Angrej Singh is a man who wears many turbans.
He is a security guard, building maintenance officer, singer, performer, poet and screenwriter. And that’s just on an average week.
On shift, he is the mild-mannered officer looking after the residents of a Jumeirah Lake Towers building in Dubai. Once the uniform is shed, however, Singh turns into a music star with a growing body of work.
His is a story of hard work paying off. In the span of his nine years in Dubai, Singh has used the money he's earned and his spare time to compose and release 10 Punjabi pop songs, with accompanying music videos. And he has also written screenplays for three short films, and these have been screened on some of India’s leading Punjabi television stations.
He has also performed across the UAE, including a 2019 set at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium and at Dubai’s Bollywood Parks and Resorts this February.
With so much achieved already, Singh should be a local star. But his social media presence is scarce and only those keenly attuned to the Punjabi cultural scene know of Singh.
"I like it this way, to be honest with you," he tells The National at the end of his maintenance officer shift. "Many people in my job, my colleagues, don't know anything that I do when I leave the office. I also don't go around telling them to hear my work or follow me. I like to keep things separate. I do the art works for me, not for fame or fortune."
How to release a hit song for under Dh3,000
That purity of purpose is matched by Singh’s steely resolve. His nights are spent writing the next song or screenplay, while putting aside his own money to fund the project. Over time he has devised a plan to create the best possible song for an affordable price.
“I write the song and then send it to one of the four music directors in India I work with. They email me back a demo copy and once satisfied with the idea I hire a studio in Dubai to record my vocals. Then I email it back to the director who finishes the songs,” he says.
“Once the song is done, I write the script for the music video and send it to a team in India who does all the exterior shoots, while my singing parts are mostly done indoors in Dubai, because of Covid-19. I shoot that either professionally or on my mobile phone. The Indian team then edits and through another Indian company, the song is released digitally and on the radio.”
And what’s the cost of such an internationally collaborative project?
"About Dh2,500 per song," he says. "That's not very expensive because I pay in Indian rupees. After I send money to my family, the rest of my salary goes to the music and film."
A Punjabi folk ditty about Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin
It is money well spent. Singh’s tracks are a mix of catchy Punjabi pop, powered by signature Dhol drums, and expansive ballads that make good use of his high-pitched and quavering vocals.
The accompanying videos are charmingly earnest and incorporate live shoots, animation and stock news footage.
While the tracks are radio friendly, Singh’s lyrical subject matter is anything but.
Ever hear of that Punjabi folk ditty about Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin? Or that chest-clutching ballad about water pollution? Well, that’s the point, according to Singh.
"I don't want to write about love, romance and parties. I don't want you to cry in your drink," he says. "By doing that I am not really contributing anything. I want to talk about subjects that are not discussed in Punjabi songs. Like the song Lenin, for example. And nobody really talks about water pollution in Indian music generally, so I wrote Polluted Water to make people take notice and think about it."
Leaving his mark on the UAE
Next month, Singh will return to the north Indian city of Amritsar to reunite with his family and capitalise on his growing fan base and the industry contacts he accumulated during his UAE stay.
In typical fashion, he plans to hit the ground running. “I want to enroll in a drama course and I already contacted a few institutions. I want a professional degree,” he says. “I also have four songs that I wrote and are ready. I also have written a screenplay for a feature film that I hope can be seen in the cinema.”
While one can't help but hope Singh achieves all of his dreams, he says that’s not really the goal. More than the fantasy of a red carpet film premiere or a chart-topping single, what gets him up in the morning each day is another opportunity to engage in his passion.
“Yes, I would love to have money and have the freedom to travel to any country I want. But that is not real satisfaction for me,” he says. “My happiness comes from doing what I love, which is art. This is my satisfaction and if the money comes after then that will be great.”
For this reason, Singh views his nine years in Dubai as nothing but successful.
“I learned so much here and at such a pace that it is unbelievable. That’s because the country is multicultural and there is law and order and people live in peace,” he says.
“I may not leave the UAE with a lot of money in my pocket, but what I will take with me are the songs and videos I made from here. These are my mementos of the UAE. I will never forget this place.”