Note: Here’s an interview that I did with Kailash Kher that ran in the July 25, 2008 issue of India Abroad.
It’s getting close to midnight and Kailash Kher has just emerged from the elevator.
As he moves through the hotel lobby, his short curly hair still damp from a shower, the thirty-something Sufi-rock singer with the jagged voice looks remarkably fresh for someone who has just arrived from a gig in Las Vegas, the last in a 40-day tour of the US and Canada. And as remarkably, he seems genuinely happy to be doing a late-night interview on his final night in the US before he heads home to Mumbai.
Kher and his manager are at a JFK International airport hotel, one of the several chain properties lined up in Jamaica, NY, and we sit at a table in the deserted breakfast room to talk. He is comfortable in his jeans, flip-flops and Armani Exchange t-shirt, carrying only his mobile phone and a cup of water; his bracelets, rings and earrings outnumber those that I’m wearing.
“Uuf! I’m full homesick now!” he says, recounting the cities he and his band, Kailasa, have visited. “First gig was in LA. I was in Atlanta, Houston, Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Dallas, Washington, and I was in various places I can’t even remember now!”
He laughs, shrugging off any genuine disorientation. “I just do music, music, music. I sleep music, I eat music, I walk music, I talk music, with me it’s very fortunate and I’m the blessed one that whatever I do I enjoy, and that’s music.”
The rest of Kailasa had journeyed to the US separate from Kher. “We really live like rock stars now,” he marvels, “Fast life, fast pace, different timings, different routes, different lifestyles because of busy schedule.” Kher first touched down in the US after a gig in Lahore, his first trip to Pakistan ever, was thwarted by a sudden storm. Though the weather was uncooperative, Kher found the “reception was really warm.”
“Since my career took off , most of the compliments I’m getting on the Internet, are from Pakistan.” In fact, his US tour has seen Kailasa sharing the stage with Pakistani pop artist Atif Aslam. Despite the geopolitical realities that get played out in Delhi, Islamabad and along the Indo-Pak border, Kher says “The artist fraternity has no such hang-ups about working with those professionals and all, whatever race or nation.”
Since his breakout gig in the US in 2004, Kher has done 40 shows here, and has visited most of the same cities three or four times. He estimates he travels some 300 days each year, often returning to his home in Bombay every other day.
With all that flying, I wonder what music he listens to at 30,000 feet. At that altitude, there’s nowhere to hide – fellow passengers will visit with him during his flights. “You need to greet them nicely, you need to be humble. Most people think “˜Wow, it’s because of us they are stars. Why didn’t he talk? He’s so arrogant? He has such a big attitude.'”
Aside from being recognized by desis in the US, Kher says he enjoys the relative anonymity he has here: “Actually it feels great because those kinds of freedom and liberty I don’t get in India. Here I can yawn openly. I can’t do all that in India because I’m always conscious somebody’s watching me, somebody’s clicking a picture or something.”
He is Page 3 material today, but Kher points out that his origins were very humble. “I was born in Meerut, in a very simple family. My father is an astrologer and through that, he survived with three children. I’m the youngest among the boys, we’re two brothers and one sister. It was a normal family.”
“We had to study as well as earn because in India you need to support your family too. So those kind of worries were there til 2001. And I’ve been doing so many odd jobs that didn’t work, didn’t click, but by the time I had learnt about life a lot and those experiences are, I think, now showing in my music.”
Like many creative souls, Kher was not enthusiastic about school. “I studied for my parents. I wasn’t into study mode definitely. But I used to sing a lot those days in my childhood. The music was automatically in-built in my soul. I used to sing for fun and I used to sing Indian folk style of music which I inherited from my father. I used not to listen to Bollywood music generally.”
“I was inclined in a different league of music altogether. I never heard any pop or rock music. The other students used to listen to the Western and English, big international musicians and I used to never remember their names.” It wasn’t until moving to Bombay in 2001 that Kher heard Michael Jackson for the first time.
Though impressed by their voices and production values, Kher claims he does not own a single disc of any Western musician. “I don’t listen to them, but I know they’re gods of music in their own way. The kind of music I do now, I’m very busy doing things, my own commitments, my albums, my film music, so those things are keeping me very busy. I’m working with the (British) DJ Paul Oakenfold, now – he has produced some tracks for Mariah Carey and Beyonce. He’s coming up with his album and he asked me to make a track for him.”
The singer’s life took a remarkable turn in December 2001, when, at a loss for what else to do, he left Delhi for Bombay. Kher says “All of a sudden, I decided, because before this I had done some business where I lost some money and I was kind of depressed those days and I couldn’t understand what to do, where to go, how to move ahead. My younger sister, who’s now doing her PhD in history, told me “˜You should do something in music because you’re singing makes people cry, and if you can move someone through your act, then definitely you should try seriously. Maybe that is where your entire destiny is.” And that’s what made me think.”
In a story that has untold parallels, Kher came to Mumbai by train, and emerged from VT station into a fast-moving city where he had no family, no friends. All he had was the assumption that he would be welcomed with open arms at a temple in Vile Parle where he had once sung bhajans. When he was told there was no room at the mandir, Kher spent the night at Andheri train station in northwest Mumbai “just wandering, roaming around, but I had fun because I really found this city very interesting, very colorful and even in the night girls are roaming around nicely, so I was having fun rather!”
Next day, after cleaning up at the same temple, Kher began his job search – and didn’t have much luck, since he had no professional degree. He was unperturbed, he recalls. “Actually everything is destined, and everything happened the way it is supposed to happen. I couldn’t get a job so I was roaming around the city, knowing the city, knowing the pace of the city. Things became a little easy for me to understand – how to go around an unknown place, where to go. Those days I was looking for job first then simultaneously I was looking for musicians too.”
The singer told himself that whatever happened, he would continue to seek out musicians because “I myself write, I compose tunes, and I sing, so there are three qualities in me, now who do I need? Music arrangers, who can produce music for me, according to my taste.”
His search threw up brothers Naresh and Paresh Kamath, who were in a rock band and yearning to move into music production. They heard the Meerut native’s voice, and the partnership was set, in spite of the shaky finances of all three men.
The brothers played Kailash Kher’s voice to their circle of friends, and slowly people started calling him for work. His first job, a television commercial jingle for Hero motorcycles paid Rs. 5000 (about $120). “And since then,” Kher says, “there is no looking back. Too much, too much, too much. After weeks one jingle came, after two weeks some small piece of vocals in something, then background scoring in films started happening, then film playback singing started happening. Everything happened all together and automatically!”
In 2002, after he had recorded his now famous song, Allah ke bande, the phone rang. ” I received a call from A R Rahman’s office and they said “˜Please take a flight today only and come to Chennai because Mr. A R Rahman wants to meet you.’ I had no money, so I asked them “˜Who’s going to pay my ticket?’ They said “˜You buy the ticket and we will pay you here.’ So then I took my ATM card, I saw the balance and I could somehow manage to buy the ticket and, wow, I flew there. I met A R Rahman, and he asked me “˜I know you’re from a folk background. Do you know any particular style of singing which people used to use to provoke warriors?’ I knew this, my father used to sing that style.”
Kher tells of a style called “alaa”, that Rajput hereo Prithviraj Chauhan’s friend Chendurvendai used to sing, to give him courage before battle. “That was what I used for that Mangala mangala mangala mangala refrain, and when I sang that for him he came up with the Mangal Pandey theme song.” Another partnership was forged: Kher went on to sing for Rahman on the soundtracks of Meenaxi, Lakeer and Swades.
Kher sang with Vikram, son of legendary playback singer K J Yesudas, on the 2008 Tamil film soundtrack to Bheema, on a song called Rangu Rangamma. Kher points out that since 2004, he has sung more than 30 songs in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya and Bengali, and some 200 or more in Hindi.
He uses the Rangu Rangamma example to explain what it’s like for him to record in a language he doesn’t understand or speak: “I ask them the words, I understand, I write in my own dialect, then diction I ask them to say once, then my observation power is a little stronger.” He doesn’t record anything. “I just listen and that’s all. That’s it. It’s a kind of blessing because otherwise I am untrained. Then, people explain the meaning so that I can do maximum justice to the song.”
He has a natural ear for sounds – a gift from the gods, he says, pointing out that he had lived in Thailand for close to a year and after two months, he was “speaking nicely” a language that is famously difficult to master.
When asked if he remembers anything of this particular song from Bheema, he laughs. “I remember the tune only. Every day I’m doing three recordings, sometimes four, then live shows, then composing music, sitting somewhere making practice and rehearsals, lots and lots of engagements.”
He lives alone, save for a staff of five, and in just about six years after landing in Mumbai looking for work of some kind, now dreams of being able to take some time off, and go some place like Senegal or Madagascar on holiday.
Kher, Naresh and Paresh have recently branched out, and are composing music now for an Akshay Kumar-Deepika Padukone starrer called Chandni Chowk to China, a film being directed by Nikhil Advani, of Kal Ho Na Ho fame. “Three songs they need, two we have already done, third we will do when we go back. I’m the music director too. I have to visualize on my own. They give me situations, but what they want is how I see it, from my perspective.”
I press for more details on this part of the creative process, wondering if, as he’s composing songs, he is visualizing Deepika and Akshay. “Yeah, I see them also in my mind, and I see any common man who thinks like a star and falls in love, so those perspectives I have to also take care because, finally, it is a commercial product. If you are making one star act to your tunes, you have to connect with the audience too – people have to relate to the song. The star is there, yes, but everyone who is listening is also a kind of star. They also dream “˜Oh yeah, this is my life, man, this is about me!'”
Kher is also one of the judges on this year’s Indian Idol. One day after his arrival in Bombay from New York, he was due to fly on to Dubai for a shoot for that show. Aside from the enjoyment of seeing and influencing some very talented young people, Kher says of the judges: “Most senior people are there, some of whom have been in the industry the last 30 years, and I’m sharing a platform with them, my verdict, also matters, so that I enjoy.”
For his personal pleasure, he listens to Indian classical music; his favorite voices, he says, are those of A R Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan.
How does he take care of his own signature, sand-papery voice? Kher proclaims “I never smoked, I never drank!” He adds on a laugh, “I’m organic, unadulterated. And I sleep a lot.”
Once easily recognized for his waist-length locks, the singer cut his crowning glory in 2007, in spite of the objections of some female friends. “I could not maintain the length because of my busy schedule. It was too long and very heavy. It was tough to carry such a big weight on the head!”
On this night, Kher wears two silver hoops in his ears, flanked by a square diamond stud in each earlobe. I wonder when he originally pierced his ears. “I count Shiva as my style icon, and Shiva needs to have a kundal in his ear, and I used to have a kundal since my childhood. The second ones came two years back, because my sister gifted me these diamond studs.”
I ask about his much gossiped about May engagement, and Kher adamantly says: “I haven’t got engaged. That’s fake news. But once it’s published, you can’t control it. I’m not engaged. Only thing is I have made my mind up to let me get married this year.”
He confirms that even 33-year-old, successful, independently wealthy rock singers are subject to parental pressure to settle down. His parents are now searching for a bride who will accept his on-the-road-again lifestyle.
If you’re wondering, as I did, how a performer who travels so much and who meets many attractive women the world over will adapt to married life, Kher replies: “I generally find people very interesting, but I find people to live with very few. If the person who you are going to spend life with cannot be compatible to your conditioning; then the life becomes hell for both.”
So what, I wonder aloud, is this rocker’s life like when he is home in Mumbai? Kher obliges with a rough sketch in the staccato, utilitarian English that is as much his signature as his voice: “When there is work, then no stardom, only work like a worker. When there is no work, then just be a baby of God. So whatever time He opens your eyes, surrender yourself, don’t plan. Sleep in God’s lap. I sleep like child, wherever, whatever conditions, even if lights are on, music is on loud, even then I sleep.”
“I get up, I read newspapers, I do yoga. I have a beautiful small house. And in the morning I see lots and lots of birds – nightingales – chirping around my house. I kind of interact with them. That is a normal practice for me. They are kind of attached and they miss me. I see this, I feel this. Now I will go home and they will make big noise, I know this for a fact. They will say “˜Where were you, man? Long time, man! This is not done!'”
If a song comes to him while he is strolling around the house or communing with his nightingales, Kher immediately takes out his mobile phone and records it. Some escape him, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “You can’t regret these things. It is one wave. It comes, it goes. You don’t get attached to it, then you will be safe. If you get attached, you are inviting trouble. God gave it, God took it, maybe God will give it another way. I hummed one tune before I left 40 days back. In five minutes we recorded the tune in the studio, and I’ve got the rough scratch with me. My sister took a copy and she said this is the best thing I have done so far – and all that came in five minutes.”
Somewhere in his hectic schedule, his birthday (July 7) was due to come up. I asked how he would mark it, and where. “I don’t celebrate birthdays because I celebrate every day. Seriously. I enjoy every moment, every bit. This is deep inside me, I cherish every moment, that is what I can treasure.”
“Tomorrow I don’t know whether I’ll be millionaire or beggar. Tomorrow is not in my control. I’m not afraid. I believe in one thing, Maria. One day we all have to go, that is the belief I have very strongly and that belief cannot vanish from my mind. I know the fact that no one lives forever. Just cherish every moment. That is what I believe in.”
“Every moment is yours that you are living, next one is not yours, it is God’s.”