Article Hindi

Sukhwinder Singh got some of his best Hindi songs from AR Rahman: Birthday special

In a career spanning almost 20 years, Sukhwinder Singh has worked with a range of composers, but few have used him as effectively as Rahman.

Shriram Iyengar

The cinema world celebrated 25 years of AR Rahman's career as a composer by honouring him at the recent International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards in New York. Rahman sang some of his classic numbers, accompanied by a new batch of singers like Jonita Gandhi, Benny Dayal, Javed Ali and Neeti Mohan. The one singer who should have been part of this celebration but was not was Sukhwinder Singh.

Though Singh began his career in the early 1990s, it wasn't until the arrival of Rahman's brilliant soundtrack for Dil Se... (1998) that he found himself pushed to the pinnacle. The 'Chainyya Chainyya' song, one of the most recognized numbers in Hindi cinema, has been recreated repeatedly in India and overseas. In fact, the song became Rahman's calling card on the international circuit, with director Spike Lee using the rousing tune in the opening credits of his film, Inside Man (2006).

While the song stands out for Rahman's technique, using rhythm to mimic a moving train and the heartbeat, it is Singh's mesmerizing Sufi voice that delivers the magic of Gulzar's lyrics.

Born in Punjab on this day (18 July) 1971, Singh's first interaction with Rahman began, interestingly, for a Tamil composition. The composer was working on the Nagarjuna-Sushmita Sen starrer, Ratchakan (1997), when he approached Singh to be his voice for a brief appearance on screen. It is telling that the composer chose Sukhwinder Singh to be his on-screen voice, because ever since Singh has been the Sufi soul of Rahman's music. The singer even took on the job of a lyricist for Govind Nihalani's film Thakshak (1999). The song was 'Rang De', sung again by Sukhwinder Singh himself.

It was Singh who introduced Rahman to the works of the Punjabi Sufi poet, Baba Bulleh Shah. It is no coincidence that the duo's greatest hit, 'Chainyya Chainyya', was inspired by a Bulleh Shah composition, 'Tere Ishq Nachaya'.

In an interview with The New York Times newspaper in 2012, Sukhwinder Singh spoke about this partnership and why it has never changed over the years. "The thing about Rahman is that he is a very flexible guy, and not at all stubborn, so it makes working with him very easy. We have worked together many times, in groups and as a pair. He has truly been inspirational."

Singh has often called the great Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan an inspiration. "I take inspiration from the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan saheb," he told The Hindu newspaper in an interview in December 2016. "His unique way of rendition was known and appreciated because he never compromised on it." Khan, as people now know, was one of the earliest collaborators with AR Rahman, and was someone the composer idolized.

Sometimes, singers and composers make longlasting, effective partnerships. Mohammed Rafi and Naushad are a great example. Since Dil Se..., Rahman has used Singh for some of his most popular film albums like 1947 Earth (1998), Taal (1999), Lagaan (2001) and the Oscar-winning score of Slumdog Millionaire (2009).

A powerful singer with an incredible range and an earthy voice, Singh's role brings out the passion in Rahman's compositions. From 'Ramta Jogi' in Taal, a swaying, sensuous ode to hedonism, to the goosebump-inducing song of the rains, 'Ghanan Ghanan' in Lagaan (2001), or 'Piya Milenge' in Raanjhanaa (2013), Singh has enhanced the magic in Rahman's compositions.

Other emotions that have been reflected in Singh's voice are hope and despair. Rahman often uses the singer's voice as a motif that represents the emotional highs and lows in a song. In Deepa Mehta's 1947 Earth, Singh sang two particularly effective but contrasting songs. The first, 'Ruth Aa Gayi Re', has minimal orchestration, allowing the singer's flowing voice to create a rhythm. It is a beautiful composition that evokes the joy, freedom, and optimism of spring.

The second, 'Raat Ki Daldal Hai', is an example of the range Singh can display. The thick, gelatinous composition is an elegy of fear and trepidation that marks the wait of the refugees of Partition huddled at railway stations, only to receive a train filled with a bloody cargo. Singh's slow rendition is an eerie premonition that fits the message the film is trying to convey.

Even in their most successful score 'Jai Ho', Singh's voice justifies the crescendo in the music that sets the mood for the energetic celebration of the success of Jamal (Dev Patel).

Curiously, this is also the song that marked a slowing down of the Rahman-Singh partnership. Since Slumdog Millionaire, the frequency of collaboration between them has reduced. Singh last sang for Rahman in Imtiaz Ali's Tamasha (2015).

The singer and the composer may not be collaborating as frequently today, but each time Rahman wants a voice to express his passion and range, it is Sukhwinder Singh he turns to.