The interview began with a flash of white. Sukhwinder Singh appeared before us asking, “How does this look? I wanted to be in white for these photographs. White is the colour of Saraswati [the goddess of learning],” even as he fussed over his all-white outfit. The singer’s dressing sense would have given Jeetendra, the actor from the eighties known for his proclivity for white, a serious run for his money. Sukhwinder then quickly puts on the air conditioning to full blast, saying he needs to cool down. He blames the heat on the long steam bath he had that afternoon. Meanwhile, his two Pomeranian dogs start to bark. “This is my family,” says Sukhwinder as he makes himself comfortable for what promises to be an interesting Sunday afternoon for us. The 42-year-old has been a maverick presence in the Hindi film industry since his debut in 1986, when he sang a few lines in Subhash Ghai’s blockbuster Karma. He has come far since: It would be fair to say that many of Bollywood’s cult songs in the last couple of decades can be attributed to Sukhwinder: From ‘Chhaiyya Chhaiyya’ (Dil Se) in
1998 to ‘Ramta Jogi’ (Taal) in 1999 and to the more recent slow-motion ‘Angreza’ (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) last year.
But the hits didn’t just fall into his lap. He had to slowly work his way into the limelight. His process included travelling around the world and understanding different forms of music. Much of his time was spent in the US and the UK. This exposure was invaluable: He was able to incorporate new styles into his music when he finally came back to Bollywood and worked with AR Rahman in creating the iconic ‘Chhaiyaa Chhaiyya’. “I always had that song inside me since I was four years old. I had dreamt it and I had whistled it,” he says.
Though there are newer and more prolific singers emerging in the industry just about every year, he continues to be sought after for two reasons: One, his versatile voice and, two, his skills as a music director. However, he has paced himself in Bollywood, not over-crowding himself with assignments. Instead, he prefers to spend at least half his time travelling across the globe for concerts; he intersperses this with recordings for some of his favourite musicians. And Sukhwinder has met with a remarkable response from the international market—around 50 percent of his audience are non-Indians. This is true in Canada but particularly in the UK, where he really started his music career.
Sukhwinder stops the English music that is booming out of his Sony music system and says: “I must be the first guy to release a Punjabi album in the UK market way back in the early nineties. It was called ‘Munda South Hall Da’. We recorded in East Africa as well as in Russia and Morocco.” Those were the days when music took some time to travel to Indian shores. While he wanted the album to become a hit in his home country, Sukhwinder’s focus was to ensure that his voice reached a new composer, AR Rahman.
He had heard Rahman’s music and was keen on working with him. So, with the help of some friends, he arranged to send a copy of his album to the musician. “Rahman then did call me but for a different purpose. He wanted a writer,” says Sukhwinder.
He asked Sukhwinder if he could write a song for a Govind Nihalani movie, called Thakshak. Sukhwinder had not attempted this kind of assignment before but he decided to take on the challenge and wrote ‘Mujhe Rang De’; the music director was AR Rahman. The song was a hit and also marked the beginning of their friendship.