Editor's note: Sonu Nigam's mother breathed her last in his arms on Feb 28th. This interview was conducted a few weeks before that, when his mother was seriously ailing. For Sonu, there was no bigger priority than looking after her and ever since she was seriously ill, he was always on tenterhooks accepting shows due to his insecurity of losing her in his absence.
Sonu Nigam, 39, is a combination of his talent and his father's manifestation of his desire for his son to achieve what he was unable to. He sees the deep spiritual reflection of God in his parents whom he surrenders to. Over he talks to TOI about his mother, his struggling years and why he will always miss . Excerpts:
Let's talk about your mother.
For the last few months since she was unwell, I would just hold her hand and start crying. When I was a child, we lived on and I would get down my and not go up till my mother came down and took me on her back and climbed up. She was a professional singer, but would also do all the household work and look after me. She is my queen. Recently, I made her sing with me on stage in one of the concerts in LA and I made her listen to that recording. Starting from the second half of last year, it has been a difficult period for me be it my mother's health or complications in my personal life. I had no other escape other than my work. Before every show I would call my mother and say 'Mummy I don't know how I will sing today'. But that would change as soon as I went on stage and would merge with my music. She is my best ally and I don't want to lose her. Nobody other than her would be concerned if I had eaten or had oiled my hair. She is my queen.
Let's talk about your journey from Delhi to Mumbai.
I was born in Faridabad but brought up in Delhi and Mumbai. My father had been living hand-to-mouth and literally slept on railway platforms when he came to Mumbai for the first time to become . My parents were both singers, they sang together and fell in love due to their singing. They eloped to get married. By the age of four, I was singing with them. He could not do what I have done to become a singer be it running behind people, waiting for hours, touching even the feet of peons and people who did not deserve to be in the positions they were in. I was a topper till class tenth and wanted to initially be a scientist. But after tenth once my real voice opened up, it started sounding good. When I was 15, we were paid Rs 50 per show and later started getting Rs 175 per shaadi or jagran. I started saving money for coming to Mumbai later and came finally with my father after my 12th at the age of 18. I had learnt music from listening to CDs and cassettes but acquired theoretical knowledge for four months in Delhi of ragas and taal just enough to not be troubled by people in Mumbai when we came here.
Tell us about your early years in Mumbai.
My dad has a lot of foresight and decided that I would not do any shows in Mumbai till I became a singer and got to sing my own songs. He knew that if I started earning money from shows, I would not have the time and aggression to rough it out to become a singer. We initially lived with my uncle after which we sold our place in Delhi and bought a one room apartment in Andheri. At that time, only my dad and I had come to Mumbai. I used to cook, sweep the floor and spend a lot of time in the kitchen as I used to practice at night. There were girls who used to roam around below our house. There was a shop below called AJ's which was run by Ajay. When I would come down, he would tell me that there was a girl passing by who thought of me as the good looking servant in the house and he would tell her that I was actually the owner. My dad had told me one thing that stayed with me always. He said 'either you struggle now and live a comfortable life later or you can enjoy now and struggle later'. We never had even a landline so I would visit a PCO and keep calling offices of music companies and music directors asking for time to meet them.
How did you get your first break?
We got down from the train and went straight to Bandra to stay in the cockroach-infested Mansarovar Hotel where Dharmendra had stayed when he had come to Mumbai as my dad was knowledgable about the film industry and knew this. We left our luggage and went straight to Sachin's Pilgaonkar place. He had heard me as a child in Delhi while judging a competition and had told my father to bring me to him when I grew up. He met us very nicely. Then we went to Anu Malik who had also seen me at a competition in Delhi and I reminded him of being the boy with the fracture. He remembered me and even though he did not have work at that time, he met me nicely. The next person we went to was Usha Khanna as she was known to give breaks to new people. I waited for her seven hours after which I sang in front of her and she loved my voice. She gave me my first song. My dad and I would roam around in Mumbai in buses and later in my two-wheeler. Then once in 1992, I sung a dummy song which was to be actually sung by SP Balasubramiam. But the shooting had happened on my voice which Gulshan Kumar heard. He was sharp and called for me. I got the call of my life from Ajit Kohli which said 'Gulshan Kumarji wants to meet you'. He saw me singing and said 'Oye Kohli to kehra tha aap aap chote ho, but aap to bahut chote ho'. But I will support you and made me sing the original song. Gulshan Kumarji was one true connoiseaur of music and changed the face of music and I miss him. He trusted his composers so much that he would put their pictures even on posters and loved his singers and musicians. He would gift his singers. Gulshanji had told me sing as many songs as you want outside, but sing cover versions only for us. He did not tie me up with any contract but I did not go to Tips even though I was asked by Ramesh Tauraniji from Tips to sing for him. I told him 'if I cheat Gulshanji today, I will cheat you tomorrow'. I participated in celeb Antakshari and then hosted Sa Re Ga Ma after which I sung my first hit song from Border.
Does it bother you that music directors are today singing their own songs?
A lot of singers grudge it. I feel there is nothing wrong with them singing but they should not be governed by the greed to sing. A song needs to be sung by a singer whose voice quality is suited for the song. A song becomes a legacy only when you have the right composition, lyrics and singer. You can deliver a hit song but to make it legacy, you need to have the correct voice. I directed music for two films but have not sung for them. I felt Mika's and Ash King's voice were better suited for some of the songs and got them to sing it.
What's your take on marriage?
I am not in favour of marriages. The happiest looking people would be happier if they were not married. Marriages kill love affairs as you start taking your partner for granted and familiarity breeds contempt. Marriage should have an expiry date with a renewal option.