His music is an act of poetic subversion and he has earned a distinct identity by becoming a voice of poets across languages and time. And yet, for Harpreet, who grew up on a small farm near Nilokeri in Haryana, poetry was not inherent in his mind or environment. The son of a farmer, he says, he was never good at academics and was introduced to music when he began fiddling with a keyboard that his father had bought his brother. The 30-year-old remembers that it was the only thing that could still his restless mind.
When he was around eight years old, his father moved to Kurukshetra, where Harpreet’s cousin was getting music lessons on an old guitar. At a time before YouTube and Google offered tutorials and answers to every question, Harpreet began tuning the guitar on his own and played old Bollywood numbers. He became well-known among friends and a few college students asked him for lessons when Harpreet was in the ninth grade. He agreed but asked them to buy guitars of good quality, which gave him a chance to practice on a “real instrument”. Soon, he was stringing tunes together from old and new Bollywood songs and became something of a local celebrity.
A serendipitous start
Since Harpreet’s academic records were not showing promise, his father agreed to send him to Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Delhi. “The sound of tanpura close to my ears changed my understanding of music,” he said. “I lacked [the] discipline [to] study theory of classical music but I started responding to the sounds of music and poetry, as I never did before. The tuning of the tanpura tuned me to my inner being.”
His discovery of poetry, too, occurred outside the purview of traditional education. He was surfing the internet when he found Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s poem Maati and was charmed by the richness of its imagery – “The urge to compose music for the poem was irresistible.” Harpreet’s approach to setting poems to music is best showcased in his composition of acclaimed Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s poem, Jhoom jhoom mridu garaj garaj ghanghor. With just the strumming of guitar which allows the brilliant alliterative sounds and the poem’s inherent rhythm to shine, he creates a bridge between the written word and music. Harpreet said he reads a poem innumerable times, lives with it and waits for it to reveal its innate music and rhythm to him.
With a little help from audiences
Once he started singing his original compositions before friends, he found much praise and encouragement. “I used to sing before Gurpal Singh’s group Mafiya, which was made up of aspiring musicians, artistes and filmmakers in Delhi,” he said. “I sang Maati and Ajnabi and the kind of appreciation [that] came my way made me believe that I was on the right track. For years I did nothing except sit in my room with my guitar and work on compositions for poems I read or was given by friends.”
Harpreet’s first public performance was in 2011, for a play titled Kutte by Deepak Dhamija. The song of the same name that he composed for the play was picked by Dibakar Banerjee and Yash Raj Films in 2015 for a film by Kanu Behl called Titli.
And at the 2017 Mahindra Kabira Festival in Varanasi, he mesmerised an audience of a few thousands at Assi Ghat with Kabeer’s nirgun poetry. Harpreet performed five songs in a row – including rather difficult compositions such as Shunya gadh shehar shehar ghar basti and Na main dharmi na adharmi on the ukulele – and found that they resonated deeply with the unforgiving, discerning audience, much to his own surprise. That this audience responded to each of his numbers with enthusiasm and applause is also perhaps an indication of the lack of meaningful poetry and elegant compositions that exists in the music world. That the Varanasi audience loved listening to Kabir being sung on the guitar, reinforced Harpreet’s confidence in his approach to music, which lays less emphasis on creating melody and more on highlighting the beauty of the written word, while retaining the richness of each syllable.
Across mediums and cities
Apart from rendering verses of well-known poets like Nirala, Bulleh Shah, Paash, Faiz and Naresh Saxena, Harpreet also composes songs from the work of contemporary poets such as Dr Shiv Bahadur Singh Bhadauria, Madan Lad Didi, Deepak Dhamija and Maheep Singh. A song that the Varanasi audience particularly loved was Babli Banarasi, which is written by Chhaya Mehrotra. He has also performed at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Jaipur Literature Festival, Taj Mahotsav, Amarrass Desert festival, and at the Esplanade in Singapore at Kalaa Utsavam 2015, among many others.
At some point, Harpreet hopes to have a large band but, for the time being, he is happy performing with Anirban Ghosh who accompanies him on the bass and Varun Gupta, who is on percussion. He has released an album titled Ajab ishq mati da and a single, Ghah, which is based on a poem by Paash, the famous revolutionary Punjabi poet. Harpreet also composes music for the theatre and his work for Ladies Sangeet, a play by Purva Naresh and for Dadi Padamjee’s puppet shows have been much appreciated.
Apart from finding meaningful poems and composing lyrics, Harpreet’s quest is also for the perfect sound and, in the process, he picks new instruments or creates his own. “I wanted to buy a flute with a lot of bass and huskiness, but the ones sold in stores were too expensive for me. And so I made one myself, after several trials, out of a PVC pipe.” His new endeavour is to learn the piano and perform a selection of poems on it.