There are over 110,000 mentions of his name on the Web, but Nandi Duggal has never googled himself. “I’m famous," he says, as he peers at the monitor and sees his name running down the lines on the search engine page.

He is the man behind a programme that uses software to help people sing correctly.

The voice surgeon: Nandi Duggal at his studio in Mumbai; Photo Rajendra Gawankar/Mint

But I am not here to hear him sing. At 79, the singer in Duggal has been completely replaced by the Pygmalion, who helps aspirant singers find their true voices. Sitting in his Showbiz Studio on Mumbai’s Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, he explains his modus operandi.

I am not new myself to ideas about voice training. I have prepared for theatre with exercises that helped me locate my sound resonators in the throat, chest, head. I have learnt to throw my voice so it reaches the last row in a theatre without my having to shout. Most of those exercises centred around using breath in a controlled manner, in holding and releasing the breath to get the volume and pitch the words demanded. More important: As the director Veenapani Chawla was experimenting on using breath to create emotion, and culling from traditional dance forms to supplement her own work, there were other aspects involved, the most interesting of which was running till one was out of breath, then finding the reserve in the lungs to speak out lines from the play. It told me a lot about breath and conserving and releasing it.

Almost parallel to my work in theatre was my instruction phase with Dhondutai Kulkarni. One of the most revered exponents of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, her voice training techniques are almost unparalleled. Destiny forbade my continuing my tutelage with her, as work overshadowed all else, but her voice training taught me some valuable aspects of singing. That the voice had to come from deep within to resonate, that the singer needs to sing with an open throat and mouth, that the spine must be straight, and that making faces or frowning did not help improve a note or help reach a pitch in any way.

A purist in the true sense, Dhondutai’s voice training took precedence over the actual music lesson, till she felt the voice was ready to take in the music. I almost got there when a student coming up the six floors told me she could hear me in the courtyard outside as I sang the scales.

Now as I listen to Duggal, I realize that his experiment is similar yet different. Like Chawla he believes in the importance of breath control. Like Dhondutai, he gives importance to how one uses one’s eyes, mouth and throat, and to posture. Then, he takes these abstract instructions that need a lot of understanding and comprehension to follow, and converts them into a visual, digital mode.

The “invention" of this mode of teaching others to sing came from his own love of singing, which won him his Air Force officer father’s acute displeasure and made him abandon his medical studies. When his pursuit of a career in films led nowhere, Duggal tried various jobs, including driving a taxi, till he was invited, in 1956, to put together a music troupe to tour East Africa. He requested singers Talat Mahmood and Atma, instrumentalists Van Shipley and Enoch Daniels to go with him. The four held shows through three months to full houses that paid around 6 shillings a seat. Sometimes Duggal managed the show, other times he played the dholak to replace the tablas that would not play in the changed weather conditions. Mostly he learnt that stage shows could be a way of earning money and nurturing his love of music.

“I started the tradition," he says, of stage shows, “though it was through trial and error." It was while touring with Hemant Kumar, (“who I booked for a world tour"), and with Kishore Kumar (“whom I had to persuade over months") that he realized that the riyaz (practice) classical singers advocated was not the only secret of good singing. “Neither of these greats were serious about riyaz, nor were (Mohammed) Rafi or Lata (Mangeshkar)," he says. “Yet their singing was flawless. I realized they had the gift and were privy to secrets we could not understand and they did not know how to explain. Little wonder few singers can train their children to be inheritors," Duggal says.

It started him on an experiment that would lead to his breaking up the act of singing into small digital components that could use software to show the singer deviations in pitch, rhythm, tone and volume. It took him 10 years to develop a formula that would work in teaching a singer how to sing for a recording.

“A recording notices every flaw, every deviation from perfection, and since it is repeatedly heard by listeners, needs to be perfect. If one sings well for a recording, one can sing anywhere," says Duggal.

As we talk, amateur singer Rakesh Kansara enters, flushed from a ride on his bike. He has been taking Duggal’s crash course, and is here to record one of the three CDs the course entitles him to. Duggal explains: “I teach 4 hours worth of theory that explains, with diagrams, the way voice and breath works, and then follow up with recordings, and corrections. When a mistake is made, I stop and show how to correct it."

Kansara chooses Kishore Kumar’s song from the film Saagar. We watch him sit with the text and break it up into bits to suit his breath. Then the recording begins.

Duggal has an ear that spots the slightest deviation, his eyes watch the monitor and explain exactly where the note falls short, is too high or a notch too low, the breath faltering. In three takes, the song is recorded, effects added, and Kansara has a professional product to show off. Duggal says: “I tell every aspirant, singing must be your second love, pehle bhojan phir bhajan. Fill your stomach first…"

Duggal’s twice-a-month courses cost 6,000, just enough to break even and give him bhojan for his needs. The bhajan, however, continues.

Nandi Duggal can be contacted at 022-24122663.

Sathya Saran is a former editor of Femina.

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