EARLY one morning last year, a 16-year-old Jaipur schoolboy played truant, took the first bus out and arrived at a nondescript house in south Delhi. He had received a message from his God—the TV set—to ask a young man named Jawahar for a wish. Stardom. Jawahar smiled understandingly, told the boy to complete school and come back a few years later. Just like he had told another young man, Daler Mehndi, when he had come knocking on the same door in 1988. Mehndi came back in 1994 and the rest is history.
W for wizard? Well, it's more like W for Wattal, literally the boy next door who, with that uncanny feel for popular music, catapulted the unknown Daler Mehndi to stardom with the scores of Bolo Ta ra ra, Dardi Rab Rab and more recently, Balle Balle, three platinum discs in a row. Had teenagers, from Delhi to London, ecstatic over classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal's sufiana pop album Ali More Angana. Orchestrated pop singer Shweta Shetty's comeback with Deewane to Deewane Hain. Persuaded sitarist Shujaat Khan to sing for a folk-pop album Lajjo Lajjo. Remixed Manna Dey's soulful Ae Mere Pyaare Watan for a commemorative patriotic album. More recently, set the tune for Sonia Gandhi's campaign with remixed versions of popular Hindi film tunes set to Party lyrics. The composer Shetty swears by and Mudgal insists has an unerring ability to come up with what will touch the masses. That's Jawahar Wattal, producer and composer, the self-proclaimed poor man's Quincy Jones who, as he says, "single-handedly put Delhi on the Indipop map but never been given any credit for it".
But people are beginning to read the fine print now and Wattal is making sure they do. "Why not?" he asks gently, betraying suppressed anger only by chewing a trifle harder on his paan masala. "Just the other day I was caught in a traffic jam on my way to the airport and about 10 cars all around me were either playing Bolo Ta ra ra , or Dardi Rab Rab or Ali More Angana. That's when I said to myself, 'Jawahar, stand up now boy or it will be too late'." Fair sentiments from a 36-year-old who set an MBA degree aside to devote 17 years to just music. "I don't come from a family of musicians but always wanted to make music my career". His father Dr B.L. Wattal, former director of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and presently with the WHO, encouraged him as did his uncle, veteran journalist M.L. Kotru, the main source of his inspiration. "Both my parents were supportive but because I came from a Kashmiri Brahmin family where education is a must, I had to finish college and do my MBA. I did it, but have never had any use for it. It's been music all the way."
The only formal training he's ever had has been in the classical guitar and once out of Mount St Mary's school, along with studying Zoology at Deshbandhu college he began playing for commercials, singing at a coffee shop in Delhi, recording with HMV as a sessions musician and producing inflight music for Indian Airlines. In 1984, he set up Adcamp, a 24-track digitalised recording studio which soon had the likes of Pan-dit Ravi Shankar recording there, as well as Delhi's top-notch television producers.
But jingles and commercials remained his bread and butter till, he reminisces, "Sometime in 1989, in walked a guy in blue jeans looking for a break. I produced his album Dilruba and sold it to Magnasound with whom I had built up a good relationship, doubling up at times as Artistes and Repertoire Manager, and that's how Baba Sehgal came to be." But Baba's career has taken a nosedive."He's not recording with me anymore," is Wattal's brief but loaded statement. As for Baba, he dismisses Wattal as "just an arranger".
The story of people walking in out of the blue, hoping for a break, keeps repeating itself. Is he really a 'Breaks' artiste? "I have given him a break and made him a star," pronounces Daler Mehndi loudly, who even while admitting that the tracks Bolo Ta ra ra and Balle Balle were entirely Wattal compositions says, "he's just a music director, arranger and mixer and has no ability to compose. It's only because of the love I feel for him that I allowed him to use his name alongside mine as composer. In three years, he has done 43 albums, but which are the ones you hear about? Mine and Ali More Angana. For that too, the credit goes to Shubha Mudgal." Mudgal certainly does not agree with the reigning king of Punjabi pop. "The concept of Ali More Angana was entirely Jawahar's. I wasn't convinced, but he was right, and how. While there were some existing compositions, the title track Ali More Angana which is a runaway hit was composed entirely by Jawahar." Wattal himself minces no words when he says: "I just want the facts to be presented in the right perspective. Without me, who would have ever known there was somebody called Daler Mehndi?" A classic chicken-and-egg situation.
Wattal remains unfazed by megastar Mehndi or for that matter Sehgal's attack on his credibility. He's content chewing his paan masala and working on albums with well known names like Penaz Masani and Shweta Shetty and lesser known ones—his forte—like Sudeep Bannerjee, Bhupinder Chawla from Delhi and Avril from Bangalore. He's reluctant to talk about his work on the Congress album preferring to brush it aside safely as a favour for a 'friend'. So what is he? Talented musician or shrewd businessman? A bit of both probably with his finger firmly on the pulse of the popular music wave and at the same time now choosing to work with only those worth his time. And doing all of it rather quietly. The bungalow in south Delhi which houses his studio betrays none of the hectic high-decibel activity inside. The stark, rather futuristic black-and-steel decor of his office reflects the personality of a man who has his wires firmly plugged into the future of the music industry. "Mark my words, Bhupinder Chawla is going to be the next crown prince of Punjabi pop," he says smugly. Who would dare lay a wager on that? Especially when Shweta Shetty gushes: "He's brought out the best in me. I call him my guru."
BUT how does he do it? "I believe in simplicity and what appeals to the masses. The whole idea also is to make somebody out of nobody provided he has the talent. Melody has to be original. And if you've got all these things together along with the rather special team I work with, you've got a hit." His methods are simple. He creates a tune and then interprets it according to the style—bhangra, sufiana, carnatic, hindustani classical, whatever, and believes that if after that you can bring yourself down to the level of the common man on the street you've succeeded. His ultimate strength, as Shetty says, "is the edge he has over other composers of his ilk regarding style. The way he manages to balance his compositions with the singer's style of singing, producing something that every tapori can hum." If there are hits, there are bound to be some misses along with more than a fair share of criticism. One contention: his music is beginning to sound repetitive. "So does A. R. Rehman's," shoots back a diehard fan. But Mudgal agrees: "There is a tendency to sound similar. His instrumentation needs to change." Penaz Masani explains: "Every artiste has a certain image which is carried through in each album and so they are bound to sound similar. He's mainly worked with Daler and Punjabi pop will always sound similar because of the bhangra beat."
One can pick any number of holes in these arguments but at the end of the day he's got a string of megahits. Peter Gabriel has been sending feelers. He's got offers for Hindi feature films and has grand plans of setting up a music bank. But his first choice remains playing blindman's bluff with fresh talent, family and friends. His past repertoire includes ghazals, Tamil pop, bhajans, remixes, patriotic songs, shabads and Christmas carols. For the present, he has enough work on his plate, scoring encores for his stars apart from working out regularly at the gym and setting a wedding date. What does he see for himself and himself alone in the future? "Retirement," he says with a mischievous grin. "I started early, ab raha kya dikhane ko?". But ask the man on the street and he'll say "plenty".