The A-list of Indian Playback Singers

June 03, 2007

Although I miss Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Geeta Bali dearly - there are a number of Indian playback singers out there that collectively fill the rather large chappals left behind by these legends. The playback landscape is a curious one - singers get typecast, they get drawn into this camp or that camp, they do excellent work on flop songs and get tucked away somewhere or they do middling work on hits and their phones ring off the hook.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketTake Alisha Chinai for example. Admirably negotiating the twists and turns of "Tinka Tinka" on Karam did little for her - it took the bhaiyaji cabaret "Kajra Re" from Bunty Aur Babli to make her known to a new generation. And although she's heavily typecast she does seem to have fun doing what she is asked to do - even vamping things up as she does on the complex, energetic "Qatil" from Raqeeb.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSonu Nigam is the most complete singer I've heard in recent times and in retrospect we will come to believe that he played in Mohammad Rafi's league - even surpassed it. Sure, his awkward excursions into acting (Love in Nepal, anyone?) and self-indulgent stunts ("I don't know why everyone has to talk about my long hair!" Really? I had no idea until you brought it up, Sonu) can be annoying. But his voice quality is fantastic and such is his control over variation that his voice often flows like a river around anything a producer can throw at him. He has it in him to take even a middling song and make it extra-special (try Bunty Aur Babli's "Chup Chup Ke").

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketUdit Narayan's voice reminds me a warm phulka puri. It's cuddly, it's soulful and it makes you want to find someone to hug in your nearby vicinity. He's also a master of tweaking a tune (he doesn't have a big voice) - bringing it into his comfort zone and rendering it perfectly. He was a lot of fun to listen to on Ek Main Ek Tum's "Sau Chand" and he made "Chori Chori" on Krrish memorable.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHiring Sukhwinder Singh to sing a song gives a producer a lot of options. He can belt out a pop tune, a bhangra, something sufi or step into Hindustani classical. And he does it all in that booming voice that seems to carry raw masculine power. His work on "Zalzala" from Dus still thrills me whenever I listen to it.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketShaan sonically falls somewhere between Sonu and Sukhwinder. He has a lovely rasp to his voice but he can bend a tune beautifully. He's gotten a lot of attention lately for "Chand Sifarish" from Fanaa which gorgeous song that it is, is not much of a challenge for a top drawer singer. Instead Shaan's wringing of drama on "Main Hoon Don" or guarded vulnerability on "Chhua Mere Dil Ko" from Game are more representative of his diverse talent.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFrom singer of item numbers to someone with a broadening range, Sunidhi Chauhan has come a long way. And it has been a wonderful journey to hear. Initially she sounded fragile, muddled, even unsure when she sang. But now, her voice has developed genuine clarity, she can hold a sur without wavering even once and her diction has improved dramatically. She is equally at home with something like "Imaan Ka Asar" (Dor) or "Mundiya" (Shaadi Se Pehle). What I appreciate about Sunidhi is that she has consistently challenged the traditional demands on women playback singers to sing in squeaky voices. And her success makes her a landmark performer if not a great singer.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketEarly on in her career, Shreya Ghoshal sang a song that captured my total attention. It was the semi-classical "Har Taraf" from Saaya and such was her confidence and abhinay that you could sense she was going to be a major singer. Yet in my opinion she failed to live up to the early promise. Often producers played up the ringing clarity in her voice for innocence and freshness and consequently limited her. Lately she's shown the ability to take a song by the scruff of its neck and own it whole-heartedly - she did that on Guru with "Barso Re" and then again on "Tara Ra Ra Rum" from Tara Rum Pum.

Keep in mind that this is a personal list - as all lists are. I've left a few out - if you know your Indian playback landscape, you'll know who they are.

Aspi grew up in India and lives in Chicago. He is average at everything, except Math, at which he is terrible. He blogs on a variety of topics, including cricket.
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June 3, 2007
02:28 AM

You're right that the real problem with Sonu Nigam is with his off screen persona. The man has an ego that's way off the charts. He might well be in the Rafi league but the sad thing is that he'd be the first to nominate himself. Listen to him talk and he's like God's gift to mankind and has singlehandedly revived the music biz. He's good, but he's not THAT good.

Shaan, i love but he has a bit of Kumar Sanuness going on. A tendency to flatten his vowels in a very unattractive way. I've just noticed it lately and it's beginning to bug me.

Btw, I hope you got a look at Himesh's movie trailer. (I have a clip on my preview post if you havent). It's the most awesomely hilarious thing I have ever seen. EVER.

June 3, 2007
02:43 AM

Geeta Bali a singer? I'm sure you meant Geeta Dutt (nee Roy)

June 3, 2007
01:21 PM

Aditya, thanks for the correction - you're right.

Amrita, I saw the Himesh previews and after seeing them I'm thinking his movie might be a must-see. For too long camp has been circumvented by campy people doing it deliberately - so it might be nice to see unintentional camp. A revival of the Mithun zamaana if you will.

The nice thing about being somewhat isolated from the Indian Bollywood press is that Sonu's off-song shenanigan's don't reach me :)

June 4, 2007
01:54 PM

Oh, I'm sure as hell watching that movieee! Are you kidding, I wouldn't give it up. I just hope its not a limited release or something. The guy's like the love child of Bappi Lahiri and Mithun!

Yeah, that doesnt work for me. I'm a gossip girl :(

June 4, 2007
03:00 PM

Suniel Shetty might have been with Bappi and Mithun in a threesome.

See. It gets better.

June 4, 2007
03:03 PM

Sheesh! Why does DC screw up my links so?!


June 5, 2007
01:10 AM

Aspi, thank you! From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

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