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Rabbi Shergill: Unclassifiable

By JOE ATHIALY
The name Rabbi stems from the Punjabi word Rabb (rhymes with rub), meaning God. Rabbi, then, means God-facing and rhymes with hubby.

Chowk, Oct. 3, 2005


Photo: Rabbi Shergill

A United States of Earth, with the Dalai Lama as its head is an idea that Rabbi Shergill is toying with for sometime now. If you know him only as an accomplished Punjabi pop singer, whose life went for a toss in 1989, when he saw Bruce Springsteen at a live concert and decided to have a guitar and be like Springsteen; and who went through, now a legendry, difficult phase to get recognition, ended up getting laurels from the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Sir V.S. Naipaul, he tells us about his other side.

United Nations has completely failed in its mission, he says. The concept and intention were good, but it failed to deliver and stuffed itself with vested interests. According to Rabbi, what we need is a universal governing body, which can rise above narrow political ends and think of the well-being of all. And who else than the saintly Lama can head it?

Slightly exhausted after a long flight from Europe, Rabbi was relaxing at his modestly decorated Mumbai apartment, when he spoke about his politics, his dreams, his next album, his spirituality and life at his Mumbai apartment.

Sadly we thought we needed a Pokhran II to get recognition in the world; we thought that is a shortcut to be a super-power and a passport for prosperity, Rabbi says. But we failed to make sure that nobody in this country goes to sleep with a hungry stomach, that all children can go to school and healthcare is not the prerogative of just the rich. Look at the Scandinavian countries, he says. They achieved a better standard of living without the n-bomb.

Nevertheless, he doesn't live with an unrealistic assumption that we can wish away the fact that we are a nuclear country. He feels that becoming a nuclear-free country is not easy. Unless there is mass awareness about the pitfalls of weapons, as well as a mass awakening against the arms race and the resultant colossal defence spending, things won't change. He is not ignorant about the attention that India is getting from countries like the U.K. and the U.S. just because of the n-factor. But this is short-lived and only till it suits the interest of these countries, he opines.

Well, I am not a socialist, not a communist, nor a capitalist, Rabbi tries to define his political ideology. I believe in human beings and justice not in any particular ism.

Peace, for Rabbi, is not the absence of war. It's the state at which nobody perceives you as a threat to his or her existence. Development and accumulation of wealth only in some pockets disturb the equilibrium of peace, he says.

What is his spirituality? He doesn't believe in a spirituality, which is superior to anybody else's. He has immense faith in and respect for Guru Nanak. However, he sees Sufi teachings in the Guru Granth Sahib and vice versa. He believes in a spirituality that doesn't intimidate other faiths.

Referring to the popular labelling of him as a Sufi singer, Rabbi hastens to add that he is not one. He didn't call a convention of the Sufis and get himself elected as its brand ambassador, he quips. But he admits that Sufism has a great influence on him.

Compartmentalising art and the political process of social change is not his way. Art, if judiciously used, can be an instrument to augment social change, he says. However, he is not for using art only as a tool for change art forms need to be artistic.

Today, art instruction in the classrooms is pathetic, Rabbi laments. The budgetary allocation for arts and the importance given to it are scanty. The result is that we have generations after generations with little respect for aesthetics. He cites the examples of how our streets and parks are designed. It's not only the rich who have to be aesthetically oriented but also the common people who do seemingly unimportant work. Their combined work makes a city beautiful. Right art instruction in the schools is pivotal, he believes.

The only son among the five children to a preacher-academician couple, Rabbi had a memorable childhood. He regrets that in metropolis like Delhi, where he grew up, children can no longer enjoy the beauty of colourful evening skies as he did in his childhood. He is nostalgic about the open spaces that he, together with his bicycle, enjoyed then.

Wait, Rabbi fans have to be patient till next year for his second album. Punjabi comes natural to him. He thinks in Punjabi, he says. So, will his next album also be in Punjabi? Not sure, he says. He is fooling around with a couple of Hindi tunes, but will have to wait and see. Is there any theme for the next album? Oh yes, he says.

Roam freely like a bird . . . a mantra that seems to have served him well so far.