SONU NIGAM IS WIDELY regarded to be the best male singer in India. But when reminded of this, he demurs: "That's very kind of you to say, but it is not true. There are so many great musical talents in India, I'm just happy to be a part of the scene."
Still, Nigam's vast repertoire of multilingual renditions has won him a fan base that includes influential vocalists from Kerala to Kashmir, be they singers of vintage Bollywood numbers (K.J. Yesudas, Manna Dey, the Mangeshkar sisters) or contemporary stars (Shreya Ghoshal, Sunidhi Chauhan). They all speak of the 40-year-old with deep admiration. He's even done a remix with Britney Spears.
"I am humbled and grateful for the appreciation. When I hear from other Indian singers who have been my inspiration, their kind words encourage me to work harder, to do better," he says on his way to a recording session, stuck in Mumbai's notorious midday traffic.
"There's a media myth that we're all fighting with each other, that we're competitive. But it's not the case. Most of us got into singing simply because we love to sing," he says. "We all meet up, and often party together, and talk about the great love of our lives: music. We talk about old songs, lyrical songs, the state of pop music, our favourite classical songs, composers who we wish we could have sung for - there's a tremendous harmony among us."
Born in Faridabad in the northern Indian state of Haryana, the only son of singer/composer Agam Kumar Nigam, he showed an early talent for singing and impersonations (he still does these when performing live). He made his first appearance on stage at the age of four, but national fame eluded him until he joined the cast of reality TV show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa (a version of America's Star Search with a distinctly Indian flavour) back in 1995.
Since 1992, Nigam had sung a few songs in Hindi films, but it was the weekly TV show that made him a household name. As the MC of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Nigam stood out from those competing on the show.
"The show was a fantastic experience and I look back at it with fondness," he says. "Ever since I was a young aspiring singer, I had wanted to meet the great musicians of India, and the TV show gave me that opportunity. I remember the time when the producer of the show invited 12 of the greats to join the audience. I was so happy to be in their presence."
Nigam regularly opened the programme with his favourite songs, and these numbers became the theme tunes of the show. "Early in my career, I started to sing cover versions of songs by Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar and the other greats, before I became a playback singer for Bollywood musicals. When I do this on stage, it's the closest feeling I get to the divine - and I'm grateful to God for the opportunity to do what I love every day."
Nigam is now known nationwide as a judge on a range of similar talent shows on Indian TV. He watches with a mix of trepidation and awe when young male singers emulate him in auditions.
"I am deeply flattered by it - particularly when they're good. The new generation should embrace Indian music and some young connoisseurs really stand out. They know songs that were perhaps not in hit films, but are still very good compositions. I love hearing those rare gems," he says.
With his trademark goatee, well-coiffed hair and designer clobber, Nigam has something of the rock star about him, but when he steps on stage he never forgets the popular artists who first inspired him, Eastern or Western.
"You know that when you have a favourite singer, they never leave you? I still love the songs of Rafi, Kumar and even Western singers such as Michael Jackson, and the early works of Lionel Richie and the Bee Gees."
As he prepares to return to the stage in Hong Kong, where he has performed several times since 1994, Nigam talks about his performances here. "I hope that with the next show I raise the bar. I have fun on stage, and this really shows when I see the audience having fun - it's a symbiotic relationship. I'm at my happiest when I'm performing."
The consummate professional, Nigam has learned to separate his personal and professional life.
"Earlier this year, I lost my mother. Ten days after that I had a huge show before thousands of people. My frame of mind wasn't great, obviously. But the show must go on, and I got up there and sang my heart out."
Sonu Nigam, October 1, 7.30pm, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai, HK$500-HK$1,800, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 8192 6076