In the demise of Narendra Chanchal, we've lost an exponent of devotional music, whose ‘Mata ki Bhent’ bhajan, in a typically shrill, but 'piercingly beautiful' (to use the late Khushwant Singh's apt phrase) voice, enthralled the devout and the masses for decades.
Though Chanchal also sang popular numbers like 'Beshak Mandir Masjid Todo....' (Bobby, 1973) and ' Main Benaam Ho Gaya...' (Benaam, 1973), he became famous, rather a cult figure, with his devotional offerings. The most beautiful aspect of these pious renditions was the rather untrained rusticity of his voice, known in Persio-Arabic Quranic musical parlance as Aawaaz-e-Baazkhayee. Those who've listened to devotional music will vouch for the trance-like state that descends on the performer, as well as the listeners.
Listen to 'Dhan So Des Jahan To Wasey ' by Sumund Singh Ragi or 'Tu Mera Pita' by Gopal Singh Ragi, or Egyptian exponent of 'Qeerat' (musical rendition of Quranic verses), Ali Ah'an Azlan or Purushottam Das Jalota and his son Anup Jalota, you feel divinely surcharged, even if you happen to be a non-believer.
Music, particularly, devotional music, has the power to move hearts. Narendra Chanchal was a pastmaster in creating that effect, with his drooling maata. Those who've visited Vaishno Devi and Katra have fond memories of seeing the modest man sing bhajans in his free-flowing voice.
Born in a religious family, Chanchal had devotional music in his blood. It could be apocryphal but yours truly somewhere read that just like the great Rafi was blessed by a faqeer (a Muslim mendicant) when he was a child, Narendra was also blessed by a Ragi at a gurudwara in Amritsar. By the way, Ragis are devotional singers in Sikhism, who musically render Japji, Ardas, Gurbani and hymns.
Chanchal told an interviewer years ago that though he sang for films on the insistence of a couple of directors, Raj Kapoor being one of them, his heart was never in film music. 'Main wahan rah kar mata ki seva nahin kar sakta tha' (living there in Bombay, I couldn't serve Ma, the goddess), he told an interviewer. Chanchal had his moorings in devotional music and never found an anchor in commercial cinema or its brand of music.
Never in favour of commercialising devotional music like some of his coevals, Chanchal's sole (yes, soul) objective was to serve the gods and goddesses with his bhajan and keertan. The Hindi word ' chanchal' means 'agile' and also ripples. True to his name, Narendra created ripples in the hearts of devotees with his agile renditions of bhajan and keertan. His voice had a quality of high-pitch tonality (Aawaaz-e-buland), tailor-made for such genre of music. When 'Qaaris' in mosques render Quranic verses in seven ways known as 'Qeerat', the mosque management dotes on singers with a high-pitch tonality. It makes 'Qeerat' sound really profound and moving, bringing tears to the eyes of the faithful. The same can be said about Narendra Chanchal who was endowed with a rare pyramidal apex voice.
Shelley immortally penned: ‘Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory.' So very true. It looks like the great Victorian poet had the likes of Narendra Chanchal in mind; his devotional numbers will continue to transport devotees into the sacred realm of spirituality and metaphysics. Au revoir, Narendraji.
(The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilisations and cultures)