Bhupinder Singh’s passion for playing the guitar nearly cost him his career. The singer who catapulted to fame with a duet with Lata Mangeshkar in the film Parichay (1972) had a tough call to take: should he be behind the microphone or strum a guitar? Having both wasn’t going to be easy.

Born in Amritsar in 1940, Singh’s training began with his father, who was a musician. He learnt to play the guitar and later moved to Delhi, working at All India Radio as a singer and musician. Singh was discovered by the composer Madan Mohan, who gave him a break in the 1964 film Haqeeqat. Bhupinder Singh sang “Hoke Majboor Mujhe Usne Bulaya Hoga” with his idol Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey and Talat Mahmood. Singh also appeared in the song.

Two years later, music director Khayyam introduced Singh with the jazz solo “Rut Jawaan Jawaan” (Aakhri Khat, 1966), in which Singh made a cameo appearance as the lead vocalist of a club band. His breathy vocals, control of vibrato, and mastery of the acoustic guitar turned the song into a laconic mood piece.

Rut Jawaan Jawaan, Aakhri Khat.

Singh had to wait six more years before his voice became acceptable. Music composers queued up for his acoustic skills, while his playback career took a backseat.

Some of Rahul Dev Burman’s greatest songs, including “Dum Maro Dum” (Hare Rama Hare Krishna, 1971), “Chura Liya Hai Tumne” (Yaadon Ki Baaraat, 1973) and “Mehbooba Mehbooba” (Sholay, 1975) were backed by Singh’s musical fingers.

When Burman composed music for Gulzar’s Parichay (1972), Singh got to croon “Beeti Na Bitai Raina” with Lata Mangeshkar. She won a National Award. Burman, who composed the track, Gulzar, who wrote it, and Singh, who collaborated on it did not receive the same honour. Yet, the song put the spotlight on the team, which went to collaborate on other hits.

Some of Singh’s earliest recorded ghazals were for the record company HMV in the 1960s, when ghazals were released as singles. He sang the poetry of Jigar Moradabadi in “Aankhon Ka Tha Kasoor Na Dil Ka Kasoor Tha.”

Aankhon Ka Tha Kasoor Na Dil Ka Kasoor Tha.

In “Aahat Si Koyi Aaye”, written by poet Jan Nissar Akhtar, Singh changed the musical orchestration of the ghazal, which is traditionally composed with tabla and sarangi. Introducing flutes, Spanish guitar, drums and other stringed instruments, Singh gave the ghazal a modern sound, which began to attract new listeners.

Aahat Si Koyi Aaye.

In the 1980 album Woh Jo Shair Tha, Bhupinder Singh sang the verses of Gulzar, mixing his funereal voice with synthesised sound, electric guitar and drums, creating yet another hypnotic mood piece. Singh ’s experiments have allowed musicians to take liberty in interpreting the ghazal in more ways than one.

Woh Jo Shair Tha.

Singh met Bangladeshi singer Mitali Mukherjee in the ’80s, and they were later married. He stepped away from playback singing to produce music albums with her, forming a team that is still going strong in the ghazal genre.

Singh has a formidable body of work in film music, having sung for over 50 films. “Dil Dhoondta Hai” (Mausam, 1975), “Naam Gum Jayega” (Kinara, 1977), “Karoge Yaad Toh” (Bazaar, 1982), “Kisi Nazar Ko Tera Intizaar”(Aitbaar, 1986), “Baadalon Se Kaat Kaat Ke” (Satya, 1998) are just a few of his most popular songs, but the ones that need to rediscovered, like the man himself, includes the rarely heard “Rasiya” from the Malayalam film Manju (1983) for composer MB Srinivasan. He sings it like an incantation.

Rasiya from Manju.