Bhupinder Singh: A man of many parts

Adored for his smoky baritone voice, not many enthusiasts know just how accomplished a virtuoso guitarist Bhupinder was

Bhupinder (at right, playing the guitar) in RD’s music room in 1972-73. Also seen in the photo are Rajesh Khanna (with a headband) and Manohari Singh (on the saxophone). Photo courtesy: Sudarshan Talwar
Bhupinder (at right, playing the guitar) in RD’s music room in 1972-73. Also seen in the photo are Rajesh Khanna (with a headband) and Manohari Singh (on the saxophone). Photo courtesy: Sudarshan Talwar

Anirudha Bhattacharjee

'Naam gum jayega...meri aawaz hi pehchan hai’ echoes in the recesses of our memory in high-fidelity recall, its popular appeal undiminished in the forty-five years since its creation. Lata Mangeshkar, the senior member of this Yaman-based duet, composed for the Gulzar-directed Kinara (1977), passed away in February this year. And now Bhupinder, whose smoky baritone lent the song that elusive extra dimension, has also journeyed to the same uncertain realm. But surely memory (‘…gar yaad rahe’) will endure.

Possibly Hindi cinema’s first musician-singer, Bhupinder, or Bhupi’ji for much of the industry, led a quiet life. If there were any hidden folds in it, they were hardly ever revealed in rare moments of candour. He was no Kishore Kumar; he didn’t surprise you with eccentric insights or play peekaboo with his admirers. He was patient in recalling his memories, but you didn’t ever get to an unexplored emotional sphere with Bhupiji.

This quiet performer of rock-solid fundamentals and a rare instinct for string started his musical career as a lap (a.k.a. Hawaiian) guitarist. He played many instruments of this family—the acoustic guitar, the 12-string guitar and several lesser known variants. It was possibly the confidence placed in him by that maverick genius composer Rahul Dev Burman that inspired Bhupinder to pick up just about any string instrument. Oud, the short-neck, pear-shaped, fretless string instrument of the lute family, common in southwest Asia and north Africa, was one such; RD got it specifically for his ‘Bhupi’ to play in the film Abdullah (1980).

The virtuosity Bhupinder acquired over the years was truly enviable. Rhythm guitarist Bhanu Gupta, who tutored him on the acoustic guitar, remembered Bhupinder practising the guitar riff of ‘Aaja aaja main hoon pyar tera’ (Teesri Manzil, 1966) on the lap guitar, and playing it even faster than the original. In a year or two, Bhupinder had so mastered the acoustic guitar that he came in as a replacement for Dilip Naik in R.D. Burman’s orchestra. This was an inflection point in Bhupinder’s career, for the man he had replaced, Naik, was the guitarist of the phenomenal riff in the aforementioned song.

There was no looking back. Recall the opening bars of ‘Dum maro dum’ (Hare Rama Hare Krishna, 1971), played on the 12-string guitar; by now, Bhupinder was a fixture in RD’s team of ‘Navaratnas’ -- the nine musical anchors of his orchestra. Their success story is legendary. Pick up any R.D. Burman hit from the early to mid-1970s, and you are sure to find guitar riffs by Bhupi somewhere. Either leading the song, as in ‘Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko’ (Yaadon ki Baraat, 1973) and ‘Tere bina jiya jaye na’ (Ghar, 1978), or following up the voice with magical interludes, as in ‘Tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata koi’ (Aa Gale Lag Jaa, 1973), or providing the hypnotic obligato in ‘Chingari koi bhadke’ (Amar Prem, 1971).

Bhupinder Singh: A man of many parts

Kersi Lord, who played alongside Bhupinder for two decades, once said to author and frequent collaborator Balaji Vittal: “Bhupinder’s guitar was like a human voice”.

For most of his admirers, though, it was the somewhat otherworldly timbre of his voice that stands out. Most devotees of the OHF (Old Hindi Film) music genre tend to remember singers, composers, lyricists in that order, and popular interest tends to wane down that string. The musicians that make magic behind the scenes barely register their presence beyond the universe of connoisseurs who like to gaze at the musical signature of a song past the singer’s voice and the melodic line. So, we must make peace with the fact that Bhupinder will be remembered best for his own voice, not the guitar that sang like a human for Kersi Lord.

His was possibly the deepest voice in Hindi cinema in a long time, and his languid delivery complemented the deep timbre like a dream. It stood apart in other ways too, which made music directors seek him out when they were looking for something different from the mainstream voices of Hindi cinema in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Apart from R.D. Burman, who used him liberally, with ‘Beeti na bitayi raina’ (Parichay, 1972) a standout under his baton, Jaidev did in ‘Ek akela is shehar mein...’ (Gharonda, 1977) and ‘Zindagi cigarette ka dhuan....’ (Faaslah, 1974); as did Khayyam (‘Aaj bichde hain kal ka dar bhi nahin’ (Thodisi Bewafai, 1980), ‘Kabhi kisi ko mukammal jahan...’ (Ahista Ahista, 1981), ‘Karoge yaad toh...’ (Bazaar, 1982) and Madan Mohan, who in Mausam (1975), his last film, probably gave Bhupinder the song he is best known for: ‘Dil dhoondta hai, fursat ke raat din’.

It was Madan Mohan who also gave Bhupinder his first break as the singing soldier in Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat (1964). And if Chetan Anand was firm in his resolve, Bhupinder, and not Rajesh Khanna would have played Govind, the male lead in Aakhri Khat (1966). He ended up playing the crooner, singing ‘Rut jawan jawan...’ instead.

Later in life, Bhupinder also developed a non-film repertoire—mainly ghazals (possibly because nothing else that came his way caught his fancy) but also tributes to the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, John Denver et al.

Not much is known of his later body of work as a singer, and it won’t be a stretch to say that he will be most remembered for his singing output in the 1970s and early 1980s. In his live shows, too, on popular demand, he found himself singing his better known songs from that period. Which brings to mind the words of poet-lyricist Bashar Nawaz (who wrote ‘Karoge yaad...’, that well-remembered melody from Bazaar (1982) that Bhupinder sang to telling effect): ‘Nigaah door talak ja ke laut aaegee...’.

(Anirudha Bhattacharjee has written extensively on Hindi film music. His most recent book was ‘S.D. Burman, the PrinceMusician’ (Tranquebar, Westland, 2018)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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