Popular bhajan singer Narendra Chanchal dies at the age of 80

Published : January 22, 2021 21:54 IST

Narendra Chanchal, a file photo. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Back in the 1970s, youngsters could barely stop singing, "Hum tum ek kamre mein bund hon". The super hit song from Raj Kapoor's Bobby (1973) was to love birds what candy is to kids. However, there was more to this first film of Rishi Kapoor as hero and Dimple Kapadia as heroine than just their youthful appeal. The discerning loved a song, "Beshak Mandir Masjid todo..." Soaked in the truth of life, the song forced many to pick up the LPs (long-playing records) and audio cassettes of the film's music. Sung by the irrepressible Narendra Chanchal, who passed away early today at the age of 80, the song got him the Filmfare Best Male Playback singer award.

At a time when most singers were content to sing romantic numbers, Chanchal stood out for his ability to sustain high-pitched songs with ease. Very few romantic songs came his way. But Chanchal carved out his own niche with what came his way. He had the rare ability to get into the soul of the song, and make it entirely his own. The best proof came in director Mohan Kumar's Avtar in the early 1980s. Starring Rajesh Khanna, then some years removed from his peak, and Shabana Azmi, the film made it big at the box office, riding on the charisma of Chanchal. His powerful rendition of the devotional, "Chalo bulawa aaya hai" brought hundreds of cinegoers to movie theatres. The song was almost unavoidable for pilgrims on their way to the Vaishno Devi shrine near Jammu. In fact, his bhajans kept them company on their climb up to the shrine.

There is an interesting anecdote about how the song gave a livelihood in more ways than Chanchal or the music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal imagined. When the film played at Gianand cinema in east Delhi, a local music band mastered the song. As the film would be about to begin at the cinema, the band would gather outside the hall and start playing the song, and the viewers who would have come to watch the film would often listen to their song and give them a rupee or two. The band made good money playing "Chalo bulawa aaya hai".It was piety mixed with commerce.

For Chanchal, this was the best compliment of all as throughout his career he came to be identified with high-pitched bhajans, the kind that made you stop in your tracks. Chanchal would not just sing bhajans extolling the greatness of a deity, he would even dress up in a “Mata ki chunri” and back it up with a conspicuous tilak.

In his concerts, he would regale his listeners by constantly interacting with them, often asking them to sing along. Every Navratri, he would be in great demand for live shows. At others, his bhajans would play at full volume in street-side puja pandals. Nobody could think of Mata Rani without a Chanchal bhajan. Chanchal, however, did not fail to note the increasing exhibitionism and consumerism creeping into matters of faith. In an interview with The Hindu, he once said, “Earlier, jagrans were organised on a dari (cotton carpet), then they came on to the stage, and now it’s an industry. Even playback singers are singing in them.”

This lack of comfort with the moneyed was natural for Chanchal. Born in Amritsar in 1940, he could not afford a pair of slippers in childhood. As an adult, he once worked at a dry cleaner's shop. Aware of the pains of poverty, he started the Narinder Chanchal School for Non-Formal Education for the deprived. He backed it with a free ambulance and medicine service for the poor, before coming up with Ekta Mission to provide an opportunity to the poor, and founding Mamta ka Mandir for senior citizens to spend their last years in respect and care.

Last year, he sang a song about the coronavirus, little realising he would be hospitalised months later in November. He never recovered from age-related illness, and breathed his last on January 22, 2021.