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February 19, 2019

Mapping The Unique Trajectory Of Baba Sehgal’s Success

Text by Akhil Sood. Photographs by Shweta Desai. Styling by Akanksha Pandey. Make-Up by Hina Patel at Make-Up Designory

For a lot of young Indians today, he might only be relevant as a postmodern, internet celebrity – the guy who writes meme-tastically absurd lyrics about rajma and flatulence. However, the origin story of Baba Sehgal’s fame actually began almost 30 years ago, during the Indipop boom…

The music video for Thanda Thanda Pani, its album’s title track, released on 7 August, 1992. Baba Sehgal had moved to what was then still called Bombay a year and a half earlier. He’d already released two albums, Dilruba (1990) and Alibaba (1991), but the response hadn’t been quite what he’d expected; it was somewhat tepid. Atul Churamani, at Magnasound then, however, believed in him and worked hard to make Thanda Thanda Pani happen. The song is a riff on Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby (1990) and repeats its central melody. (For what it’s worth, that very melody itself was taken from Queen’s Under Pressure, 1981.) And soon after, Sehgal’s life flipped on its head.

The song was an outright success. People began recognising him on the streets. He remembers standing near this paan shop outside his house, when a bike passed him by and someone shouted, “Hey, that’s Baba Sehgal!” He was surprised; it’s when he figured the video must have released. “After a month,” he recalls, “in The Times Of India — the main paper, not the supplement — there was a headline: ‘Thanda Thanda Pani Creates Waves in the Indian Music Industry’.”

He began performing commercial shows. He didn’t have a phone at the time, so he’d give out that same paan shop’s number. In case any clients called, the shop owner would send a kid to summon him — he lived in the next gully — and he’d discuss any prospective live shows from there. The first one was at the Netaji Indoor Stadium in Calcutta, as Kolkata was known then. “They asked me how much I charge. I was like, ‘Do I say 5,000? 10,000?’ Just like that, I told them 1.5 lakh. They said they’ll get back to me. I was like, ‘Oh shit! Dus ya bees to mil hi jata — I would have gotten 10,000 or 20,000 rupees. Something, at least.’” Within half an hour, he was booked for 90,000 rupees.

Sehgal is 53 years old now. We are sitting at a cafe in Andheri West, in January. Mumbai is chilly but not invasively so. It’s pleasant. He’s wearing a red T-shirt with images of Mickey Mouse all over, and faded jeans. He’s completely bald — he ditched the buzz cut he used to have back in 2002 — and has two big earrings on both ears. We share a Diet Pepsi and, upon our server’s recommendation, the hummus with pita bread. He has, let’s say, a big personality. He walks with a strut, using his booming voice to command each room that he enters. Infinitely patient, he makes conversation and poses for photos with fans, cracking a joke or two in between. He even does a quick video clad in sunglasses, happily rapping out a short bit and making those swaggering hand gestures. Often, he does that thing where he says your name, just as a way of establishing a connection. Baba Sehgal is just a likeable guy. But there’s also an authoritative air about him. Like he’s someone you wouldn’t want to mess with; you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side.

See, Sehgal lived the dream from 1992 to 1999. The glorious ’90s. He was at the forefront of the Indipop movement that was all the rage back then, alongside artistes such as Alisha Chinai, Lucky Ali, Falguni Pathak, Remo Fernandes, and a host of others. Indipop was a flash of lightning. The ridiculously catchy songs were of course at the centre of it all. But there was more to it. The artistes had personality and their individual peculiarities and stylistic leanings endeared them to a young audience hungry for homegrown icons. MTV played a big role, giving plenty of airtime to their delightfully weird music videos, which drew heavily from the aesthetic of ’80s America. Sehgal, in this movement, was a bit of a wild card.

His songs featured rapping, a form that was previously alien to India. In fact, he was one of the first — if not the first — artistes to bring Hindi rap to Indian listeners. Sehgal was willing to put himself, and his personality, out there. He starred in his music videos instead of using a male model, and the video for Dil Dhadke, featuring Pooja Bedi, remains one that is still spoken of fondly, some 28 years later. He was deeply individualistic, iconoclastic really, and could credibly be referred to as a cult hero.

He tells me the story of how his breakthrough song, Thanda Thanda Pani, came about. “I was sitting at Centaur hotel (in Mumbai, now the Tulip Star Hotel). That was my first time at a five-star hotel.” Sehgal has this habit of breaking into rhyme or song mid-conversation. His signature style in his songs sees him throw in rhyme after rhyme to create a comical, often absurdist, scenario, and it’s something that carries over into his everyday personality as well. “Main five-star hotel pehli baar gaya /maine dekha pani se bhara swimming pool,” he raps a verse from the song. “Aaya manager, bola baithiye please, sir sir sir /aapki seva mein main haazir hoon /kuch farmaiye, boliye kya aapko chahiye,” he finishes, telling me about the origins of how he made rapping mainstream. He knew that this style of fast singing — “fast waali cheezen chal rahi hain baahar” — was popular in the West; at that time, he didn’t even know it was called ‘rap’. And his undying love for Kishore Kumar, who is one of his primary musical inspirations and often used to sing in rapid-fire verse, also helped. “Even now people talk about that song,” he says, beaming. He speaks about the past fondly, soaking in the nostalgia, but it’s not what drives him; he’s more concerned with the here and now.

Sehgal was an important figure at the time for his irreverent approach to music. While he was often identified as this brazen rapper who was infiltrating the music industry, a thing that’s often forgotten — or conveniently ignored — is how powerful his melodies were. They remain hummable even now, three decades later. The rap sections were invariably followed up with these large, preposterously memorable chorus melodies where Sehgal would often alter the tempo or the intensity of the song, messing around with inflection and rhyming schemes to create a charming harmonic sensation. He wrote the melodies and lyrics for all his songs, often working with arrangers and session musicians for the final set-up. He climbed up the charts, and garnered considerable success. He was phenomenally prolific, writing an album a year from 1990 to 1995, gaining swathes of loyal fans along the way. Dil Dhadke, Dr. Dhingra, Baba Deewana and Manjula all live on in the memory.

And then there was Aaja Meri Gaadi Mein Baithja from the film Miss 420 (1998), which Sehgal both acted in and sang for. This was the beginning of his connection with Bollywood, which included singing the playback vocals for Rukmani Rukmani of Roja (1992), A.R. Rahman’s debut soundtrack. He may have been a well-known and much-loved pop culture figure, but Sehgal always remained a bit of an outsider when it came to the movies. He never quite ‘cracked it’. “Whenever you have a big hit,” he says, “Bollywood usually follows. Call it a tragedy or whatever, but I wonder why that never happened to me.” In our conversation, Sehgal repeats often how his conviction and self-belief are essential aspects of his personality. He’s always been straightforward and never bothered with industry games. “My approach was also very straight. There was no ‘Hello sir, main aapka fan hoon — I’m a big fan of your work’,” he says, putting on a fake sugary voice to recreate the sycophancy that young artistes trying to break into an industry are often forced to adopt. “I was always like, ‘Sir, main gana gata hoon, yeh mera audio cassette hai — I’m a singer, and here’s my demo.’ That’s how I used to talk, and that’s how I still talk. Bollywood was never kind to me. They were scared of me because of my personality, I think. It was the aura I carried. But I always spoke nicely with people regardless. I was never like, ‘Dude, I’ve become Baba Sehgal!’”

The music industry never truly embraced him either — there was a sense of resentment. Maybe because he was getting high-profile ad campaigns while others who felt like they were better than him, or more established, couldn’t get the same gigs.

But then it all came crashing down, almost in slow motion. The Indipop wave began to die out at the turn of the millennium. There was a stark shift from independent pop music to the music being churned out by Bollywood. Remixes of old film classics became huge, and independent music began to fall by the wayside. All the notable Indipop artistes of the time practically disappeared.

Another factor, Sehgal tells me, was the 1997 assassination of Gulshan Kumar, founder of T-Series and a sagely presence in the industry. Kumar was shot dead outside a temple in Mumbai. “The underworld was huge back then,” he tells me. “It was an influence on everyone.” Sehgal admits that he was a relatively small fish, but even he had first-hand experience, getting a call at one point. He was scared; he consulted a friend and the matter was sorted out. But the industry was shaken. Sehgal speaks of Kumar with great respect and reverence, and feels that his death also contributed to the shift in the kind of music being produced at the time. Further, globally, the Napster generation was kicking into gear at the time, and there was a drastic swing in mood of how music was consumed everywhere. “Industry hil gaya tha. Lots of controversies happened, and people started to fade away.” By 1999, like most of his contemporaries, Sehgal, too, disappeared from the limelight.

Originally from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Harjeet Singh Sehgal — his real name — is the only son, with two sisters. He has been separated from his wife for some time now, and has a 23-year-old son. “I too have faced struggles and hardships to survive and keep myself going despite many personal issues and problems. But I never showed it on my face. I never got into bad habits, say, drinking or drugs,” he says. He barely looks his age — his aim right now is to have a six-pack to complement the biceps and general level of fitness he’s already worked on. “I tell youngsters ‘Don’t do this. Your drug is you! Your drug is yourself. Love yourself.’”

He studied engineering in college, graduating in 1987, after which he worked in Allahabad (recently rechristened Prayagraj for some reason). “The bus used to come at 6.30 a.m. and I would miss it every day! I’d take a rickshaw to work and reach at 9 a.m.” He quit in a month and a half, and began to apply for jobs in Delhi. He knew that Bombay was a step too far, and Delhi could be a platform for the music career he secretly wanted to embark upon. He worked at Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking (DESU), first in the field (where an innocent and naive young Sehgal couldn’t figure out why he was being paid with envelopes of cash) and then in the office. Once there, surrounded by bosses who indulged his youthful enthusiasm for music, he sold his scooter so he could record an album with a young label called Magnasound. The next step, of course, was to head to Bombay, which he did in the Maruti 800 (non-AC) that his father had gifted him. He went via Indore, stopping at a tiny local hotel called, serendipitously, Sehgal Hotel. And that’s where it all began.

He had sown the seeds for a career in playback in Telugu films in 1998 and, even at the height of the Indipop phase, Sehgal was constantly dabbling in other disciplines to keep the momentum going. He’d hosted the popular countdown show on DD Metro called Superhit Muqabla (which first aired in 1992); he’d acted in films. He attributes the values his family gave him to his ability to pivot with and adapt to the shift in the industry. “My father always said one thing, ‘You’re at your peak; charge such a price that when you suddenly drop, you’re not completely lost.’ Pehle teen lakh leta tha, ab dus hazaar leta hoon.” So he never overcharged, always willing to negotiate and meet people on their terms as long as he could spread his music far and wide. He spent a few years somewhat in the ‘wilderness’, singing in Telugu films and also travelling a fair amount to the US for shows.

And then, unexpectedly, Sehgal came back. In 2015, he released a song called Going To The Gym. It first came out on SoundCloud. Sehgal had been on social media for a while — he had begun sharing arbitrary poems and non sequiturs on his Twitter page which, at the time of writing, had close to two lakh followers. Going To The Gym, which went viral and has a homemade DIY video on YouTube, is a hilarious take on the daily struggles of people who strive to exercise and get fit. He raps in trademark style: ‘Rajma ke baad thoda aa jaata hai fart /I know, baby, it’s heavy on your heart’. It stays true to Sehgal’s musical aesthetic: combining eccentric humour and quick-witted rhymes with an essential concept and storyline, as well as an underlying love for food, which is a recurring motif in his latter-day songs.

This, followed by Chicken Fried Rice, led to a revival of sorts. He set up a YouTube channel, called Baba Sehgal Entertainment, which has some 80 songs that he’s put up. His Instagram, Twitter and Facebook handles and accounts are also very popular, racking up views and digital engagement. He began performing at festivals, including a gig at the popular NH7 Weekender (the annual independent music festival that is run by OML (Only Much Louder), incidentally a company that was recently accused of not paying heed to sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. Sehgal was suddenly catapulted back into the pop culture consciousness.

His style, however, is such that it divides listeners. Sehgal incorporates this kitsch aesthetic in his modern-day works, where he uses simple, almost silly, rhyming schemes and catchy melodies, as well as a distinctly DIY visual style — he’s often rapping and singing in front of a green screen which plays all kinds of unconnected clips — that puzzles viewers. Is he doing this deliberately? Or is he just so out of touch that he doesn’t realise?

Sehgal is nothing if not keenly self-aware. He understands that his work is polarising; in fact, he thrives on the comments he often gets: “‘Kya kar raha hai yeh takla? What is this baldie doing?’” he mimics. He has gotten a lot of negative attention, a lot of trolling, but he actually enjoys that as long as it’s in good spirits and not nasty or ill-informed. In fact, he instructs his team to not delete any negative responses to his works. And over the past four years, his following has grown exponentially, to the point where, now, each negative comment is followed by his loyal fans staunchly defending him.

In his music, which he composes, produces and arranges all by himself, Sehgal is forever toggling between earnest sincerity — while the words may be comical, there’s usually an underlying belief that he wants to highlight — and outlandish goofiness. And it’s often hard to tell which is which. He’s often categorised as part of the ‘cringe pop’ phenomenon — Sehgal speaks with kindness and respect for artistes such as Dhinchak Pooja or Taher Shah, who are castigated for their songs — but the truth is that the level of self-awareness and understanding he exhibits, as well as his songwriting flair, make it hard to truly pin him down. Sonically, Sehgal in the ’90s was broader and more diverse — but now, he is a lot more focused, residing within a similar terrain and rarely wavering from the voice that he has crafted.

He’s got a finger on the pulse of the youth — he repeats often how his prime audience is in the 16-24 demographic — and he tries to understand their psychology to see what they might enjoy. His supremely positive and cheery outlook on life helps him deal with the negativity that comes his way. “Mazaa aayega,” he often says after uploading a new song, eager to see the kind of hate he might get, and how it will be countered. Sehgal may be in his fifties, but he’s learned how to harness the powers of social media and he’s doing his best to tap into the energy of the millennial internet generation, raised on a diet of farcical memes and ironic self-aware humour. He has redefined himself, crafting a new identity and finding a way to matter even today.

Sehgal is financially comfortable now. In fact, after 2015 — let’s call it his revival — he decided to play a lot of gigs to gain attention and young followers. The fame and the stardom is something he actually enjoys a lot as a byproduct of what he does, though he makes sure he only draws positivity from it. “I like it, you know. When people recognise you, when they come up to you and talk to you, take snaps with you. Of course, you have to be nice to me — if you have an attitude, then so will I. But that rarely happens. People approach me for photos at the airport and I’m like, ‘Let them’. On the flight, they’ll come to me and try to take selfies from different angles. I’ll say, ‘Beta, it’ll be a bad photo. And he’d be like, ‘Nahi sir, lene do’. These are the moments. I’ve never misused my fame in any way. I have no other option: people are talking about my music even after 28 years of my career, so good or bad — at least they’re still discussing it. I have to keep going, keep on doing the same thing.”

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