Rabbi Shergill

Rabbi remained an unsung hero.Until he and his now hit single, Bulla Ki Jana, were packaged in a self-titled album and released exactly a year after that five-minute debut. Two months and one music video later, the bespectacled Sikh who neither looks nor talks like a pop star (probably, his biggest USP), has sold 50,000 CDs and 50,000 tapes.

Rabbi’s take on 18th century Sufi poet Baba Bulle Shah’s verse, composed six years ago on the same musical scale as Mast Qalandar, is a chartbuster. “It’s incredible to see a Sardar with a guitar,” says composer AR Rahman. “Bulla is a great track, and I think he should stick to this sound and not distort it in future albums.”

This week Rabbi’s off to Brazil to perform at the World Social Forum, and his latest fan, Dev Anand, wants him to sing in his forthcoming film Prime Minister.

Ask that other Punjabi bestseller Daler Mehndi about Rabbi and he says: “I’ve heard only Bulla. Nowadays people just add a Western twist and call it Sufi,” says Mehndi, who thinks the new competition does have a melodious voice.

When we meet, Rabbi’s dressed in all black, pagdi to pyjamas. Unfussy about clothes, he usually sports a three-year-old white kurta hand-picked by his mother, a former principal of Delhi’s Mata Sundri College, who’s written 110 books of poems.

‘‘People do doctorates on her,’’ he says. Ask the man who made Bulle Shah a household name whether he would ever use his mother’s poetry in his music, and he makes a face. ‘‘A young guy is always repulsed by his immediate environment,’’ he says.

Yet the hangover of hour-long childhood debates on the Vedanta with his late father Giani Jagir Singh, a rice farmer and kirtan singer in Chak Mishri Khan in Punjab, still lingers. ‘‘My father was an intellectual banyan tree, a scholar and a preacher, but I never heard him hum a tune at home,’’ he remembers, ‘‘I will never again feel the same love that I felt for that man.’’

Both parents didn’t bat an eyelid when he sat around at home for two years during 1997 and ’98 composing jingles for local products like Nova Ghee and Polar fans.

No one could do much when he was denied an American visa thrice after he was selected for the Berklee College of Music, Boston, and the Guitars Institute of Technology in California. ‘‘My mother just wanted me to be successful at something,’’ laughs Rabbi, who wears his academic record as proudly as his Ralph Martin guitar strap—the singer graduated with a BA in philosophy, failed the first year of BSc, moved on to management school and dropped out after a year.

Today, 20 shows on, Rabbi’s most outrageous concert memory is the impromptu lip-lock with a Greek fashion designer during a New Year’s performance in Goa.

Last week, his strumtease at an MTV concert in Mumbai included a reggae version of his most wanted track. And when the women went crazy, Rabbi’s eyebrows almost touched the bottom of his white pagdi. Just for a second he had an is-that-me-they’re-rooting-for look. Until he pointed his fretboard to the sky and slipped back into his showman’s skin.

• Bulle Shah was born in 1680, in Uch Gilania, a hamlet in Bahawalpur, in the Punjab province of eastern Pakistan. After teaching at a mosque in Kasur, he went onto head a monastery in Lahore

• His works have been exploited by the biggest names in Sufi music including the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen and even Pakistani rock band Junoon

Rabbi may not be centrefold stuff, but he’s wicked. ‘‘Even in college, I was the most engaging man, I was a rock ’n’ roller and a poet,’’ he laughs.

Back then, the Arts student at Delhi’s Khalsa College wrote ballads for beautiful women. Like the time he picked up Ishtihar, Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Hindi poem, translated it into Punjabi and set it to music to woo a student from the neighbouring Hansal College. ‘‘She was unassailable, so stunning. I fell in love with her but was too shy to tell her,’’ he says. So he sent her an anonymous note with the poem and a tape with the caressing ballad that’s now on his debut.

‘‘I can’t go up to a girl and tell her I like her,’’ says Rabbi, who’s written three songs for five of his women. Picking up his Taylor, he strums a song about a woman who makes him wait incessantly.

‘‘I have a hole in me, I’m incomplete,’’ says Rabbi about why he flits from woman to woman. ‘‘I love all of them,’’ adds the singer, who’s currently dating a Mumbai student.Late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen and even Pakistani rock band Junoon

He’s made notes on men, too. Gill Te Guitar is a piece dedicated to schoolmates Balla, Aru (who introduced him to Springsteen) and Sangha. ‘‘They’re all intellectual, software types,’’ he explains, ‘‘I balance their lack of creativity, and they make up for my lack of financial acumen.’’

One year ago he dragged himself to Mumbai, complete with two volumes of Sikh history by Gyani Gyan Singh and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. ‘‘I hated the chaos here,’’ he says like most Delhiites, ‘‘But I now realise that this is the only place where people respect ideas.’’ He bums around with a small circle that includes Anand Surapur, his record company Phat Phish’s think-tank and his shadow at most concerts.

‘‘For the most part, I shut up.’’ Shuts up and sits in his Khar residence (he prefers his Delhi home in East Patel Nagar since his room there is thrice the size) waiting for inspiration to strike. ‘‘I was always looking for something to depress me, and then I would write,’’ he says. There was enough fodder for brooding—the demise of his father four years ago and unsuccessful relationships.‘‘I was lovesick, and it was hard to find love in Delhi because women’s lives revolve around their parents.’’

Director Pooja Bhatt ID’ed Rabbi’s angst in his Ek Geet Hijar Da. “There’s a lot of longing in the song which is not in stock nowadays,” says Bhatt who tried, unsuccessfully, to include the song in her film Paap.

Rabbi’s as rooted as Raj Singh. He hasn’t forgotten the time he borrowed Rs 50,000 to record Bulla’s demo and was pushed around by a hotshot Delhi producer. He still remembers his first guitar—a Rs 700 gift from his mother in 1993—which had a sticker that said Yankee Doodle.

Raj Singh is likely to make it into his next album, which he wants to call Ballo. Named after another beautiful muse? ‘‘Yeah, she’s a lioness,’’ he grins, ‘‘The youngest of my four sisters, and my most favourite person on the planet.’’Someday, he’ll probably sing gurbani kirtans just as his father did. But for now he wants to fill stadiums.
RABBI ON THE ROCKS
• He’s a fitness freak who works out at home with two 15 kg weights

• He devours 250 gm of raisins everyday. He’s on an Anju Venkat raw food diet

• He has done two levels of Reiki and plans to do his third

• He wrote the music for his hit song in 10 days in 1999 after
finding Baba Bulle Shah’s poem
on the Net

BULLE BASICS
• Baba Bulle Shah’s work
focusses on love and bhagti
or devotion