One of the relics of the engineering faculty at Jadavpur University in Kolkata is a hangout joint called “Satyen da r canteen” (Satyen’s canteen). One day in 1988, during one of our regular informal quizzes at the canteen, Anirudha Bhattacharjee, then an MTech student, asked a bunch of juniors that included me: “Who played the guitar in the intro music of Chura Liya from Yaadon ki Baaraat?” We were blank. “It was Bhupinder,” Anirudha revealed. “Bhupinder? The ghazal singer? You mean he used to play the guitar too?” a couple of us asked in surprise.
Over the following weeks, months, years, and decades right through till 2015, by which time Anirudha and I had co-authored RD Burman: The Man, The Music and Gaata Rahe Mera Dil – 50 Classic Hindi Film Songs, our discovery of singer-guitarist-actor Bhupinder Singh led us to many enchanting destinations.
Bhupinder started out as a Hawaiian guitarist until senior guitarist Bhanu Gupta convinced him to learn the Spanish guitar. Bhupinder mastered this too and became one of the few who performed the bluesy style of guitaring in India.
With Abhilasha (1968), he entered composer RD Burman’s team as a singer and guitarist. By the late 1960s, Bhupinder replaced senior pro Dilip Naik as the team’s lead guitarist. The signature guitar riff of the rebel anthem Dum Maro Dum that runs like a motif throughout the film Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), the solo pieces in the intro and antara of the newly-weds’ love song Tere Bina Jiya Jaaye Na from Ghar (1978), the forlorn guitar notes of the heart-broken singing hero in Kya Hua tere Wada from Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977)… Bhupinder’s guitar gave each melody its indistinguishable character. In the home-alone languid love song Ek Hi Khwab from Kinara, Bhupendra played the lead guitar himself – probably the only instance of the singer playing the lead guitar during a song.
Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, Bhupinder purchased the twelve-string guitar at a music shop in Bombay at the persuasion of fellow guitarist Sunil Kaushik. This new instrument was like a magic wand in Bhupinder’s hands. He used it to mesmerising effect in the Kishore Kumar version of Phoolon Ka Taaron Ka in Hare Rama Hare Krishna and in the prelude of Chura Liya from Yaadon Ki Baaraat, in which the clinking of glasses resonating with his twelve-string guitar strumming that kicks off the Nasir Hussain one-upmanship game between future lovers. The amalgamation of Bhupinder’s guitar riffs and the saxophone pieces complements Asha Bhosle’s voice to generate a sound that is hip, sweet, smooth and very city-slick.
Though RD Burman’s music occupied most of his time, Bhupinder had contributed to other composers as well. He made his debut as an actor and playback singer in Haqeeqat (1964), whose music was by Madan Mohan. In Aakhri Khat (1966), Bhupinder had a cameo as a club singer, where he also sang Rut Jawan Jawan to the music of Khayyam.
The amazing title music of Pakeezah (1972), in Raga Piloo, included Bhupinder playing the twelve-string guitar like a sarod. His solo guitaring complemented Lata Mangeshkar’s sentimental solo Ruke Ruke Se Kadam, scored by Madan Mohan, in Mausam (1975). Bhupinder had an in-born comfort with variants of the guitar, including lesser-known instruments in that family.
Anirudha Bhattacharjee shared a little-known fact about RD Burman getting for Bhupinder the Oud, a short-neck, pear-shaped, fretless string instrument of the lute family that’s common in southwest Asia and north Africa, for his “Bhupi” to play in the film Abdullah (1980).
Kersi Lord, who played alongside Bhupinder for two decades, once told me, “Bhupinder’s guitar is like a human voice”.
By the mid-1970s, Bhupinder had carved out a niche for himself as a singer too with successes such as Beeti Na Bitai Raina from Parichay (1972), tunes in Kinara (1977), Gharonda (1977) and Faasle (1974) under composer Jaidev, and the tandem melody for which he is best known – Dil Dhoondta Hai from Mausam (1975).
In the male solo version of Dil Dhoondta Hai, Bhupinder’s dulcet baritone seems to echo across the mountainous terrain. He had a voice as deep an ocean, and most composers used him appropriately – in sentimental and/or semi classical numbers.
Bhupinder also took on the odd light and peppy numbers like Jaan-E-Jaan Meri Kasam Tujhko from Jab Andhera Hota Hai (1974) and the duet Dekho Hum Dono Ki Yaari Kya Kehna with Kishore Kumar in Double Cross (1974). More singing success continued in the 1980s with Thodi Si Zameen in Sitara (1980), Kabhi Kisiko Mukammal Jahan Nahi Milta in Ahista Ahista (1981), Karoge Yaad to Har Baat Yaad Ayegi in Bazaar (1982).
In the 1980s, Bhupinder branched out into non-film ghazal albums, and thus left the RD Burman team sometime after Mahaan (1983). This meant losing the strongest supporter of both his guitaring and singing abilities. Entering the world of the non-film ghazal brought him into competition with maestros such as Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh, Mehdi Hassan. The limited reach of music in the pre-internet and pre-cellphone era was a constraint for distribution.
But it may also be argued that, starting 1982-83, the general standards of Bollywood music sank to abysmal depths, leaving the environment unmotivating for someone like Bhupinder. Why not walk out of the sewer and follow the heart even if it were for a few rupees less? The other possibility is that despite Bhupinder’s exceptional guitaring skills, the end output always belonged to the music director. Bhupinder’s name featured nowhere in the credits – which explains that quiz question at Satyen da r canteen. Not many people knew of his skills.
In the book Gaata Rahe Mera Dil, Gulzar describes the sort of person Bhupinder was: “Bhupi is a bit of a fakir. Woh ek sai aadmi hai, just like the Sufis and sadhus. They look lazy but they are very focused and attentive. There is a bit of ruhaniyat in him. If something interested him, he would take it up. There is no greed or haste in him. Whatever he does, he does from his heart. Else he would be happy to let it go to others.” The contemplative mood of the solo Dil Dhoondta Hai embodies Gulzar’s analysis of Bhupinder Singh as an artist – selective and classy.