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Musician Rabbi Shergill: ‘We should all have opinions, else we're living in a world as slaves or masters’

Urban balladeer Rabbi Shergill on his love for Amritsar, his upcoming fourth album and why he doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind.

April 01, 2023 / 12:47 PM IST
Singer Rabbi Shergill, a pioneer of the Sufi-Rock movement in India, recently performed at Sacred Amritsar music festival.

Singer Rabbi Shergill, a pioneer of the Sufi-Rock movement in India, recently performed at Sacred Amritsar music festival.

A few days ago, Rabbi Shergill, 49, made the people of Amritsar dance and sing along with him as part of The Sacred Amritsar. The singer-songwriter performed some of his popular numbers, including Jugni, Chhalla, Tere Bin and the 2005 chartbuster Bullah ki Jaana. Shergill, who is regarded as one of the pioneers of the Sufi-Rock movement in the country, is also known to speak his mind on matters of politics and environment. We caught up with the Delhi-based musician in his favourite city to tell us more about his forthcoming ventures. Edited excerpts:

You performed in Amritsar recently. Tell us about your connect with the city and its people. 

My father is from Amritsar district itself. This, in some ways, is my hometown. My village is Chak Mishri Khan it is also the village where Gurbakhsh Singh chose to set up his first printing press in Punjab with his iconic magazine called Preet Lari, which is, perhaps, the most important magazine in Punjabi literature. In some sense, the literary heritage of Punjab is pretty much my own family’s heritage. This is the fifth time that I have come to Amritsar in about a little over a month. I had a lot of speaking assignments this month. This is one place which seems to have some bit of resonance for what I have to say.

Your first three albums released within four years of each other but the fourth one is taking its own sweet time. Why the long gap?

Albums are dead, but I have released songs. There is no market for albums; no shops selling them.

But you are working on one…

I like having something which qualifies as an album. In some ways, it’s a snapshot of the times we live in. I tend to think of songs as related to each other, but, increasingly, the connection which I used to apply to other songs has become loose and vague now. In some sense, it’s a little dance that I do of what the market forces are dictating and what I feel still can work. The dream is to just release something like a vinyl record. I used to love looking at CD covers but they are now dead, so, the only one format which has made a comeback and still is chugging along is the vinyl market. It is for that, that I am thinking of creating one. I have material for five-six albums (laughs). Let’s see. It’s not a very topical format in which music is consumed so that doesn’t take up much of my priorities. My priority is making videos or creating songs which can be put out on YouTube or Instagram.

You have spoken earlier about poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s influence on your music. Can you tell us in what ways does he still continue to impact your music?

I think he’s a seminal poet in the history of Punjab and his language bears a great resonance to most Punjabis in some ways. His use of language is as iconic as some of the previous poets, although we like to think of them as mystical figures like Baba Farid and Shah Hussain. I find his language seductive, resonant and sonorous. It just pulls you in. Quite a bit of it is romantic poetry — that is one criticism levelled at him — but it was one of my guilty pleasures growing up.

He is one of those people whom I go back to but there are others that I must mention as well, including Harbhajan Singh, Sheikh Farid, Bulleh Shah and Sultan Bahu. They form the bedrock of Punjabi poetry.

You recently had two performances to raise concern about the environmental issues in Punjab. Why is this issue of concern to you and what do you think you can do about it as an artiste?  

As a human being, it is my experience that we require two things — nature and people — to be really happy. I don’t think we can survive without nature. I find that nature tends to reset me and it resets almost everyone. I’m not romanticising it. Increasingly, the way we are living is disconnecting us and I feel the need to rehabilitate that connection.

You are also quite vocal when it comes to political issues. There are some who feel that artists should stay away from such discourses. Your thoughts? 

Music cannot happen in a vacuum and the only people who say that you’re an artiste and you should speak only of music are those jo khud ko ek machine ka kalpurza maante hain. Main kalpurza nahi hoon (who think of themselves as spare parts of the machine, I am not a spare part). I am the whole myself and I carry the whole in me. I am its part and I am its expression and that comes from my understanding of my own culture and worldview. I find that my worldview is not finding expression that much and that I must speak about it. I am an Indian and I have an Indian way of looking at the world and I find the binaries for the people who are authorised speakers on a subject and who are unauthorised as false.

I think we should all have opinions, otherwise we are living in a world where we are slaves or masters. Who decides who has the right to speak about certain issues or not? Obviously, I can’t just come and start running my mouth about something. I better have something to say — some genuine authentic anxiety, so my only job is to work on finding that authentic reason for speaking up. Politics is very clearly everyone’s business and art, perhaps, it is the most important production of a culture. Art is culture and culture is art. It is the very best of a given society and as a member of that privileged set, I feel it is my duty to speak as long as people are interested in what I have to say. I am not unduly bothered about the detractors.

Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on movies, shows, music, art, and food. Twitter: @DeepaliSingh05