Sunday, June 03, 2007

The B-list of Indian playback singers

There are a small set of A-list playback singers in India – they are the names that come first to mind when music directors/producers are conceiving their songs. They are the elite everyone wants to work with. They are the Asha Bhonsles, Sonu Nigams, Shaans, Kavita Krishnamurthys, Udit Narayans, Sukhwinder Singhs, Shreya Ghoshals, Alka Yagniks and Sunidhi Chauhans.

But while I’m quite fond of listening to any of them sing, I also enjoy my B-listers just as much – those that get called in for specialist songs or when Sonu’s calendar is full. I kid – they are on the verge of making it big, biding their time. There are scores of them – but some I like more than others entirely for personal reasons.

Here is my list of favorite next big things with a mention of a song or two that I particularly enjoyed.


If there is such a thing as the voice next door, it has to belong to Kunal Ganjawala. Ganjawala is highly underrated as a singer. He gets a ton of work from Himesh Reshammiya and being in this camp probably hurts him a bit. But so amiable and earnest is his voice that it is hard not to break out into your own song when he is singing. His ordinariness – whether organic or cleverly disguised – makes him special. And nowhere is this more evident than in Madhubala’s lusty “Apsara Ab Zara”.

Zubin Garg doesn’t have tremendous voice quality. But he has a freshness that is hard to deny. Often a soft, cool breeze appears to be carrying his voice. He broke into the circle with “Ya Ali” from Gangster but it was his rendition of “Subah Subah” from the excellent I See You soundtrack that made me sit up and take notice.

Mahalaxmi Iyer has been on the fringes of breaking through for a while now – but her work on Jhoom Barabar Jhoom established her in my mind as a force to reckon with. And she did this by dropping her voice an octave or two – ditching the shrill soprano that passes for tender innocence in the minds of traditionalists. She is much better at abhinay now – and that makes her a pleasure to listen to.

Kailash Kher came to my notice via his rather successful album Kailasa. But his work in Bollywood films has been just as noteworthy. Kher has a unique voice that allows him to own every composition he lends his voice to. He gets used a lot to sing songs with a sufi or rustic touch, as in Salaam-E-Ishq’s soulful “Ya Rabba” – but I await some producer with enough of an imagination to unlock the outer reaches of Kher’s voice.

Chances are when you heard “Javeda Zindagi – Tose Naina Lage” from Anwar, you stopped whatever you were doing to listen carefully. Shilpa Rao is one of the few female singers confident enough to show control at lower octaves. And on “Javeda…” she brings such stillness to the song that it makes you want to hear more from her.

When I heard Babul Supriyo sing a number of things struck me: he sounds a lot like Kumar Sanu, only better; he has a superb voice and excellent control; boy, does he sound sad all the time! Supriyo can tinge even the happiest song with a melancholy (try listening to “Chanda chamke” from Fanaa). This can be a good thing in the right hands – his work on Gunaah is still the highlight of his career in my mind.

Although Daler Mehndi has sold zillions of records, he is not a hugely popular Bollywood singer primarily because his voice is considered too marginal for the mainstream. This is a shame because if you listen closely Daler can out sing a ton of playback singers in Bollywood. Want proof? Go back and listen to “Nachle” from Lakeer or “Tutiya Ve” from Shaadi Se Pehle.

Why is my list short on women? I’ll come out and say it – I don’t enjoy the Bollywood playback system that forces women to sing in little girl high tones.
Case in point: Gayatri Ganjawala (Iyer) who never lets her producer down when given a chance (check out her tour-de-force singing on the title track from Kasak or “Chenna Ve” from Raqeeb), but do they really have to make her sound like the first string on the guitar?

Recently Asha Bhonsle as the judge on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa knocked down every woman who dared to sing in a husky voice – no matter how good she was. Call it the Lata Mangeshkar syndrome – whatever it is, it’s the reason why I stick with the men when it comes to Indian playback singers.

Also: The A-list of Indian playback singers

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Here is a post in similar vein:
http://www.anothersubcontinent.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=7217

Foralonglongtime there were like these singers we could count on our ungaliyaan like Lata Asha Kishore Rafi Mukesh...maybe ikaa-dukka interlopers here and there Mahender Kapoor Manna Dey Bhupinder SPB Yesudaas Kumar Saanu...but by and large we knew the turf...we maane we-who-grew-up with Haathi-Mere-Saathi and Dum Maaro Dum etc...

But these days arre baba what is happening? so many new new singer are coming that one can hardly keep track...some Ganjawaala is singing about abr and all...then u have the sufi types like Kailash Kher who I wonder if he is the new Narinder Chanchal also..then there are the sensations like Himesh Reshamiyyaa, Adnan Sami, Roopkumar Rathode (?)...Shaan (?)

You also have some "veterans" like Sonu Nigam and Udit Narayan who are going strong...

On the distaff side I only know of the phenom Sunidhi Chauhan...

But there a host of others who keep cropping up...KK (?), Dominic, Soham, James (?)...and most of them are darn good...

The Old Order Giveth Way to the New? Sure...bring them on, I say...the music is often fun -- rap, techno hip-hop guitar riffs or qawwali/sufiyana styles and all -- and it is fresh sounding...maybe just to my jaded ears (years?)...

oh i know old is gold and all that stuff and i might never really shimmy to crazy kiya re (but will to Kajrare) ...yet i confess a lot of the new stuff is holy-smokes-good...

Aspi said...

Anon, I agree - I think Bollymusic has been fun lately and its because of the diversity of talent. Also I thought Soham did a fantastic job on "Dil Laga Na" from D:2 - its the best song on the CD.

I'll do one more post that will cover A-listers on this space in the next few days.

Mind Rush said...

Like Anonymous, I too grew up hearing Dum Maro Dum and watching the musical chairs phenomenon between the same singers. I have to admit that the mushrooming of the Almost A Listers, the A Minus group and the Definitely B Plus group has me saying "Crazy Kiya Re..." It's a new phenomenon to not know the playback singers right off the bat. Aspi, posts like this one will help me keep the various newer names straight.

nmlhats said...

You are so right about singers like Sunidhi Chauhan, and overcoming that squeaky-voice stereotype. i think filmi music will have broadened appeal outside India with singers like her. I love to hear Sunidhi and Sukhwinder give it all they've got--together, a la "Beedi" and "Saaaki Saaki".

Aspi said...

And its no coincidence that both are amazing songs.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree about how the female voice is expected to sound sickeningly sweet and innocent. It sounds nice for some songs (Jism for instance) but i think even people should start 'listening out-of-the-box'. Hats of to sunidhi who can hold her own even in the romantic songs genre. Her 'Dheemey dheemey' in bas ek pal was such a revelation.
I think western mainstream music and bollywood music operate on opposite ends. In western pop, female singers tend to have very strong voices which get huskier and heavier as they hit the high notes, in our music, it gets shriller.

Come to think of it, i think some of the senior female singers should stop singing some melodies.Their tonal qualities have begun to change in higher notes..Lata mangeshkar most definitely should stick to 'lukka chuppi' kind of songs in which she is brilliant. Even Alka Yagnik sounds quite shrill these days...esp in 'Saawariya' in Swades, man i have to turn down the volume when she gets all pitchy. Same is the case in 'Ey hairathe' from Guru. I think only Chitra's voice has remained the same through all these years. Ofcoz it gets thin when she sings those high ones...but her tonal quality remains the same.- ritha

Aspi said...

Geez, no kidding Ritha. I know its blasphemy to say this but Lata sounds terrible to me and has so for a few years. And Alka is way too shrill for my liking although she's sung some excellent stuff.

BTW, I heard Chitra for the first time at the A.R.Rahman show and she really does a lot of heavy lifting for her producers. Rahman used her everywhere and she kept singing with the same intensity.

Manish said...

Grrrrr ... delete that Lata comment Aspi. How do I file a Public Interest Litigation against someone based in Chicago from a remote village in Mahrashtra?

Aspi said...

Yaar, get in line. To be fair I think I've heard Lata herself say that her tongue has been too thick for singing properly for a while now.