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He's back, even if he never went away
Altaf Raja's new hit song 'Jholu Ram' recalls his even greater hit of the nineties.
In the nineties, the background score in trains, taxis, trucks and buses across India had to include one song. Whether it was your neighbourhood autowallah or the kid with the harmonium on the local train, Altaf Raja's maudlin ode to love and heartbreak, Tum toh thehre pardesi, was a must on the menu. Sung in the paan-tinted voice of qawwals and old classical singers, the song, released in 1993, went viral on India's streets. Long bus journeys became unbearable because the bus driver insisted on playing it on repeat. It catapulted Raja from foggy obscurity to instant fame. On the success of that one song alone, Altaf Raja's first album, Tum To Thehre Pardesi, became the first non-film album to record the highest sales.
Twenty-three albums, hits like Harjai, and hundreds of international shows later, Raja is back in the news. In fact, the recently released Ghanchakkar not only has Raja singing but also appearing in a promotional video. The response to his song, Jholu Ram, has been enthusiastic - going by the reaction on Twitter - and is being billed as his comeback. The song even begins with, "I'm back. " But he disagrees.
"I've been taking out albums. I was always here, " the soft-spoken singer says. "The last famous song I sang was Tumse kitna for Ram Gopal Varma's Company in 2002. But yes, I'm making a comeback to the silver screen. It was exactly 14 years ago that I made an appearance in Yamraaj in 1999. "
The song Jholu Ram, created by music ace Amit Trivedi, gives Raja ample scope to strut his pop qawwali style. Though not quite as raw as some of his earlier hits, Raja still manages to give the song a fun, quirky edge. It was, in fact, film director Rajkumar Gupta's brainwave to get Raja on board, and Trivedi, given his penchant for fresh thinking, jumped at the chance.
"Gaane gaane par likha hai, gaanewale ka naam. . . Yeh gaana chalke aaya hai mere paas (Every song is meant for someone to sing and this song came to me without any bidding), " says Raja, who's unusually coy about his age - he's 55 - philosophises. "Rajkumarji wanted to work with me and how could I possibly say no to the brilliant jodi (twosome) that is Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya. I was asked to sing the song I did. I only learnt the film was Ghanchakkar after I finished recording. It was at the wrap-up party in January that they told me they would like to picturise it on me. "
For those who are harping on how it sounds too sophisticated for an Altaf-Raja song, he says, "One man cannot satisfy a hundred people. If I sing sorrowful songs then they ask why only such songs? Ab maine hatkar gaana gaya hai toh log keh rahe hain ki aisa kyun (Now that I've sung a song differently, people are asking me why)?" Born in a family where music was a way of life - his parents were qawwals and he was trained under Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale - Raja isn't hankering to work in Bollywood. In fact, his last playback efforts were in 2010. "If a song merits it then I definitely wouldn't mind, " he says. "Money isn't important to me. I like to spend my time coming up with ideas for my albums. In fact, I have just released my latest album Ashkon ki Baraat and I will continue in the same vein. " Part of what he calls 'satellite singers' - singers who entered the fray after the advent of satellite television - Raja feels that the fact he hasn't changed his approach or style of singing is responsible for his success. "If you present your skills honestly and truly, then the audience will appreciate you, " he says. "Of that there's no doubt. I will always continue to sing like Altaf Raja. Why should I change?"
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