PERHAPS IT WAS his time spent in the Indian city of Dharamshala, where the exiled Dalai Lama and thousands of his Tibetan followers have set up monasteries and temples, that brought a hint of spirituality to Mohit Chauhan’s mellifluous voice.
It’s a voice that has been heard in many Bollywood films, and one that will be heard in Hong Kong when Chauhan performs a one-off concert on May 10, coming after he won practically every award possible for his playback singing (recording songs for soundtracks that are lipsynched by actors in the actual film) in the 2011 film Rockstar.
However, it isn’t the rock anthems that have won him the accolades, it is the spiritual sufi (mystical) numbers that climbed the charts and struck a chord with music lovers throughout the Indian subcontinent.
“Like Rahman [the Oscar-winning A.R. Rahman, who composed the songs in Rockstar], I love singing spiritual songs, something that has meaning, a lyrical soul,” the singer says from his home in Mumbai. “I started singing for him just a few years ago and we gelled on those songs. He gives such freedom to his singers – which is why musicians love him. And I love singing his numbers as you can let go and sing your heart out on stage.”
The man seen on stage in his younger days bears little resemblance to the confident star in a black hat and leather jacket who appears under the spotlights today. Chauhan confesses that he did a bit of theatre while studying and sang a bit during his mullet-haired, rock T-shirt-wearing days at college, but nothing too serious.
He and a close group of friends would perform in whatever venues they could find around Dharamsala, singing and strumming along as their voices would reverberate around the valleys.
It paid off well. Chauhan’s range is indeed as wide as those hills, and his vast repertoire encompasses everything from classical, pop and fusion, along with the romantic ballads that are Bollywood staples. The soft-spoken singer confesses that unlike many of his contemporaries, he was entirely self-taught.
“Fortunately – or unfortunately – I had no formal training in music,” he says. “But it’s always been a part of me. I have always sung for myself. It never occurred to me to become a professional musician. I studied science and did my masters in geology. I wanted to join the civil service or the Indian army – I even trained for that – but not for singing on stage.”
He may be selling out concert halls these days, but for many years he often faced empty auditoriums where he and his posse rehearsed. “Our criteria was how good the sound was – it had to have a hint of echo – and we’d play anywhere. There weren’t many, if any, professional places where we could sing. I come from a beautiful, small state where it’s all about nature. We had no money, maybe just enough to pay the rent, but when you’re stringing along with your bros, that’s freedom,” he says.
These days, Chauhan is too busy to sing with many of the other performers he admires. “I love to sing with others – but most of my duets are recorded separately, and often in separate places. Everything is brought together by technology. So when I hit the stage with another female singer, for example, sometimes it’s the first time I have met them in person,” he says with a laugh.
While he is well aware that he has a loyal following among the young indie-Hindi-pop crowd, Chauhan himself prefers to listen to singers from the 1960s and ‘70s. “As any Indian male singer will tell you, the love we have for Kishore Kumar [the iconic playback singer who died in 1987] borders on worship. The man had unbelievable range – he did soft numbers, rock, anthems; he acted, he produced … he rocked the stage.”
And this is perhaps what the next generation will be saying about Chauhan in years to come.
Mohit Chauhan, May 10, 7.30pm, Kitec, 1Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$288- HK$1,500, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288