Satish Sundaresan of Bollywood Hungama caught up with the man for an exclusive interview, where Nagesh spoke about his journey of starting young to the enviable position that he has reached today. Here are the excerpts:
Nageshji, to start with, how did this all begin?
My humble beginnings began in Dadar where I stayed during my childhood. In our locality, all the senior boys had a very unique way of whistling, which acted as a signal to call each other. Different groups had different 'signals'. As a prank, I whistled the 'signal' of every group and brought them all down. The actual fun started when everyone began to wonder who the 'real culprit' was. I was initially scared that they will scold me or beat me for joking with them. But to my utter surprise, they all were so sporting that they asked me if I can 'sing' in a whistle tone. That's how my whistling path towards singing was laid!
Then what paved your way in mainstream film music?
Here, I do have to credit the name of Kishore Sharma as I owe my entire whistling career to him. When we had been for a picnic in Mumbai, he heard my whistle and immediately offered me a chance in his film! He asked me not just to whistle, but also to play the violin! And as they say, one good thing led to the other. That set the ball rolling for me.
For how many films have you whistled till date?
It's more than 1600 films, so much so that I even have lost count by now (laughs). And leaving aside the 'mainstream' whistling, I have even whistled in the background for many films! In the same breath, let me also add that, besides whistling, I have also done the bird calls in Paheli and Krrish (smiles).
Yes, it's true. What had happened was that my close friend Kulwant Singh had invited me to a live concert of (late) Pt Bismillah Khan, which he had organized. And when he had come to invite me, that time I was recording Raag Yaman Kalyan on whistle. Since I told Kulwant that it wasn't possible for me to make it to the concert due to my prior commitments, he immediately recorded my whistling on his mobile and made Khan saab hear it. And when Khan saab heard it, he was 'confident' that this was a flute. Needless to say that he was shell shocked when he got to know that it wasn't a flute, but me on whistle!
As for (late) Kishore Kumar, he was all the time praising my art of whistling. Once, amidst a recording, he looked me in my eyes and said, "Your whistling is as flawless as my singing"!
Of all the numerous compliments, which is that one compliment that you will cherish forever?
It has to be that of Anupam Kher! When he heard the title song of Subhash Ghai's Saudagar, he just couldn't believe that it was my whistle. He kept on insisting that it was a musical instrument. But the very moment he confirmed that it was me who had done the musical whistle, he immediately came to the recording studios and said, "Please make me your disciple".
While the world knows you as Nagesh Surve, then, why adopt another name of 'Rishi Raj'?
During those days, besides me, there was also one more musician by the name of 'Nagesh', which used to create confusions while booking recording studios. I found out a unique way of differentiating between the two of us. That's why, when it comes to music direction, I am known as Rishi Raj and when it comes to whistling, I am known as Nagesh Surve (smiles).
Even though you won a state award for your music in the Marathi film, Mi Tujhi Tujhich Re, do you feel deprived of any mainstream award?
Absolutely yes! Not many know that I started off my career as a music composer at an early age of 16 years! It really feels sad that, despite giving (read 'dedicating') many years to music, I am yet to be recognized as far as the mainstream awards are concerned.
Besides being a whistler, what are the other musical traits do you possess?
Besides being a whistler, I am also a sitarist; violinist and I play the 'Tar Shehnai', which is a unique instrument from Kolkata. I played the 'Tar Shehnai' for musicians Shiv-Hari in Yash Copra's Chandni.
Even though I had worked in many films before, it was Subhash Ghai's Hero that got me the much deserved recognition. There was no stopping me after that!
What has been your long cherished dream?
I always dream of cutting an album of ragas. With this album, I want the world to clear off the misconception that whistling is associated with teasing girls! I want to tell them that there are a million things that one can do with whistling.
In today's world, where every melody can be digitally reproduced, don't you ever feel insecured for your whistling?
I personally have a keyboard wherein I create my own tunes. Almost every day, I keep on trying to invent the accurate whistle sound on the keyboard, which I have not been that successful so far. That's why I am sure of the fact that the finer points in whistling can only be created with the throat, but never with keyboard!
Which has been the toughest tune so far?
It was for Marathi film titled Pasand Aahe Mulgi.
Lastly, how does it feel when despite all your hard work, your name doesn't figure out in the film's credits?
That's exactly what the irony of the situation is. Even though all the filmmakers know me by my name and my 'profession', still my name goes 'missing' in the film's credits, whereas these days they even mention the name of the chai walas! That is something that hurts me very much.