Notes from a singer

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Notes from a singer

Rajiv vijayakar speaks to Shreya Ghoshal, touted as the next best thing after the Mangeshkar sisters, on her growth as a singer and her decade-long journey in the Indian film music industry.

It’s a sign of the times that after Shreya Ghoshal, there has been no standout female playback talent who has entered the world of Hindi film playback singing. It’s been a vibrant, award-and accolade-studded journey for this young Bengali girl who was noticed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali on a television talent hunt show and introduced as the voice of Paro, played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, in Devdas, all of 10 years ago.

We meet up with Shreya Ghoshal at her spacious new apartment, and the singer is full of beans — as usual. She’s into piano lessons now and we get to hear a small performance. Her mother flits in and out, providing both tea as well as musical snippets, and her brother strums out music in his room — the perfect background score for a melodious conversation.

Most of her songs in recent times have struck a high note on the charts in a relentless festival of melodies like Teri meri (Bodyguard), Ooh la la (The Dirty Picture), Chikni chameli (Agneepath), O jaaneman do you know (Housefull 2), Raabta (Agent Vinod), her latest hit Chalaao na nainon se baan re (Bol Bachchan) and her many songs in Rowdy Rathore and Teri Meri Kahaani. “It’s a happy phase for me,” she smiles.

“Shifting here from my old home in the central suburbs has reduced my commuting time by hours. And until now, even sitting with my family for a relaxed chat was a rare luxury!” The singer is also stepping up her Bengali work beyond her obligatory annual Durga Pujo album and is also working on a compilation of fresh Hindi ghazals. She continues to do a lot of work down South, especially in Malayalam, with all the big composers, and her status dictates that she dubs for almost all of them from Mumbai.

How does she look back at her journey? “I have never calculated, never analysed my hits or songs that did not work, never checked where and how far I have progressed commercially and the extent of competition from my seniors, contemporaries or the younger singers,” she replies. “I have always been a very dedicated singer. I feel that my singing should be very correct, that my voice should be taiyyar, and that all my experiments with my voice be within these parameters.”

Shreya is happy that she is getting the “best film songs in the midst of all kinds of music that is doing the rounds”. She reveals that she has turned down a lot of songs because of the lyrics. “Even Chikni chameli was modified before I agreed to sing it,” she says. However, she does concede that songs like Ooh la la and Chikni chameli keep her from being straitjacketed into traditional romantic melodies — which have become her special forte. “Even after Devdas, I was lucky that M M Kreem saab gave me classy numbers like Jadoo hai nasha hai and Chalo tumko lekar chale in Jism, which made everyone look at me in a new light and opened the doors to a versatile image.”

Old school

Shreya is delighted that Hindi cinema and its music are going back to mainstream roots. Shreya explains Hindi cinema’s pre-Dabangg deviant phase by stating that a generation of filmmakers and music directors had come in, who had been ingrained in music from outside India. “They were looking at presenting alien music in our style, which they wrongly assumed was the future of music in India,” she explains.

“Excessive emphasis on technology, dominating the vocal track level in the final mix by the orchestration and trying out different voices for one song and selecting the most novel rather than the most competent singer was all a part of this identity crisis. But the crisis is still around,” she warns. “Two parallel streams of music exist. However, the great thing is that only the right songs come to me now, instead of the past when I would record five songs in a day and then ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ”

Could she elaborate on the ‘novel’ voices she had just talked about? “I think proper playback singers have always been there in the best of songs,” she answers. “Yes, there is a lot of experimentation going on with things like voice, tones and singing and some of these singers are doing good work. Luck plays a huge role in a singer’s career and so does the quality and likeability of his or her voice and singing style.

The good people among such talents need to come in too. But I am amused when someone like Atif Aslam gets so much work. My own brother likes him but I cannot understand why and how. I suppose it has to do with some exotic new tenor, but for me there is no substitute to proper singing. And please do not misunderstand me — I have nothing against any nationality. But some of today’s leading composers are into this practice, while others are very particular about musical quality from a singer.”

An interesting facet of Shreya’s career is that she has sung for veterans like Ravindra Jain, Rajesh Roshan and Bappi Lahiri. Has she sung for the older legends? “Yes, I recorded a song for Laxmikant-Pyarelal ji for an album many years ago. It was an amazing experience,” she recalls. “The composition was too good. The expressions they took from me were in a class of their own and they taught a number of variations of singing the same line with various harkatein and murkiyaan.

I also had the good fortune of doing workshops with Kalyanji bhai, who was one of the judges in the Zee Sa Re Ga Ma Pa contest that I had won. He was the person who persuaded my dad to come down to Mumbai and let me pursue my career here. I learnt a lot about throw of voice, straight notes, vibratos and a lot of theoretical basic points from him.”

Shreya is clear that classical music training is an asset even in playback. “The greatest advantage of classical music is the way it keeps one’s voice manjhaa hua, taiyyar and fresh. Today, if I do not do any riyaaz for two days, I find the change in my voice immediately.”

And how does she, mentioned by many composers and musicians as the finest singer since the Mangeshkar sisters, approach her songs? “I have always believed that the composer of the tune creates a figure. We singers have to colour this figure and make it complete,” she says lucidly, “For that, we have to understand what the composer tells us, and just as importantly, what he doesn’t tell us.”

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