanks to the social media and internet, your fans and loyal listeners are actually following you. Due to that, I have got a pretty fair response. The promotions are still going on because I am doing them in terms of my tours to promote the album. So once I start doing that, over the span of the next few months, I think hopefully it should get a better response that it has already got.
It makes no sense to me why the big music companies are not promoting ghazals when we see that most of the ghazal shows are pretty much sold out? Where do you think is the missing link?
Basically piracy has killed it. It is not their fault. The record labels were responsible for introducing some landmark projects, as far as ghazal is concerned. There was a complete industry of ghazals working since decades. Unfortunately, most of the record labels have stopped producing CDs because they are no sales (physical) and ironically, the shops which used to sell the CDs have closed down too. There are hardly one or two major CD outlets in Mumbai. So I don’t blame the music labels but the piracy for this kind of a disaster where the revenues have literally disappeared for not just ghazals, but other non-film genres too. Even film music has suffered big time due to piracy. The Indian music listener needs to understand the concept of buying music online. This has still to sink in smoothly. I would urge your readers to stop piracy by buying original. It will help us to revive the music industry on the whole.
You have been Nadeem-Shravan’s assistant for years and last we heard, they have split for good. Are you still in touch with Nadeem and what has he been up to?
I am actually not in touch with him on a regular basis. We do speak once in a while as we are both busy in our own work. I have recently heard that Nadeem bhai has recorded a few songs for few films. He has signed two films, from what I have heard and he is working on these. I think he is going to be back into the scene and I hope that he does more films because that would be a good news for people who believe in melody, song with meaning and songs that will last. He has gone solo for his own personal reasons and I am sure he will do really well. He is one of the most talented composers I have come across (I am saying this without any bias). As a musician/singer/composer myself, I have seen him very closely and he is one of the best gifts which has come to Bollywood in terms of compositions.
Do you think a ghazal singer can make a living out of shows only?
Actually if we make it a bit broader, the question should be about the singer (laughs). This is because a ghazal singer can also sing a film, folk or sufi song. A singer is a singer. We specialise in ghazal which is a specialist genre but normal tendency nowadays is that people want things for free. They do not want to pay. Singers do have to struggle to earn money from singing. Ghazal being a genre for niche audience has got its own different audience. Out of that audience, unless you are really saleable and people want to come out and listen to you, and unless you are a brand, they would not want to pay you that kind of money. So it is a challenge but life is anyway a challenge in any field.
Sometimes, there are good days and sometimes, it is not really nice but the show must go on. I believe that for a singer, the best thing is that even if you don’t get money, you can still sing for yourself and feel happy about the gifts you have and feel good about the creative space. It is not like a jobless person that you lost your job and you are unhappy about it.
There are a lot of great great artists I know who are struggling to get concerts or money out of singing and I have seen some below average singers making it to the top and making good money. There is no science behind it, it is pure luck and you never know when your luck will work. You have to keep working and stay positive.
We have seen a lot of pictures of you and Jagjit Singh. Tell our readers what was your association with him and how everything started.
Actually my association with Jagjit ji started through my father. My father, Akhtar Azad is known for his collection of poetries and he is a poet himself. He used to sing in Qawwali. Since they were good friends, Jagjit ji would take my father’s advice, just casually and eventually ended up working formally together on albums where my father would compile poetry. Due to that, Jagjit ji used to visit my house on a regular basis, at least once a week and I got to meet him and got close to him. At a later stage, it was quite like a gift and very smooth for me to become a student. I didn’t have to actually do much to reach out to him but it came easily on a plate to me.
Once I started learning from him as I was still at school, he started becoming stricter on me day by day and he became more strict in terms of teaching and what I was doing. That is how it all started. The journey was amazing. I learnt from him for a long time but most of my training happened during his recording at Western Outdoor studio. That’s where I grew up watching him in action while he used to record his albums.
Most of my listeners send me messages that my music production sensibilities are similar to Jagit ji and this is all thanks to him, he gave me that exposure to witness him doing that kind of work. He opened it up for me, that I could sit there and watch him composing, arranging, recording, mixing and all these minute aspects of making a beautiful song. My training continued from late 80s to mid 90s with him. I sang ghazals for a few years and then my life took a different turn and that’s another story.
Tell us something that he taught you and you still remember today.
The summary of what he taught me is to have the knowledge of ‘what not to sing’. One might be very talented and classically trained, but in his opinion a successful artist or singer is one who knows what not to sing. Later on, when I started perfoming, my focus was more about refining my performances and renditions on how I sing the poetry, how I use the words and project them while singing. And all the other aspects of things which I had to ignore, I slowly and gradually learnt that. That was the crux of his teaching to me and I think this is one of my USP and I owe it big time to Jagjit ji that he made it so simple for me to understand what I don’t need to sing.
What are your thoughts on the 1990 film Awaragi’s ghazal “Chamakte Chand Ko” by Ghulam Ali?
It is beautiful and it is one of the old time hits. This is actually a sign if you see that good poetry, good melody and good singing. This combination always work. What I mean to say is that a song might work on the charts and it might not stay for a very long time, but this ghazal for example as well as a few others, have always stayed on the charts. This is a sign of a good content and what’s I personally feel that in today’s age, we need to focus on these kind of songs, poetry and definitely singing. Ghulam Ali saab beautiful vocals. It was like one perfect song. Really well done song!
How do you spot a bad ghazal singer?
If you ask me, the first thing is the passion for the language, the passion to understand the poetry because ghazal is just not about singing, it is about the poetry. The focus is on the poet and on the poetry. The ghazal singer is just a messenger of the poet and he is conveying what goes behind the poetry to the audience. I personally feel the second thing is the love for music. So for a budding ghazal singer, if the singer is focusing too much on the vocals, trying to show how much he or she can sing, they should move to semi-classical genre. If you want to do ghazal, there has to be a spark for poetry and that love for poetry. The school of ghazals that I belong to which is Jagjit ji’s or Mehdi saab ‘s school of looking at it, the focus was more on poetry and then the magical renditions came through the voice and compositions.
Do you plan to release a second album?
Oh yes, in fact, this journey has just started and I hope I should be able to keep up to it because I am very passionate about ghazals and I have given my life and committed myself to ghazals now. My aim is to keep releasing albums and singles continously and it is not going to stop till I am alive. You can say till I feel I can sing well and I can do justice to the poetry, I will keep recording stuff and releasing it. And the fan base is increasing day and day. My social media is very active and ghazal lovers from all around the world are connecting with me on my Facebook official page and on YouTube. It is interesting. I have only seen growth after I started singing ghazals again after a sabbatical of few years and there is nothing but growth, which is extremely overwhelming. I cannot actually complain. God is really kind.
In your album, your song “Phool Khilte Hain” became such a big hit. Did you expect that to happen?
I think yes. What actually happened is that when I started singing again, decided to come back to ghazals from Bollywood, I was asked by everyone to record an album straightaway and then make an entry into the ghazal scene and all that. But my focus was on the audience to understand how it works. I just wanted to evaluate. I sang many concerts for around two years, I evaluated my ghazals, I get to making new compositions and introduced them to the audience at my concerts and “Phool Khilte Hain” is one ghazal which always stayed as one of the highlights of my performances. So I was pretty sure that this ghazal has touched everyone. People came forward to ask me to formally record it and release it as single. I thought it should be a full album and it should be my first video. I personally love this ghazal and it is beautifully penned by Payam Saeedi saab and I love every couplet of the ghazal. It is one of my personal favourites and with all humility, I am really thankful to all my listeners for giving that kind of love to this composition and in making it a hit.
During the last six months, Pankaj Udhas and Roop Kumar Rathod each released their own ghazal album? Do you listen to their ghazals?
Yes, of course. I did. For Pankaj ji Khamoshi Ki Awaaz, I had gone for the release function and I have heard the whole CD. It is a beautiful piece of work. I have heard Roop bhai two ghazals from his album but I haven’t got a chance to listen to the whole album. To be very honest, these people are pioneers and I am too small to even comment on them. I have the highest of regards and respects for all my seniors and I am just following the footsteps. They are setting standards and they are leading us; the new generation. We are just trying and they are actually leading. Pankaj ji is one of the most successful ghazal perfomers in the recent times and since decades, he has been consistent in his work. I like what he did in his album and he keeps experimenting and tries to come up with things. He doesn’t give a damn what people will say as he has passed that phase of thinking about people will take my music. He is just recording what he feels and I am just amazing at how he does things.
In the last Ghazal Bahaar, you brought Ghazalaw to perform. How did the Indian audience react to that?
Ghazalaw was the hightlight of Ghazal Bahaar. In fact, Ashok Khosla ji would be the right person to give you an insight of it as it really doesn’t sound nice that I would praise the project myself. But in all humility, seriously, it was one eye opener for everyone. I, as an artist, was shocked. This was the first concert for the purest. I was really concerned how they would take it because ghazals have not opened up to such ideas. I have hardly seen people bringing in two languages together – Urdu and some other language and justifying it as a ghazal performance. So Ghazal Bahaar was a massive hit this year because of this performance and that has actually opened up so many doors of understanding to me that one should not restrict your creativity in one space. And do not restrict ghazals to a nice audience and it can actually be a big world of music genre and with Ghazalaw, it has become now. This year is going to be the year for Ghazalaw and a lot is going to happen on that font.
Has any film producer approached you to compose a ghazal for their project?
I think it is one of those eras in Bollywood where it needs a transition. We know that there are always these phases in Bollywood, in film music where there is a longing for good poetry and for melody. We have seen that in the past, especially in the 80s where Anand-Milind came suddenly, then Nadeem-Shravan, Jatin-Lalit, Anu Malik and a whole lot of melodies composers came and suddenly the scene changed. With the changing trends that I see now and the kind of songs that are coming out from film music, I see very bright chances of ghazals being featured in the films. I have stopped listening to film music for some reason for the last 1-2 years but I have heard recently on TV, that Vishal Bhardwaj has recorded ghazals from Faiz Anwar and I see that there is a craving for ghazals. To be honest, recently I have been getting messages from few very well known directors with whom I have worked in the past and they have been sending me very beautiful and encouraging messages saying that they knew I would make it this big but never knew you would choose ghazals and this is going to be so good for you. I am sure that in the very near future, I have a feeling that I will be invited to do a few ghazals for films because my producers and directors know that I belong to the film fraternity and I have worked for film music and know its nuances. They know if could be a perfect combination.