Kailash Kher says he's never asked anyone for work. Those who want him, get in touch. "It's like I have opened a shop of incense sticks and other fragrances. It's spreading on its own," says the 30-year-old diminutive singer from Delhi. Kher's success—he's sung over 250 songs and jingles—is remarkable because he sounds unlike anything we have heard before, a challenge to the assembly-line nature of Bollywood playback singers.
For seven decades, when it came to voice, the industry was unwavering in its demand: more of the same. There were three established pillars—Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar—and no one looked any further. The assembly line, in fact, had started much before them. Mukesh came to the fore as a faithful imitator of K.L. Saigal. Even Kishore did a spoof of the singer-actor who ruled in the 1930s with Dheere se jaana khatiyan mein, o khatmal. Along the way, talents like Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood and Hemant Kumar managed limited success, barely enough for a four-CD 'best of' collection.
In the '80s and '90s, following the exit of the three greats, the Hindi film music industry went into automatic mode, faithfully reproducing one copy after another. Mukesh clones (Kamlesh Awasthi, Manhar Udhas) were few and short lived. Rafi clones (Mohd Aziz, Shabbir Kumar) challenged our ear drums a bit longer. But it's the Kishore clones (Kumar Sanu, Abhijeet, Babul Suprio) who took ground, flourishing through the millennium.
The female voices had it worse. Despite Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum, it has been Lata Mangeshkar all the way, to the extent that sister Asha struggled until (with O.P. Nayyar's help) she developed Dutt's style into a separate genre. Suman Kalyanpur, the grapevine has it, had to go because she sounded too much like the queen. Anuradha Paudwal shone briefly since she was basically in the Lata mould and,...