As readers of this blog might guess, my knowledge of contemporary singers in the Bollywood industry is relatively limited. Once we get into the periods when the Golden Age greats no longer dominate (and very much beyond the time of my Vintage favorites), my knowledge is probably more limited than that of most Bollywood/film fans (especially those who actually live somewhere in India, rather than in New York). But once in a while, I do stumble upon someone who does contemporary work in Bollywood whom I really like – thanks mostly to YouTube – and then I make it my mission to learn more about what that person has done.
One contemporary singer whom I was really taken with this month is Neha Bhasin. But I did not get drawn to her because of her film work (though I do certainly like a couple of her film songs that I have checked out) nor for her more pop-oriented music from several years ago. Instead, I was drawn in by her performances of old classics, including a few Punjabi folk songs. And I usually like the performances that are “unplugged” or at least done in a basic way, without elaborate production. So, maybe it is cheating to say that I have found a favorite new singer of contemporary Bollywood music since I like her most when she performs old, classic songs (most of which I have seen and heard before in very old renditions by other singers).
In any event, getting to the point now, here are a few examples of the kinds of performances by Neha Bhasin that I like most:
This first video is actually pretty nicely produced and well directed, and per the description on YouTube, a short part of it did appear in a film, Veer Zaara (which a little research tells me would have to be the 2018 remake of the 2004 film). The director of the Video is Sameer Uddin, who also did the musical arrangements; he also would become her husband about a year after this video came out. And Sameer Uddin is obviously her main music guy in most of the videos that I’m including here (a very convenient arrangement!).
This rendition, like all the ones she does, is maybe a little westernized and modernized compared to the classic originals, but it is distinctly recognizable as a classic Punjabi song. (Her voice may also seem more contemporary than the classic Punjabi/Indian voices, but it still suits the old folk songs well; it is both full and sweet.)
In this particular song, I hear more of a jazzy quality than in her other covers, too, so the arrangement might be slightly more complicated than most, but it is still easy for the ears to follow. (Incidentally, the instrumentation becomes very interesting – I really like that dulcimer, which is credited to Chandrakanth Lakshpati.) The video is also quite fascinating – I love the pigeon scenes! And on YouTube, within the comments, you can find a translation of the Punjabi lyrics. (They are vivid and sometimes sweet, but sad and a bit troubling, starting with the lines: “A cob of millet, quite effortlessly, oh yes, I can twist and grind it between my palms/ My lover, angry and out in the street, oh yes, I made him return by using my charms!”)
This next song is a pretty familiar Punjabi folk song. I did not find a translation, but I did not look that much, because it hardly matters when the music is so charming.
Incidentally, I tried sharing this the other day with a fellow New Yorker who is not familiar with Punjabi music (or any Indian folk music) and he said it sounded good but he had “obstacles” to enjoying it fully because of his unfamiliarity with the language. That seems so strange to me! I mean, certainly, sometimes you can enjoy the song more when you can understand the poetry, but I cannot imagine lack in understanding of the language as being an obstacle to enjoying a vocal performance and music!
Anyway, once again, all musical arrangements here were done by Sameer Uddin, who I imagine does at least some of the playing of string instruments (we’ll see his nice guitar work more clearly in the next video). I believe this was made a few months earlier than the other one, so it would be over a year before their marriage, but they are already so musically well matched! By the way, I have heard the much older version of this song by Surinder Kaur, and this is obviously more modern, a bit more Western, too, etc., but the arrangement is pretty basic, and I imagine most will find that the integrity of the folk music is very much left intact. Once again, I appreciate the visuals in the video, too. It is very pleasant how the camera follows Neha on her bike ride through this neighborhood. (And if anyone could identify the neighborhood, please tell me, because I am curious. I am guessing that it is in Neha’s hometown, Delhi.) Almost needless to say, Neha is also quite nice to watch here as well as to hear!
My next favorite Neha Bhasin video is one of a couple of “unplugged” videos that I watched, from 2018. This video is very simple, with Sameer accompanying Neha with his guitar alone. It is literally filmed in their living room, and it could have fit in very well with some “lockdown” set, but, of course, it’s not that recent. Still, when they did this, Neha and Sameer were already a couple of years into their marriage, and the two seem very charming and happy together. (Though off screen, one never knows! I hope there isn’t any “Bajre Da Sita” kind of stuff going on between them – just kidding there.)
The song that Neha and Sameer cover in this video is a pretty familiar Punjabi folk number, too. I know that this song was performed very nicely decades ago by the Pakistani singer Musarrat Nazir. It’s one of those wedding folk songs that I just cannot imagine anyone not liking!
When I watched Neha and Sameer in these “living room” performances, it reminded me a bit of seeing another couple performing together, the New York couple that consists of the the Indian-Canadian-American singer Kiran Ahluwalia and her Pakistani-American guitarist husband Rez Abbasi. I am thinking, particularly, of their livestream from just a month ago, which actually was a lockdown performance. Kiran Ahluwalia sings some Punjabi folk, too (among other things), since that’s where her roots are. But Rez Abbasi’s guitar playing is very jazzy and he is known for delving into African rhythms, etc., so the Neha/Sameer performance is much closer to the traditional Punjabi folk (Western/modern aspects notwithstanding). And I admit, I can get into the mood for Neha and Sameer more easily, much as I like the other couple, too (and even though I have listened to Kiran Ahluwalia for quite a few years).
Also, from those Neha/Sameer “living room” sessions, here is the song where I first noticed Neha. It is not a Punjabi folk song but, rather, an Urdu film song. (Though the woman who originally made this song famous certainly knew Punjabi too!) Maybe I would not have gotten so curious about Neha if I had not seen her do a cover of an old Noor Jehan film song! Needless to say, I was very pleased to see her rendition of “Chandni Raatein.” It is quite charming, and it is always a major pleasure for me to see someone perform this song well.
And now, to close my post on Neha, maybe it would be fair to include an actual film scene, since I imagine she is best known for her film songs (or at the very least, best paid). I’ll provide this scene from the 2016 Hindi film Sultan, because I really did enjoy her singing performance here, and, obviously, I’m not the only one, considering that this film earned her a Filmfare award. She sings for Anushka Sharma, and it’s a nice combination, though strangely enough, when I watched this, I missed seeing Neha Bhasin.
P.S. While I have posted those five clips of Neha Bhasin because they caught my attention and I am happy to share them above others, this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily her best songs or that this is a definitive sample. Everybody who is curious about her music should explore more, starting with her YouTube channel (where most of the videos above come from, of course). In addition to seeing more Hindi and Punjabi songs, you can check out the ones that she did in Tamil and Telugu. (She has won awards for a few South Indian film songs.)
One reason that I picked the particular songs that I did is, exactly, because they were recognizable old classics, and I had fun linking to some very old versions too. I still do love the very old stuff that I have been blogging about for so many years!