Two weeks ago, I changed tracks on my car playlist and played Dekha Hai Pehli Baar – from Saajan -- on my way to meet a friend. I sang along loudly, revelling in a song I had first heard three decades ago, and always felt shy to sing then.
It was 1991, I was a seven-year-old in a small town of Bharatpur, in the Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh border.
A Hindustani classical music fan, my father didn’t think much of the 90s mainstream Bollywood music and we had a cleverly-crafter TV-watching window to catch-up on Bollywood films -- the only film cassette that me and my sister had managed to acquire was of Anjali because it was a children’s film. That was our acquisition for the next few years.
But then, it was 1991 and by then there was one voice which was everywhere – SPB’s.
It reverberated from the corner paan stalls to the market bakery, which sold cream rolls and in grocer-cum-electronics-cum-apparel multi-storeyed shop.
Usually it was the soundtrack of Saajan, but there was also 100 days and Jackie Shroff singing Sun Beliya, and Love with its mellifluous and doting Saathiya Tu Ne Kya Kiya. Then there was me, a sucker for music, all kinds, classical falling at the bottom of the ladder of preference.
Salman Khan sure was bursting into prominence, but there was also this voice, so uniquely sensual, sonorous and playful.
Within the house, as we waited for our parents to return from work, the local cable TV guy supplied the stash of new songs on his own channel.
I remember feeling a bit embarrassed and amused hearing SPB sing Ab Jaa Ke Aaya Mere Bechain Dil Ko Karaar.
Later, I realized it was the shy sensuality of the voice that caused me to blush.
Incidentally, around the same time I discovered an older song.
At an English class for college students my uncle took and graciously accommodated us to also benefit from, a shy young man sang Sach Mere Yaar Hai, Bas Wahi Pyaar Hai (from Sagar) for a pretty girl he liked.
If you ask me, SPB at that time, from the vantage of a kid growing up in north India, was the voice of contemporary love, which often found expression on torn notebook pages, notes left on bicycle carriers, songs sung in farewell parties and dedicated to the 'girl in the gang'.
I have often thought of 90s as a low point of Indian cinema – not withstanding exceptions. Growing up in the small town of Bharatpur in the backdrop of Bollywood films and songs where the hero’s haloed role was to stalk his love-interest and exhaust her into saying yes, was terrifying in many ways.
That created local replicas who couldn’t take no for an answer. But then, there was some mainstream music, which befitted more the love-interest you’d chose.
These SPB songs are perched there.
By the next year, we all knew of the man from the south who changed the way music sounded. A.R. Rahman had changed the goalpost of music, and with Roja the isolation of my imagination ended. I located SPB, not as the Bollywood hero’s voice from the cassettes in the two-in-one, but as a Tamil singer who also sang Bollywood songs.
But the delight continued. In Yeh Mausam Ka Jaadu Hai Mitwa (Hum Aapke Hain Kaun), we would wait to hear the little laugh as he started the new stanza; despite loving all songs in Sapnay, I couldn’t help but get struck by Door Naa Jaa Mujhse for the free-wheeling desire the voice carries and the sign-off with a long sigh. The song is a staple on my playlist.
In the last decade, I also discovered SPB’s immense ouvre in Tamil, which is what I mostly hear now, the versatility of his voice and its presence through the decades.
But for the 90s kid from north India, this voice was first heard, where else, but in Hindi songs; it sang of love and longing in times when love was also heavily mistaken for coercion.
(Chinmayi Shalya is a policy researcher by profession, lover of music, with a soft spot for Tamil songs)