When director Shefali Bhushan wanted a voice that merged the “rawness of Punjabi folk with the finesse of Hindustani classical music” for her debut musical, Jugni, composer Clinton Cerejo had been just the person she was looking for. However, Cerejo had to work slightly harder as the voice had to be imported from across the border. Lahore-based Javed Bashir is Pakistan’s latest addition to the existing crop of singers in Bollywood. His breakthrough song with Cerejo — Jagmag jugni — is a powerhouse piece, the robust sound of which has not just put him in the spotlight, but also made him a popular name in classical concerts in India — a distinction reserved for a few. “We couldn’t find any voice among the current crop of Indian singers with the same richness in texture and intelligence to deliver a melody flawlessly,” says Bhushan.
The industry is sitting up and taking note. If Sanjay Leela Bhansali made him render Aaj ibaadat — one of the more complicated and important pieces from his last film Bajirao Mastani — the compelling Mann ka mirga in the recently released Bombay Diaries — that comes with a generous sprinkling of murkis and harkats — has sealed his presence in the industry.
But before Jugni’s music found favour with critics and listeners alike, Bashir has had sporadic musical appearances in Indian films in the last decade. “Somehow — despite brilliant performances — he wasn’t noticed as much,” says Cerejo. Composer Amit Trivedi got him to sing Murabba (Bombay Talkies) — a piece in raga Ahir Bhairav — while Vishal-Shekhar tried a blend of Hindustani classical with a contemporary twist in Piya tu kaahe rootha re (Kahaani).
His presence in Mumbai coincided with the time when a wave of experimental directors was making inroads into Bollywood and the music industry was reflecting the change. Bashir fit right into this new mould. While his sincerity came through in these songs — he could describe depths of despair and render raga-based songs with as much ease — his crowning glory came from the seventh season of Coke Studio Pakistan. His improvised rendition of the Awadhi song Ambwa tale is considered to be one of Coke Studio’s finest hours.
Bashir was the lead singer for Mekaal Hassan Band for almost six years. “There is always too much happening in my head because I am a composer first. But I have learned when to improvise and when to follow the composer’s lead,” says 42-year-old Bashir — seated in the living room of his friend’s farmhouse in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. His fingers are constantly drumming an invisible tabla, till he manages to find a harmonium and punctuates the conversation with a short composition in raga Jog — one that his guru, the legendary Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, had taught him. With purely classical training on one side, Bashir grew up listening to and learning qawwali. His father was the famed qawwal Bashir Ahmad Khan — who was born in Jalandhar in Punjab and migrated to Pakistan after the Partition. Khan liked to have his son by his side, singing the chorus and clapping along. He discontinued school after class 10 so he could focus completely on music.
Bashir made his first appearance in Hindi music in AR Rahman’s background score for Yuva. He was asked to sing some alaaps and sargams which played in the background of the fight scenes. “He hasn’t asked me to sing again yet. But that experience with him was amazing. We wrapped up in two hours,” says Bashir, who was given a free hand by Rahman to render the pieces.
“There is a lot that a composer like me can do with a musician like him,” says Cerejo referring to Bashir’s ability to improvise and enrich the original structure of his composition. Cerejo had heard Bashir’s Coke Studio outings and has been a fan since the first season. “It’s very interesting, the way he improvises and understands the tempo. There are always a hundred ideas flowing out of him. But that said, he knows how to work methodically with the basic outline of the song that the composer provides — without putting in unnecessary embellishments,” says Cerejo, who also recorded Bashir through Skype because he couldn’t be in India to sing one half of the song.
Bashir says that political problems should not become a reason for the governments to not let artistes get visas. His last concert in Delhi — which was held at the India Habitat Centre — came in the wake of the controversy around the cancellation of ghazal singer Ghulam Ali’s concert in Mumbai by Shiv Sena. “Music has nothing to do with politics. The respect and affection I get here is beyond any kind of politics. I am not going to stop singing in India because some political forces feel that it isn’t the right thing to do,” he says. He has concerts lined up in Mumbai and Delhi this year.
While his live concerts linger because of the improvisations and the unpredictable directions that Bashir takes with his music, he is a methodical singer when it comes to studio recordings. He first needs to write all his lyrics in Urdu before he sings anything and has to hear the scratch once before he records. “In a studio, while recording, it’s very important that I stick to the director’s vision of a song and don’t play around with it — unless of course there is this massive urge to add something and the composer allows it,” he says. For those who cannot hear him live, his songs will soon be heard in Ismail Darbar’s directorial debut.