POP goes the evolutionthats Daler Mehndi for you. Nine years back, the cherubic-looking youngster toured Berkeley as a ghazal and bhajan singer. Now hes shirted-jeaned-bearded, with a patka under a tilted sports cap. Whats more, hes picked up the basics of popspeak.
"I am 21, maybe less," he offers in a hopeful tone. Maybe he hasnt wound his wristwatch in a while. But thats a pardonable offence, considering the Patna-born vocalist has been a mite busy of late. Bolo Ta Ra Ra, his Punjabi folk-pop album released last month by Magnasound, sold over one lakh copies in the first three weeks. The title song is rubbing shoulders with Bollywood superhits in BPLs Ek Se Badkar Ek. And now, one Punjabi distributor is even demanding 20,000 copies a day.
Magnasound has ambitious plans to promote the artiste. Says Soumitra Maitra, national sales manager, Magnasound: "After an India leg of his concert, we plan to showcase the artiste in Canada and the UK by the end of this year."
Like most groomed in traditional genres, Mehndis initiation came early. "I was only six when my father gave me a harmonium," he recalls, sitting inside Ad Camp, his recording studio in New Delhi.
He realised early enough that academics wasnt up his alleyhe dropped out in the sixth standard. "I always wanted to be a well-known musician." Sure enough, he got there. First as a concert artiste with a flair for electrifying showmanship and now with his run on the charts, where his album is moving faster than his bhangra beats.
Mehndis arrival couldnt have been timed better. Despite many attempts, Gurdas Mann has failed to recreate the alchemy of Dil da mamla hai.
Malkit Singhs Tutak tutak act was a bigger success, but a sequel has proved elusive. At a time when Punjabi folk-pop is generating several songs but few megastars, shouldnt Mehndis instant success be viewed as a sign of things to come?
Replies the star: "My first albums acceptance and the response of my listeners whenever I have performed in Punjab has made me happy. Even outside the state, the album has done well. But this is just the beginning, probably my first step on a scale of hundred." Despite the quiet launch, the albums exploits recall Malkit Singhs conquest about a decade ago.
He may be a member of the footstompers club now but Mehndis background in voice-oriented genres ensures that Bolo Ta Ra Ra stands apart for Mehndis exceptional voice. Explaining his drift to folk-pop, he says: "You see, I did in youth what most do after they are old. When I was singing ghazals, most people my age must have indulged in pop. Perhaps, youth has come to me at the wrong time." The "21, maybe less" musician isnt old enough to brood over the decline of his youth. Yet, most of the time his statements are similarly worded: straightforward, manifesting a likeable absence of familiarity with diplomatic jugglery. So, his confessions (apart from the age-fudging) are candid. "Girls are very high on my list of likings," he says. And he admits he dropped ghazals for folk-pop "because that kind of music is more enjoyable, and since any form of music is music anyway."
Perhaps, its this innocence that has landed him in a controversy. On the inlay
card of his album he dons a khanda kirpan insignia on his turban. Magnasound has received
an anonymous letter asking them to drop the insignia, pronto. Says Mehndi: "The
khanda kirpan was worn by all those who came to the court during Maharaja Ranjit
Singhs rule. No one has worn it recently but there is certainly nothing wrong with
its use." As a precaution, however, Magnasound has decided to alter the card after
the current stocks are over.
While the act could have been orchestrated by religious fanatics, Magnasound also suspects the hand of a rivala ploy to ensure that the stocks are withdrawn. Mehndi agrees: "Some music company or artiste might have done it...it is difficult to accept that a nobody from nowhere has become a somebody so fast." Thats the buzzword in Mehndis universe. Whatever happens to him happens fast. If the controversy ends the same way, the young pop musician probably wont lose time before taking a sound second step.