Shankar Mahadevan Curated
Renowned Singer and Composer
CURATED BY :
You are a qualified software engineer. Then what made you to take up singing and composing music ?
I did my software engineering as part of my academic activity. What happens is that in school, you have a lot of friends and you go on studying and you may be bright in your studies. Then, you take a lot of decisions based on what is happening around you. There is a group of 10 friends, and everybody is going in for engineering, and engineering was the in thing, so I went for engineering. In engineering, computer science was the in thing, so I went for computer science. I then completed it and started working for Oracle. But, there is a time when you realize that you have to take the life’s decision. That’s no longer a college decision, or a decision of what to study or anything. ‘Now, is this what you want to go on doing for your entire life ?’ You ask yourself that question. And I asked myself the question. And the answer I got was that I want to be a singer, and be in music. I just suddenly decided that and I quit working for Oracle.
So, was getting into the field of music your ambition in life ?
I was always in music. Even when I was studying in college, I used to perform a lot, tour a lot. Even when I started working , I used to record a lot, as it is, though I was working. So, my ambition was always music.
What suits you more – singing or composing music ?
Anything to do with music. Whether it is singing for some other music composer, or composing for somebody else or composing for myself, composing for films, ad work, audio-visuals, theatre, plays, ghazals, bhajans, natya sangeet, anything. Music is music.
Don’t you think that youngsters are getting influenced by film songs and classical music is slowly declining ?
Classical music in our country is so huge, and so deep, that even in any country, classical music can never have the mass appeal as much as Pop Music, or the Mass Music. This is the same in Western Classical Music, North Indian – South Indian Classical Music, wherever we go. It’s always like this. Classical music is for the classes. Always. It’s been like that. But the depth of the music is so much – It’s like an ocean. These things are just small, little things, you know - Pop music, or Rap music, or whatever you call it. They can’t change an ocean. It’s like that. Everything is based on classical music.
When you are assigned to compose music for a film of a particular theme, then what type of music do you compose for that film ?
It’s very important for you to give the colour of the music equal to the theme of the film. It’s very important. For example, if it’s Mission : Kashmir, obviously, as the name suggests, that you are talking about Kashmir. You have to use, probably words and probably instruments, which relate to that region. We’ve used a lot of Middle – eastern and kind of Arabic and hilly area instruments. That obviously gives you a particular colour, a particular feeling of being in that region. It’s very important to do that.
How did the trio Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy come together as a team. And how did you get your first break as music directors ?
Actually, we were working with Mukul Anand for the commercial, Pepsi, which happened before Dus. We were working on the commercial, Yehi Hai Right Choice Baby. And that’s Mukul approached us and asked us if we’d be able to do a feature film for me. We thought that he was joking, in the beginning. But, he actually meant it. And we started composing for Dus. And so, Dus was our first break. And we just decided to work together, as we were great friends, we really vibed well, and the kind of output was really good.
You are trained in classical music. From classical music to film music to pop music. How has the journey been for you ?
It’s all a part of classical music. I consider all of other forms of music just a part of classical music. The grammar, or the language of music is classical music, and all these are really branches coming out of it.
What makes you get involved in so many things at the same time-composing songs, jingles, playback singing, cutting your own albums, live concerts?
Ya...someone told me that I am a supermarket of music with special deals everywhere (laughs). It's an extension of your passion. If there's a particular thing you want to do, you will do it. I don't believe in excuses like 'I don't have the time', or 'I am too busy doing this', or 'I can only focus on one thing'. I can only focus on music. But within music, there are so many branches for me to explore and I am a very restless student from inside. I always want to learn more about music and till I learn about a particular thing perfectly, I am never at peace. My interest towards ghazals, film music, fusions, western music, jingles...all are part of my interest and my craving to learn beyond.
Could you let us know about your musical background?
I have taken formal training in carnatic classical music from Mrs T R BALAMANI and also learnt Veena. But being in a city like Mumbai I am exposed to a lot of other forms of music which is also a very important learning experience.
What does music mean to you?
Music is — if you want me to describe it in one word — a friend. And when you have music in your life you can never be lonely. It is just there with you as a companion whom you can talk to, interact with, think about, and create.
How you got started in music?
At a very young age, actually. When I was about four years old, I had gone to my uncle’s place down south [in India]. I was born in Bombay [now Mumbai]. I saw this instrument and I just picked it up and I started playing it without knowing what the instrument was. Obviously I didn’t know — I had never seen it — it was a harmonium. My parents and my uncle felt a little intrigued by how this guy was playing. So they started testing me with a few melodies to sing. And I used to just reproduce them. I think the decoding — to decode a melody, you know, and output it on the harmonium — was already there [within me]. So that was interesting. I said I want this instrument. I want to buy one. So I bought one. And that’s how it started.Being from a middle-class Indian family, I learned Carnatic music. And my parents were very [particular] about of teaching me the proper Carnatic music in the proper way. You don’t take any shortcuts. So, that’s why I’m here.
Is there a difference between learning music the way you did almost like a vocation? And then turning it into a profession? What’s the difference?
You can definitely become a professional. You can definitely become successful. And you can become extremely popular even without learning music. But it all depends on what you want to do. How do you want to perform this art form of music: whether you want to approach it the real hard way by knowing every single technical [element] that is involved in a song? Why get into all that? Or you can just learn a few songs. If people are talented, they can just sing. But I feel that if you learn music the hard way and you know what you are doing [at] every step, you are a confident person. And you are able to face any circumstances, any situation, any form of music. You are able to absorb easily. And you will somehow stay on for a longer time because it is not superficial. You are a learned [person]. It is like any art form. It is like literature, for example. If you are well-read and you write something, there is a difference. There is an easy way out, too. But I think it always helps if you follow the path the correct way.
How was the musical journey from your childhood?
One thing that I did was — or it happened to me — was the teacher that I got (T.R.) Balamani. She is a teacher who has dedicated her entire life to teaching. So if you get the correct person from whom you are learning, half the battle is won. You should not think about what I am going to do and how I am going to make so much money? When you are learning music, you have to just learn. And rigorous practice, focus, and perfection of the art. My father used to always tell me that when you go and perform at a competition, you should aim for the first prize. But you should not aim only for the first prize. The difference between the first prize and the second prize should be almost 10 steps. It means there should be no comparison. That is when you have achieved excellence. So all these things were with me always. And I think I was always a student. I am always a student of music — even now. Anything new that I hear — anything that is challenging like in my journey of music. I was learning Carnatic classical music but I was never a person who wanted to be a pure Carnatic classical singer only, because there were other forms of music which attracted me equally. When I heard some of the great jazz masters, some Indian Hindustani classical artists, I wanted to sing all the things they sang. These are qualities I feel have helped me move ahead. They helped me in my composing, in my adaptability to various forms of music.
You are born in South Indian and brought up in Mumbai. Do you miss Kerala?
I am an Iyer from Palakkad, but born and brought up in Mumbai. I would love to say that I am from South and I migrated to Mumbai. But if you come to Mumbai and see certain areas, especially areas like Chembur (where I grew up) and Matunga, you are not going to miss South India because, the people over there, the markets, the clothes that people wear, the way they talk...you will feel that you are in Palakkad actually.
Did you alone take the decision to change your profession or consulted friends and family?
I was hugely motivated by Sangeetha...she was not my wife then, we were still going around and about to get married. She was the one responsible for me turning full-time musician. Unless you have the correct support from the person you love the most, it's very difficult to take a decision; and she supported me.
DIL CHAHTA HAI was a major breakthrough for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy as music composers. Do you believe it to be your best work so far?
I can't say that. But DIL CHAHTA HAI took us to places and it completely changed the way people listen to Hindi film music. But success didn't come so easy. When we made DIL CHAHTA HAI, the first impression from two-three major music companies was-'It sounds like jingle'. Why? Because, the music was given by people who also make jingles.
It is heard that you are a complete foodie. True?
Yes...food totally does it for me. I will give you an example. I recently went on Teacher's Origin Highnights trip to Kolkata. Seriously speaking, I agreed on the trip mainly because of the food; Sayantani, a member of our team, used to get us lunch from her home and her mother prepared amazing Bengali delicacies like Golda Chingrir Malaikari and Ilish Bhapa.
How classical music is important for a musician to learn?
If you want to become a good musician you need to know classical music. It’s just like you need to know grammar before you learn to write! If you want to be a musician with depth then you need to have knowledge about classical music
What brought you from that classical stage to loving Bollywood music?
Nothing was a planned agenda, actually. Everything moved very smoothly. When I was learning classical music, I never had any (plan that I would) get into commercial music, (and) make so much money, and do so many shows, or so many albums. No—that was not the agenda. My thing was only to learn music for the sake of learning music. So that was wonderful actually, which I find missing nowadays. (Now) everybody has got a ten-year plan?. They don’t focus on the present moment. So I just learned. And things fell into place. When you have talent, it never gets hidden, it just shows up somewhere. It’s like water leakage. It comes out, and comes out from somewhere else. So you get noticed. And you feel that it’s a very big industry. Yes, it IS a very big industry in magnitude, but the number of people who are the players in the industry are very few. You can count them on your fingers. So new spreads like wildfire, and if you’re a person who is talented, everybody wants you. That’s what happened.
There’s a distinct character to Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy songs. How do you bring that about?
We start off with something that we have not done before, but at the same time we have seen that that we’re dealing with a mass media. It’s not something classy where only a few sections of people come, like a niche audience. You are to satisfy the rickshaw driver and you have to satisfy your own soul by doing something different. At the same time, within those parameters, you’ll have to give them something that they have already heard before so they’re in a comfortable zone (and they don’t feel like) they’re tasting a new cuisine altogether. So it’s drawing that balance. It’s a very conscious and calculated decision, every song of ours. You will hear the dholaks, you will hear the strings, but at the same time, the melody would be something fresh. That keeps our music going, and it reaches out to many more people.
Apart from Bollywood music, have you done any spiritual music?
Lots of it. Bollywood is just one little part of my music that people are hearing. Every year I do spiritual albums. I do a lot of concerts which are non-film based. Zakir Bhai (Ustad Zakir Hussain) was nice enough to introduce me to (a group called) Shakti, and we perform a lot together, and now we’re very, very close. Then, there are many other bands in Bombay—Louis Banks and Shivamani and all the others. Then I do a lot of regional stuff: my songs are very popular in Tamil, Telugu, Bangla, Malayalam, Marathi. Almost every other day in the morning I do regional dubbings— maybe a Telugu song or a Tamil song. So those directors they come to Bombay. I have a complete parallel life happening outside of films.
You have learnt music from the legends. Do you think that there is a lack of understanding of classical music among youngsters?
It is not true that the youngster today don’t listen to classical music or they don’t understand it but, yes, youngsters only take to that kind of melody which is rich in music, whether it is a classic or a rock composition. A recent example is when we released a song for our upcoming film Katyar Kaljat Ghusali, there were five lakh hits which we later figured out later came mainly from youngsters.
What is your take on the current scenario of music where music is losing its aesthetic value?
Mediocrity in today’s music is like a wave which will come and go but there is good music which we are producing and that will remain for a long time. Musicians should understand that it is not just about creating one hit but to sustain it at the top. There are two kinds of music, good music and bad music. Both are and will continue to co-exist. What we are experiencing is an overdose of information as we are flooded with so much of music from various sources like television, radio, the Internet and many more. The music of the golden period is considered to be aesthetic but in that time too there was music which didn’t have that ring to it. Today, we are unable to figure out good music as we are flooded with an overdose of information.
Have avenues like ‘Coke Studio’ and ‘Unplugged’ created an alternative for music lovers who want to explore music beyond Bollywood?
Our rich musical heritage ranges from classical to folk to popular film numbers. It needs alternative platforms to reach to its audience in different forms. The need is to respect our own music like the Europeans revere the Western Classical music and the Arabs value their music. We have to promote non-film songs with the same zeal as we do the Bollywood songs.
Be it Dil Dhadakne Do , Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Dil Chahta Hai , your music always takes travellers to a different destination. Now you have curated a radio station for travellers, tell us how much travel is connected with music?
When we enter any railway station or airport we are welcomed with announcements which are so dull that it spoils our mood. So we three decided to curate some songs for those who are travelling so that we can help them hold on to their mood and make them feel refreshed.Travel is always connected to music as with travel we explore the world and by listening music we explore ourselves.
You yourself are an excellent singer, of course, but apart from you, who are the male and female singers you like for singing your compositions?
There are many good singers, and we have worked with most of them. Sukhwinder Singh. Shaan too is a very good playback voice. I am also particularly fond of Sonu Nigam – he has sung some of our best compositions. He emotes the songs beautifully.
Your sons too seem to have inherited your formidable talent in and sense of music. How does that make you feel?
I feel great about it. You know, talent is fine; it is inborn, and if you are blessed with natural musical aptitude, the talent can be honed by a combination of practice, effort, education and the resultant experience. But what is really special, what leaves me absolutely awed, and pleasantly shocked, actually, is the musicality they have. The sense of music, the immensely mature appreciation of it, being sensitive to all its fine nuances… this musicality is something that came to us after many years of work. But in my sons’ case, even while they were in their early teens, they seem to have been blessed with a deep and rich musicality that you wouldn’t believe would exist in such youngsters if you didn’t experience it yourself. Now this has to be God’s own way… it’s how DNA works.
What does your online music academy offer students?
My online music academy is a small but sincere effort to help aspiring people learn music and revel in their talent. There is a structured classical music curriculum, we have self-study Hindi Movie and Devotional songs sections, then there’s our OM book or online music book which is central to learning. There’s also an integrated practice tool, Riyaaz, plus, of course, collaborative online virtual classes.Today, the best thing one can gift a talented family member, relative or friend is an opportunity to learn music. And since my music academy is online, it has the potential to really grow and take our music across borders and boundaries.
You helped lead a hundred thousand people in Aurangabad in singing the National Anthem on 25th Jan, 2012. What does the National Anthem mean to you?
Our National Anthem is the most beautiful and emotional piece of music I have grown up to. It is the greatest song that rules the Indian psyche! Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana is an amazing poem, and so brilliantly composed! It is very difficult for any composition to be both, emotionally stirring and rousing, and to also induce peace. It defines our unity, it evokes fierce patriotism. Every time I hear Jana Gana Mana, my mind, body and soul are enraptured! Every Indian feels the same way! You know what? I am proud to have been at the Lokmat event in Aurangabad. And every time I go abroad, I am always fiercely proud to represent my country, sing for my country.
You have often collaborated with folk singers as a singer and also as a music composer. How has collaborating with folk artistes enriched you as a musician?
I believe that folk music is above even classical music. Classical music is something you develop over the years. Folk music is in your DNA. When people sing, they may not understand D-major or C-minor or what song is in Raag Bageshree. It’s part of their soil, part of their breath. It gives you the smell of the region like nothing else and it is amazing to be in touch with that.
What is your advice to the aspiring musicians?
What kind of music do you love to listen?
You are both versed in Carnatic Classical and Hindustani Classical Music. What are the differences between these two forms of Classical music?
How notes of Classical music can form a visual imagery?
You have founded the Shankar Mahadevan Academy for imparting music lessons. What was the reason behind it and how did it happen?
Your song, “Maa” from Taare Zameen Par touched million of hearts. What were the reactions and the compliments you got?
Do you remember the first song you sang in your school?
What is the best advice you got from your Guruji?
What is the advice you give to your students?
Who is your favourite singer?
What is your philosophy in life?
Your wife Sangeeta has been a strong pillar of your ups and downs. How was the journey?
Why is the music scenario in India so film dependent? Why do you think non-film music still lags behind?
What is your advice to parents on teaching music to children?
Never force anything upon children. If you do so, they will not be receptive. Rather, subtly expose them to good music. Then, subconsciously they will absorb music. That is what I did with my children. After all, children are sponges, they will absorb anything.
You have worked with AR Rahman. How he works?
People always ask how it is to work with Rahman. He does not tell the singer to sing in a particular way or style. He puts the music in a loop and allows the singer to sing. That way, the singer contributes and adds value to the song. That is how all singing should be.
What was the impetus behind starting a concert series with folk artistes?
The show is an extention of what I do in the broader spectrum, since I am always performing different genres – from Bollywood to Tamil to fusion. I wanted to create a show, which is an amalgamation of the music of my country. Every state is known for its own music, just as it is known for its food, culture and dressing habits.
First of all, congratulations on being the fifth Shakti, How does it feel to be an integral member of this historical music unit? How did this come about?
hakti is a group I grew up listening to and it was part of my learning process from my childhood. We used to go and buy cassettes of Shakti and then analyze and decode all the phrases and complex rhythm patterns. Never in my life did I ever think that I am going to be part of it!!
Could you let us know about your musical background?
I have taken formal training in carnatic classical music from Mrs T R BALAMANI and also learnt Veena. But being in a city like Mumbai I am exposed to a lot of other forms of music which is also a very important learning experience.
One question that people in the West always wonder is that when you sing with Shakti, What are you singing – Is it words or is it improvisation on scales, or is it combination of both?
Some of the compositions like SAKHI has words which describes a conversation between two friends. But most of the other compositions have improvisational vehicles like aalaap, sargams tans, etc.
With vocals being a integral part of Shakti today, what potential do you see in the future?
The sky is the limit.!! The beauty of Shakti is the fact that it is completely open to experimentation. With a combination of voice and electronics we can create wonders.
In the recent DVD release, John McLaughlin says that it will be a utmost pleasure for him to see Shakti continue in the future for many years with the new generation meaning you, Selvaganesh, Shrinivas and others. Your thoughts?
Johnji (John McLaughlin) is a complete master and he is our guiding light in the group. For me just knowing him itself is a BIG high!! The fact that he approves and appreciates what we do with him is our good fortune and a result of good Karma.
You are equally versed in singing North and South Indian music? What are the similarities and differences in your opinion?
The basic 12 notes are the same as in any form of music. But the interpretation, style, attitude, sensibility, and approach is completely different from each other.
You have talked about making new album in the future, blending deep Indian music along with western beats and melodies. What you are thinking in your head?
I have always believed that Indian music has still been very very underexposed to the world. My plans are to travel throughout the country and bring the music of this country to the world in a platter which is easily digestable by the world.
Could you talk a little about Konakol which is a way of learning rhythm using your voice? How does someone go about learning this art form?
Konakol is one of the most amazing forms of rhythmic communication in the world. It is highly underused and the principles of konnakol should be applied to all forms of rhythm as the language of rhythm is universal!!
You are on Industrial Zen with John McLaughlin as well as Selvaganesh’s Soukha. How do you relate to the commercial stuff that you are doing in the films?
I think if the passion is there then everything can be done with the same intensity. Commercial music for Indian films is very important for my mainly because of the sheer numbers!! This helps me to stay in touch with millions of people in our country and also a medium to communicate YOUR stlyle of music to them easily as you already have a ready follwing with commercial music.
So where does Shankar Mahadevan go from here?
Lots more to do!! I think that I have not even scratched the surface yet. Really wish there were 48 hrs in one day!!
Music of Rock On has proved to be a big success. What are the Indian audience reactions?
Success of ‘Rock On’ has been beyond our imagination. Not only the music is dominating the charts, it has rekindled the Indian audience’s interest in the rock music genre. There are middle aged people, who are now planning reunions of decades-old school or college rock bands. Young musicians are calling up Ehsan and Loy to understand how particular chords and notations are played.
What has been the international audience reaction?
I think the music has done very well in most international territories- perhaps the UK response is a bit lagging. There the audience still wants more of a traditional Indian touch like a marriage song. So there they seem to like our music in ‘Salame Ishq’ or ‘Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’ more than ‘Rock On’
Musically how did you approach this project?
When Farhan and Abhishek gave us the brief of the film, we were confident of giving it our best shot. I may not be a big authority on rock but Ehsan and Loy have both followed and studied rock and other western musical forms in depth. So this kind of music was right up their alley. Our aim was to educate or rather make the Indian audience aware of this music genre and for that it was very important to maintain the purity of the genre. So we decided that in terms of musical arrangements, it would be pure rock as is presented in the West but only the lyrics will be in Hindi. We did not want to anglicize the lyrics or the accents to make it sound modern or use clichéd techniques like needlessly placing a dhol rhythm to make it appeal to the rural audiences. The language used here is very simple but words are pure Hindi. Just like Western Rock songs the topics of ‘Rock On’ songs are eclectic and about day-to-day things. Look at the lines like ‘Aasman neela neela kyon, Paani geela geela kyon’. These are not just the typical Hindi songs about love and loss.
How different is your take on Rock than Junoon’s Sufi-Rock or Rabbi Shergill’s so-called Punjabi Rock?
I think the main difference is about the feel of music. Their Rock is more of an Indianized (Asianized) version with use of dholak or other similar Indian instruments. We have just used keyboard, guitar, bass and drums in our arrangements. So ‘Rock On’ is just like western rock, only its language is Hindi.
Rock-lovers have appreciated your musical arrangements in ‘Rock On’. How did you record them?
We set up the recording room just like a live rock band session. So Ehsan was on keyboards, Loy was on guitar, Adi was our bass player and we kept jamming all day long, zooming and zeroing in on the portions that we liked, deleting the ones that we didn’t. It was again quite unlike contemporary Hindi songs, where we record the entire music track in advance
Why did you use Farhan Akhtar as a lead singer? In fact, in general, why are contemporary Hindi composers using so many unconventional voices?
It is more like choosing a particular actor for a particular role. Sometimes when a crazy new musical idea strikes, to maintain the freshness of that idea, you need such an unconventional singer. There, if you use the established conventional voices, then they might do a better job of singing but perhaps the novelty of that theme would get diluted.
What were the musical influences on this effort of yours?
Of course, the music of artistes like Pink Floyd, U2 and Yes has influenced us but overall, it is an original take.
How do you see the Indian audience of today?
I think today’s audiences are many times accepting mediocre music but at the same time, they are more willing to accept new experiments. I feel as an audience, Indians are more of singers- they like tunes which they can hum and sing. In contrast western audience are more of listeners, who are more keen about finding details like use of particular instruments in the song arrangement.
As a composer, how do you manage to keep track of so many international musical genres, which are becoming a standard part of Bollywood music?
Obviously it is not possible to master all the different international musical genres but we have to keep our eyes and ears open to analyze what sort of music is appealing to today’s listeners and later on try and incorporate that flavour into a particular tune. But this kind of experimentation is valid only if a particular script or a film-song situation demands that kind of music.
Why is Sufi music becoming such a popular trend in Bollywood music?
To be honest, I don’t know much about Sufi music apart from a few of Baba Bulleshah’s compositions but it has indeed become a popular syntax in current Bollywood music.
What do you think of Himesh Reshammiya?
You may or may not like his music, singing or acting but you still have to acknowledge that Himesh has successfully carved out a niche for himself. It is like he has managed to get his own first class compartment in a crowded train! It is a great achievement in these times where every entertainer has to fight to grab the audience attention. He is a nice man and he is enjoying what he is doing.
How is the interaction between current day Bollywood composers?
I regularly sing for Vishal- Shekhar and they do the same in our music. I also meet music directors like Anu Malik, Pritam, Himesh Reshammiya, Aadesh Shrivastav and Ismail Darbar during various reality TV shows. I think the relationships of current day composers are quite friendly. There is no backbiting or bitter rivalry. Getting complimented by a fellow composer about a good song – either directly or via SMS is a common thing.
Is it because the reality shows are paying everyone so well and the survival is not at stake?
Hmm- yeah, that can be one of the reasons!