The Daler Mehndi interview | 'Every song I make, every show I do, is without being caught in trappings of the past'
In an exclusive interview, Daler Mehndi opens up on being consistent with churning out new songs since the '90s, and the state of Punjabi pop music today.
One look at Daler Mehndi’s discography and filmography since 1995, and we would see that every year he has seen the release of either a single or an album, or a continuous stream of hit songs from films. The Punjabi pop legend has been an omnipresent force in our sonic consciousness, yet he is flummoxed that every so often he encounters fans who tell him, “Paaji aaj kal dikhte nahin ho.” It would anger him sometimes but more often than not, he would remain confused why someone whose music is released every year through movies, is not considered visible enough.
“Then a few times it would happen that people would come to me with their kids. and in my presence, tell them ‘Look, this is Daler Mehndi. He used to be a big singer in our time’. OUR TIME? I would be even more irked because what do you mean by ‘our time?’ I’ve been around all this time as well!” he recounts.
Then he would go on to ask them if they have heard of movies like Baahubali or Dangal. When they would answer in the affirmative, he would ask if they have heard the title songs. “When they'd say yes, I'd reveal that it was I who sang them! Then they would say ‘Oh, so sorry, paaji. We don’t get to see you much. As much as we love your voice, you should be seen as well,” he says, admitting that the realisation to be more visible to his fans was one of the motivating factors for his latest single with Eros Music, 'Ishq Nachave.'
The song, he explains — that was composed and created in 25 days — is quintessentially Daler. Feel-good with catchy hook lines, foot-tapping beats put together by 165 percussion instruments, and devoid of crass lyrics, it is a complete family experience, just the way Daler would like it to be. At the heart of all his music has been his desire to make music travel from the ears of the listeners to their hearts. And 'Ishq Nachave' is a celebration of that.
He says, “This song has beautiful lyrics: ishq ilaahi, ishq tabaahi, ishq nawaabi, ishq gulaabi. Plants, animals, and humans, we all have been created and bound together by God’s love. What else is it but love that drives us to dance to the tune of life? If we could just understand the magnificence of love and be conscious of being enveloped by it always, then we can battle any negativity or obstacles that come our way without slipping into depression or personal dark spaces.”
Speaking of negativity, the year 2020 has been a physical, economic, and social struggle for so many people, forcing millions to stay home in a bid to protect themselves from contracting the deadly novel COVID-19 virus. For musicians, it has meant a prolonged suspension of touring, which is not only a commercially successful activity for them, but also keeps them in touch with their fans. Yet Daler has managed to look at the year with his inimitable optimism. “I have to say this to you: for as long as I could remember, I have not had a better year than 2020. Unfortunately, it came at the cost of a pandemic that affected many people through illness and loss. Nevertheless, for those of us who have been fortunate so far, 2020 forced us to relook at our relationship with ourselves, safe in the comforts of our own homes. Otherwise, we were constantly running out of our houses to work, to socialise, to be there for our near and dear ones, to be participating in social and religious commitments. In many ways, through this rigmarole, we were also running away from ourselves. That changed in 2020 when we were forced to be at home.”
Daler believes that the social isolation forced us to look within our own homes and spend time with those we may not have had the time for before. It reminded people of what the true essence is of concepts like ghar ka khaana or ghar ka swaad… a lot of people had forgotten. Not just the rich, but the poor as well, who were living lives as if they’re constantly racing against time. 2020 put the brakes on that continuous race and inadvertently, we found the opportunity to such joys. “We became more conscious of the food we’re eating, its flavours, and components. The kind of milk we drink; what is adulterated and what is not. Towards the latter half of the year, I even found an anthem to inspire people to rise to any occasion. 'Le Chhalang' from Hansal Mehta's sports drama Chhalaang, seemed like the perfect emotional antidote. Over the years, with the blessings of my fans, my songs have released consistently through some film or the other. This year, not only did I have the release of the thought-provoking 'Le Chhalang,' but I also managed to work on and release 'Ishq Nachave.' 2020 truly has been an amazing year, personally.”
While 'Ishq Nachave' is touted as a typical Daler song, what exactly construes a “Daler song” is as fascinating to the singer as it is to us fans. Since he burst into the scene in 1995 with 'Bolo Tara Rara,' Daler has been widely credited with giving Punjabi music a more widespread, mainstream reach in India, as well as international appeal. Today, Punjabi music is often slotted as Bhangra or Punjabi hip-hop. How does he see the Punjabi pop genre today? “Today, a very wonderful Punjabi singer, who is widely popular and performs at a whole range of occasions, whose songs are playing somewhere or the other, and whose work I love very much, is doing the rounds. His name is Daler Mehndi,” laughs Daler, joking and being serious in equal measure. “That said, I only request the younger kids to ensure that their foundation is strong. Otherwise, your song has a shelf life of no more than two weeks, following which another new voice will come along, and then another. There is no compromise on building a strong foundation. Work hard, sing in tune, and sing honestly. Remember that success will come but you have to be prepared to continue learning. That never ends.”
Daler’s musical education itself is testimony to how much importance the foundation gets, and how the learning process is ongoing. Born and brought up in Bihar, his early influences have been from the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar belt. He was raised on a healthy diet of ghazals, thumris, and shabd keertans in pure ragas. When he joined his brothers in the US in 1986 and went to Berkley, he utilised his weekends by performing ghazal concerts. Up until this point, he barely knew any Punjabi songs. Less than a decade later, his debut Punjabi song 'Bolo Tara Rara' became a chart topper.
“I just knew I had to come back to India and work on my music. My brothers were angry at the idea that I wanted to give up a comfortable space in my life to struggle in an industry that is overcrowded with talent. Despite making a beeline for India, I returned to America one more time. It was then that I finally decided that I was returning for good," he recalls.
In 1992, Daler formed his own troupe, and in the year between 1993-94, he did 370 shows. By the time 'Bolo Tarara' released in 1995, he was already a popular name in the Delhi circuit. He followed that up with hits like 'Dardi Rab Rab' and 'Ho Jayegi Balle Balle.' By the time 'Tunak Tunak Tun' was released, Daler Mehndi became synonymous with Punjabi pop. He is candid about how so many of his songs have struck a chord with his fans and casual listeners. “Sometimes I wonder what’s so special about them. But what I do know is that everything I do, I do as if I’m doing it for the first time. Without being caught by the trappings of the past. Every show I do, I do as if it’s my debut, with the attitude that this is what will help me leave a mark in the world. I could have 50 people in the audience or 3 lakh, my passion or power is the same,” he says.
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