CHINTOO SINGH WASIR: CENTERSTAGE AS SUFI SINGER & MUSICIANby Aparajita Krishna February 3 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 25 mins, 7 secs
In the world of contemporary Indian music Chintoo Singh Wasir has emerged from being behind the instruments to centerstage with his Sufi music, writes Aparajita Krishna.
He is known for both vocal and instrumental, along with his play of diverse musical instruments, notably the rabab, tambur and guitar. An expert folk-instrumentalist, he is a trained vocalist as well. The photos herein of a very young boy Chintoo Singh with Gulzar, Jagjit Singh, testify to his early beginnings as a musician and the coming of age. Today his face along with his repertoire can be seen and heard in concerts, on television and on-line. The American Times had in an article of 2012 itself anointed him ‘a master at various instruments.’
In the present this very noted rabab, tambur, guitar player is also a sought-after composer and singer of Hindustani Classical, Shabd and Sufi music. He has played live, recorded and globally accompanied in concerts legends such as Mehdi Hassan, Salamat Ali Khan, Jagjit Singh, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ghulam Ali and many other Sufi singers from India and Pakistan. He has recorded rabab and guitar music for our leading musicians and also for Shania Twain and Phil Collins. An array of his prestigious albums of instrumental and vocal music have been released. His musical expertise has featured in noted film-songs along with him facing the camera as a musician-actor too. He has been feted with awards.
In Indian Idol Chintoo Singh has been featuring as a musician wherein he plays the rabab and guitar with such expertise! Recently he was on television for the promotion of Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Kuttey as also in another episode that featured actors Zeenat Aman, Poonam Dhillon as guests.
This multi-faceted musician is a very, very gentle person. He looks much younger than his age of fifty-nine. His wife Navneet Kaur Wasir is a fashion designer. They have two sons, Manmeet Singh Wasir and Gurmeet Singh Wasir.
Amidst his excessively busy musical-engagements with the recordings of Indian Idol and ETC Punjabi, he decided to send me his inputs as handwritten notes. It was to be hand-delivered by his student. His WhatsApp exchange gently apologized for the delay and added, “Sorry, mera ek student, mujhe pata nahi tha, shooting dekhne baith gaya. I had sent him aapke ghar dekar aane ko….’’ I laughed. The student-courier got so involved listening to the music-program being recorded that he missed the task at hand.
Chintoo Singh’s musical inputs herein and snippets of his own life-journey valuably inform this article. It notes his lineage via his musician father, Mohinderjeet Singh Wasir, the very young professional beginnings with Jagjit Singh, ensemble guitarist for R D Burman in the making of the music of 1942 A Love Story, giving independent music to Kaifi Azmi’s audio-book of poems, Kaifiyat, the story of rabab, his tryst with great maestros and music in his own making as a singer and musician.
Chintooji, tell us of your multi-instrument expertise, your signature style, singing and collaborations.
I had started playing violin, then mandolin, then guitar, then rabab. I liked the guitar because you can play rhythm and solo. I learnt from my father Mohinderjeet Singhji. I had in my treasure folk-instruments like rabab, tambur, dobro. I made my own style. I have played with musical maestros and many Sufi singers from India and Pakistan. All have different styles. Some sing in qawwali fashion, some in film style. I have performed live for many Indian classical concerts and for television and online channels like Idea Jalsa and for Durga Jasraj for Insync Channel. I perform Sufi and guitar romantic melodies. I have released ninety guitar solo albums and many Sufi albums as a musician with leading music companies. I played for films also.
Later I ideated upon singing and playing the rabab for albums. I take the kalaam of Baba Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Hazrat Amir Khusro, Sant Kabir and others. I use simple wordings so that if I can understand the wordings so can the listeners. In my music I keep live musicians and use live instruments like dholak, tabla, rabab, flute, dhol. The 12th century Sufi singers would sing along with it all at the dargahs.
Update us with your latest musical offering, album Yaar di Yaari (Sufi Kalaam). It has you as a singer and composer. Now music is so much online.
Yaar di Yaari is my latest Sufi kalaam in 2023. The album is released by Artist Aloud Hungama. It has poetry of Baba Khawaja Ghulam Farid. Music and singing are by me. I listen to all kinds of music. In this I thought of using Afghan style rhythm. It is simple kalaam and simple tune. Old Sufi singers used to sing qawwali style with one line variation till say three minutes, sargam. I tried to do Sufi rhythm as played in the dargahs, masjid. I had seen this in Pakistan when we had gone for some shows.
Though all kinds of music keep coming, sounds change, still even today the good old Hindi film songs are very much alive. Similarly Sufi music and bhajans and ghazals will always be there. It depends on the composer to do it D.J. Style or techno or live.
Music is now very much online. It is good for the artists and musicians. We can listen and watch more music and shows, which get shared via YouTube etc. Now anyone can share their music online. Or any art for that matter.
Let me flashback and recall year 1997 when Plus Music, the music division of erstwhile media-conglomerate Plus Channel (India) Ltd, had envisioned and brought out the audio-book (cassette and CD) Kaifiyat (A State of Mind) - a collection of Kaifi Azmi’s poems recited in the poet’s voice. The company worked under the vision of Amit Khanna, Mahesh Bhatt. I was the executive producer of the prestigious work. It had a younger you give music and play rabab/guitar for the accompanying musical interludes and background. The scanned cover and back cover are still with me. A collector’s piece as the following years up-to-date affirm. For us back then it was a most original and creatively innovative work because one did not really have a reference of the same kind in front of us. Can you recall?
Vibhav Rao who was then working for Plus Music company called me. He asked me to do a rabab solo for the catalogue of instrumental albums. I thought that since it will be my first rabab solo it should not be in Indian classical. It should be in Arabic Indian with western and acoustic music. Light music so that people would understand. The album got released by Plus Music and it did very well in terms of sales also. It even got released in the USA. I was then just a rabab player with a solo album. Then one day I was in Plus Music office to shoot for my album and you asked me to do music and play the rabab for Kaifi Azmi Saheb’s upcoming audio book Kaifiyat. Kaifi Saheb was a big name.
In Kaifiyat I composed the music and played the rabab. My name came as the music composer. After the music launch of Kaifiyat, Amit Khannaji called me and asked me to do the music for their TV serial Kabhi Kabhi and two more serials. I did eight to ten serials. Later Kaifiyat got re-released by T-Series. I also did Daiyara with T-Series.
An even earlier flashback. Your professional career in Hindi film industry started in 1994 when R D Burman is said to have chosen you from among twenty guitarists for the music recording of film 1942-A Love Story. You were then just seventeen. As luck would have it, I was back then, as an employee of Plus Music covering the music sitting and recording of this iconic music album. I would surely have seen you in the group of musicians. But it would be later in 1997 that we would meet in person to collaborate on Kaifiyat. Tell us about your getting associated with R D Burman.
I was then a newcomer. I would be playing for Jagjit Singhji’s recordings as a guitarist along with other guitarists. Bhanu Gupta used to play the guitar for Panchamda (R D Burman). He used to notice me practicing in the lunch time. One day he asked me to accompany him to play, but also clarified that I would not get paid. I agreed, but forgot to ask the composer’s name.
I remember we landed up at Film Centre Studio. There were already around twenty guitarists standing. Bhanuda asked me to wait. One hour lapsed. I thought of leaving. Suddenly I was called into a room. I went in and saw R D Burman. I got nervous. He asked me if I was still in school? I said ‘No, I am a beginner learning music’. He asked me to play something on my guitar. I opened my guitar, tuned it. He told me it’s tuned. He then asked me to play a chord. I played. He then asked me to ‘Go’. I thought I have been asked to go back home. So, I walked to the lift. Suddenly he came and asked me ‘Where are you going?’ I replied, ‘Home.’ He said, ‘I told you to go to the studio.’
In the studio another story unfolded. R D Burmanji’s three senior guitarists remarked about me, ‘Isko toh kuch bajana nahi aata!’ R D Burmanji then told all the twenty very good guitarists that they were all very good, but they did not tune properly and play. ‘This boy came and tuned his guitar properly and played. Jo achcha sur kar sakta hai wo achcha baja bhi sakta hai.’
Share with us your parentage, early years and the very beginnings with music.
I was born and brought up in Bombay. My father Mohinderjeet Singh is the first musician in our family. He is a singer, composer and musician. Many singers learnt vocal singing from him: Sulakshana Pandit, Jaspal Singh, Chitra Singh, Sudha Malhotra and others. He did many films. His famous Punjabi song is “Thakke Raat De Nazara” from the Punjabi film Putt Jattan De (1983). He had also done serials like Meera as music composer. My mother is a painter. She has held many exhibitions.
I started with music at the age of ten. I even learnt Indian classical music from my father. In the tenth standard I would play live guitar and also sing a little. I also played the mandolin. I would get recognition in my school music functions. I was the only guitar player.
I would get many awards for painting. But that apart the school complained to my parents that I was not good in studies. One day I saw my mother and father sitting in the principal’s office and crying. That affected me a lot. I decided to work hard in studies and stood first in the class. Later in class nine the principal asked me to leave the school. I then did it privately.
My uncle was in the Indian navy. After my class ten he asked me to fill the form for a job in the Indian navy. I did. Suddenly my father got hospitalized. My mother was traumatized. Then I decided not to opt for the navy. I joined Khalsa College. I got admission there because of music. I would sing film songs with my guitar. Thanks to my father I would always be amid music, playing guitar in home-sittings. But as a student I was shy.
My father tried sending me to good guitarists to learn, but some would be busy, some were too expensive for me to afford. I then started to self-learn. I would tape on my cassette-recorder all the notes that the guitarists would play. Later I would play them back on slow speed. I noticed no one would play gayki on guitar, singing vocal on guitar. I started doing so. My father had taught me. It is little different from jazz, rock, blues. Because I had learnt western music it was easy to play in the recordings even if I was given to play solo chords. In music you have to devote hours and hours to practice. Daily riyaaz is a must.
It was with my father that I first started playing in the recordings and shows. There were many good musicians with him. It was not easy for me. I learnt a lot from this experience. My journey had started.
Once at a Khalsa College music function, a group-guitarist did not turn up. Our principal asked me if I could play? I said I could. Though at that time I did not know what the students would be singing. He asked me to go ahead. I played. Jagjit Singhji happened to be the chief guest. Next day I was called to the principal’s office. I thought again they will ask me to call my parents to complain. Instead to my utter surprise the principal informed me that Jagjit Singhji needs you for his group.
I was eighteen-years-old when I started playing guitar with Jagjit Singhji for his shows and recordings. I joined his group. I was a young beginner. During the recordings, or, shows the senior guitarists would refuse to teach me or give me a mike. They would insult me saying that I was a duffer and Jagjit Singhji should throw me out. The guitarist, or, the arranger would proclaim that I was not good. In front of fifty to hundred musicians I would be asked to leave even if I had not made a single mistake. During those times it was not easy to join a group. You had to be perfect. Now it is much easier. Anybody can do anything. I would get very disturbed and confess to my mother. She would put her hand on my head, and encourage me to be strong and work hard. Instead of reacting to the insults I put all the energy into practicing my music on the guitar.
When I was playing with Jagjit Singhji he lived at Peddar Road in Mumbai. Sometimes Jagjitji would send me to Film Centre Studio to ask the person there to contact the musicians for the recordings on the next day. Back then there was no mobile. R D Burman ji would be recording. The guitarist of R D Burman used to come play for Jagjit Singhji. I would go watch. My bad luck that they would not even smile at me, leave alone teach. That hurt me a lot.
Since I would not get to play solo guitar because of the senior guitarists I thought of doing an instrumental album. My album could showcase that I can play solo also. I made my track and went to the music companies. All of them refused. They liked the composition, but would instead tell me to do film songs on guitar. I wanted to compose original music. For months I would sit in CBS music company’s office. Then one day R V Punditji, the main person at CBS inquired, ‘Ye kaun ladka roz aata hai aur baitha rehta hai?’ He was told that I would come to meet the ANR person Rajeevji, but not get to meet him. R V Punditji called me. I asked him to listen to my guitar solo album. He said he had no time because CBS Warner Brothers group was scheduled to come from U.K. I went on visiting the office persistently. One day they asked me to get the master of my album. The group from U.K was sitting in R V Punditji’s office. They all listened. Their group’s guitarist told him that this eighteen-year-old boy should be taken. ‘The music he played was very nice and soothing.’
Later some of the good composers started to call me for their jingles and even film songs being recorded in big studios.
At that time musicians and singers would come to India from Pakistan. Like Ghulam Ali, Pervez Mehdi, Reshmaji, Abida Parveen. They would all call me to play the guitar for their concerts. I remember when Mehdi Hassan Khan Saheb came to Mumbai, he asked the sponsor to get him a good guitarist. I was then twenty-one years old. The sponsor booked five guitarists. I was among the five. I did not know who the singer was going to be. When I saw Mehdi Hassan Saheb I became nervous. I was sure he would not take me. The other guitarists were also good. Khan Saheb told the sponsor, ‘Sab ko bhejo baari baari mere paas guitar ke saath.’ He was to test. I was standing opposite the lift, ready to leave. There was such a big crowd of film stars, industrialists, famous people from the music field. All were waiting for the show. Suddenly the sponsor noticed me trying to leave and called out to me. He asked me to go in and meet Khan Saheb. Khan Saheb asked me to open the guitar. He played a note on harmonium and asked me to tune the guitar. I played one string to tune my guitar. He said, ‘Okay, you can go,’ and asked me to leave. I was surprised that he did not ask me to play the guitar. When I came down, the sponsor said that I would be playing with Khan Saheb. He quoted him saying ‘Sureela ladka hai.’
So, persistence paid off and the musical doors opened.
Once Mr Shamimji from Doordarshan called me to shoot my guitar track for a new-year program. I also got featured in Doordarshan’s Aarohi musical programme, then in Sham-e-Ghazal, Geet Sangeet. These were ghazals, folk, film songs.
Then Times Music launched my album. I later made many solo guitar albums with all the leading music companies. I also participated in Surabhi for my rabab album Arabian Nights. I liked the sound of rabab. At that time it was not easy to acquire a rabab instrument. I bought a small one when I went to Afghanistan, Pakistan for shows with ghazal singers. I chose rabab and it gave me the way to go ahead and do solo and sing. The sound takes you to places like Kashmir. It was initially difficult to play and sing on rabab. The note has to be perfect and in-sync with every note of singing. I even recorded shabad with rabab for many composers.
Tell us about the history, distinctness and usage of rabab as an instrument and your own association with it.
There are very many different versions about the history of rabab. I heard from my grandfather that the instrument was brought here in the twelfth century by horse-traders. Bhai Mardana used to play for Baba Nanak Devji. I have seen many photos on YouTube. They had kept the instrument in Amritsar. There is the mention of the Sikh rabab in relation to Gurbani Sangeet. In Afghanistan they sing Afghani folk with rabab. As also in Kashmir and Iran. They call it rubab. The look is changed, but sound is the same.
In the old Indian movies, like Rustom-Sohrab, mandolin was used a lot. Even in the song ‘Suhani raat Dhal Chuki’, ‘Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Ye’. Later in film music they started using instruments like guitar, sitar, santoor along with mandolin. The instruments played the same notes together in melody. Rabab was also used for folk elements in songs. Like the banjara/kabila song in Sholay. Jalal Agha is playing the rabab in the song ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’. In films like Kabuliwala and Khuda Gawah rabab is seen being played. In Feroz Khan’s films like Dharmatma, Kaala Sona, rabab is used. Raj Kapoorji used it in Heena. In any film story of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gulf, Arabic countries, rabab is used.
Rabab preceded sarod. It got modified. Sarod sound is sharp. Rabab sound is mellow and little bass. The wood used in both are different. In rabab akharot ki lakdi (walnut wood) is used. It is put in the sand for one to two years. Sarod is played with the nails and rabab with finger-tips. Normally rabab players put frets on the rabab to get the right note. Sarod, cello, violin, sarangi do not have frets. Sarod has steel finger boards. I personally do not use frets on rabab. If I have to put frets of thread on finger-board then I will not be able to play gayaki or gamak on rabab. It will then play as straight notes.
Sufi music in the twelfth century used to play rabab or dhol. Later they added qawwali with classical sargam, chorus singing, then added tabla, dholak, harmonium.
My association with rabab began some thirty-five years back when I first heard its sound on a TV show. It was a documentary on Baba Nanakji. I did not know the name of the instrument. My father told me the story of Bhai Mardana who used to play rabab for Baba Nanankji. The sound haunted me all the time.
After a few years there was a show organized by ICCR in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I went along with a ghazal singer. In a market there I saw an instrument. I inquired from the shopkeeper. He said it was rabab. I bought it. By mistake I bought a small size. For many years I practiced on that small rabab. Later during another visit to Pakistan, I bought a bigger rabab. I noted that no one, or else, very few sang along with the rabab. So, I practiced a lot and started singing with the rabab. I got featured as a rabab player. Even when I would go to EMI for my guitar recordings, they would ask me to sing with the rabab. All music companies would hear, but refuse to record and bring out my solo album. They would tell me that it is good but I should get on board a big name as a singer. I did not want to do that. I had the great kalaams of Baba Bulleh Shah, Sant Kabir to back me. My first album was released by HMV by Pravin Kaushalji. Later I had no problem in releasing my singles.
On rabab I play folk and classical. I played solo rabab for some of Vishal Bhardwajji’s songs in Omkara, Haider. Then in Tiger Zinda Hai. Producers ask me to shoot also as if I am performing with my musicians. I have faced camera playing rabab on-screen, like in Sanjay Leela Bhansaliji’s Padmaavat, Gangubai Kathiawadi. In Torbaaz they showed me playing the rabab. I also play doumbek which is an Afghan-Arabic instrument.
Tell us about your play with guitar.
I prefer to play the guitar in an Indian way with western style notes. When I would travel abroad around the age of nineteen, I recall that after the show nobody would come to me for an autograph. The other musicians played tabla, flute, which were Indian instruments. I had a western instrument. I found six-year-old boys there play guitar better than me. It is their instrument. I would request many good guitarists to teach me, but they were reluctant. Gradually when playing with the top composers, I noted the notations they would write, and followed the arrangements, and learnt from everyone. I then thought to myself that while the whole world is playing guitar in Jazz, Blues etc. why can’t I add an Indian style? So, I worked on gayaki-playing. It was to be different from the others.
If I had continued playing western music on guitar, like Blues, Jazz, Rock, it would not have given me dividends in India. Going abroad to play was not possible. There, a child is trained in piano, guitar, saxophone etc. So, I thought of concentrating on playing Indian music. I have performed for festivals in Punjab. I was also invited to play at the International Guitar Festivals in Kolkata with my band.
I have played solo guitar in films like Omkara, Bachna E Hasino, Om Shanti Om, Haider, Bioscopewala etc.
You have played music and given music for television serials and musical TV programmes too. You also feature on TV musical shows.
Yes, I have played for many television serials and composed music too.
After I had released my guitar instrumental album, I got to do Saturday Suspense background music. I received the Salam Mumbai Award. It was after doing Kaifiyat (Kaifi Azmi’s audio-book) with Plus Music, and you, that I got to do music for serials like Kabhi Kabhi, Ek Din Ek Jeevan, Antaraal (produced by you), Haadsa, Jasoos etc. On Doordarshan I did Jhankar, Fauji, Pasa Palat Gaya etc. I became a composer.
Deepika Bagariaji from event management asked me to join Sa Re Ga Ma Lil Champs in 2017. Every year they call me to play the rabab and guitar. I have played rabab on Indian classical TV channels like Idea Jalsa (Zee TV). It was anchored by Durga Jasrajji and Annu Kapoor. Then I featured in the Insync channel playing solo guitar. Then in Indian Idol. I have played the guitar with all the talented and noted composers, arrangers and singers in live shows. Every year they call me as a guest musician. In the latest episodes of The Indian Idol on Vishal Bhardwajji they asked me to play. Shashvita Sharmaji asked me to play long pieces of rabab for Mai Dada by K C Shankarji. It was an Afghani story-telling in poetry.
Then I got a lot of offers to do the background score for films. But I did not get good producers. They would expect me to spend my own money. I was not ready to invest my money in film projects. I was happy doing my own instrumental music and Sufi kalaam.
Share with us notes on your chosen albums and music-videos.
Arabian Nights was the first rabab and tambur solo album in India that I composed. When I went to Dubai, I saw my Arabian Nights poster in a shop and the audio-cassette and CD. The shopkeeper said ‘Ye toh kaafi bik raha hai.’ A local company had released it. I saw the name of an Afghan music company written on it in Urdu. Later the album was also released here by Big Music, T Series.
Normally I don’t repeat music. I keep the melody simple. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Saheb would also sing kalaam, but he experimented with western keyboards and made the sound western with his singing style. All my albums have different sounds. I have learnt Indian and western music. In ‘Ek Nukte Vich Gal’ one has used the strokes of mandolin, rabab, saaz, harmonium, tabla, dholak with western rhythm.
As for ‘Sufi Blues’, the Blues is normally played in the USA (B. B. King, Eric Clapton and others). I learnt it. Our Bhimpalasi Raag is very close to the Blues. Same notes. In Blues they play dobro guitar, which has a little metallic sound. They also use tenor banjo, mouth organ, harmonica. I used all these instruments. The way of playing each is different. Even the timing is different.
Normally musicians keep collecting various instruments and play all of them the same way. I search for the beauty of playing the instrument in their style. I look up YouTube also for information. Here in India one musician can well be playing eight-ten instruments. Abroad an electric guitar player will only play the electric guitar, a Blues musician will only play Blues, not jazz or rock.
I liked Bure Bande by Hazrat Baba Bulle Shah. I worked on Bure Bande as my own rendition. I did Mirza Saheb, Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah.
The album ‘Hope’ happened when I saw people Afghanistan in a very bad shape. I composed and played rabab and made a video. During COVID, all the shows and recordings had got cancelled. It was difficult to manage. Album ‘Tera Pyar’ was released by Vvanjhali Records from USA. It had my music and singing, along with singers from India and Pakistan. Poetry was by Sardar Jaspal Soos.
Do you wish to compose music for films?
I tried composing for films but had bad experiences of producers asking me to spend my own money on the recordings. Back then it was not possible for me to do so. In any case I was busy as a musician. This led to my making solo albums with the guitar and rabab. Later I also ventured into singing Sufi songs to my own music. As a film composer you need to give too much time to the producers. In today’s scenario there are options apart from movies. There are television series, web-series. In films you have to push yourself and tell them that you are around. P.R. has to be strong. A shy artiste will not get work. If I get a good movie offer, I would love to give music. I had got an offer to compose a song for film Kabul Express. But it was my bad luck that I had to then leave for Australia on a prior engagement. The film song was urgently needed.
Any special note you would like to sign off on?
I am lucky that my name and photograph have been featured in schools along with great musicians like Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, Vilayat Khan Saheb, Ravi Shankarji and others.