WORDS: ANINDA SARDAR
PHOTOGRAPHY: DABBOO RATNANI
STYLIST: AMRITA SALUJA
HAIR & MAKEUP: PRASHANT KAMBLE
He started playing a harmonium at three, he has been awarded a Padma Shri, he has a string of hits longer than a length of Christmas lights and he has sung a song in one breath. Well, almost. And he has never appeared on the cover of a magazine. Indeed, Shankar Mahadevan is unlike any we have interviewed before.
THE YEAR WAS 1971. THE PLACE WAS COIMBATORE.
A three year old at his uncle’s house listens to the title track of Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja starrer Haathi Mere Saathi and takes an immediate liking to the tune. He ambles into an adjoining room, finds a harmonium and plays the tune in an incredible act of spontaneity. I guess that dawn should have showed the day that was to come, for Shankar Mahadevan isn’t your everyday musical prodigy. There is something incredibly special about his voice, his talent and indeed about the man himself as I would discover over the course of the next hour that we spent chatting.
So your music actually started with a child’s curiosity, I ask. “Yeah and I started playing the song straight away. There was some connection with the song and the notes for I had no knowledge of music then.” At some points his parents heard and peeped into the room to find little Shankar tapping away at the reeds of the harmonium. They asked if he could play the national anthem instead. If there were any doubts about Shankar’s talent being god given they were quickly laid to rest when he played the Indian national anthem. The events of that fateful day led to the little Shankar’s first ever musical instrument. A harmonium, of course! “We went to this musical shop called Saraswathi Musicals in Coimbatore. The harmonium we got was a very colourful one with brightly coloured reeds instead of the usual monochrome ones that you’ll find on almost all other types of the instrument.” By the age of five, Shankar had moved beyond the harmonium to the far more difficult instrument that is a Veena.
For the entire musical prowess, however, his early career path led him into the innards of a software company. Somehow it doesn’t add up and I say so. “See, South Indian middle class family from Chembur,” he offers by way of explanation, before adding, “Music wasn’t something you could make a living out of. Nowadays kids can imagine but not back then. Those days, career options were very clear. You were either a doctor or an engineer.” Having finished with school, Shankar studied engineering at D Y Patil College. The music however continued. “Even then a lot of music was happening,” he remembers.
The budding software engineer from Chembur joined an IT firm called Leading Edge Systems and started working on order processing systems for a client. Eight months into his IT job, Shankar realised that as much as he enjoyed his software work, his heart lay in music. He had to take a call, so he took it and plunged into the lyrical world of ad jingles.
“When I started singing, I started with a lot of ad jingles,” he tells me. “My very first recording, I did two jingles. One was for this serial called Commander. Remember that? I did that for Ashok Patki. Ranjit Barot gave me my first break in the world of ad films. There was a Lehar Pepsi ad that was done by Remo. I did the alaap in the background. So this idea of doing fusion music really started from there. Ehsaan and Loy were already established composers and I used to go and sing for them. I used to start in the morning and by the time we would step out it would be dark. It was tremendous fun. It was at that time that I had to take a call and I got enormous support from all my friends, my wife-tobe (then my girlfriend) and everybody else. It’s something I needed to do because otherwise my life was very cushy at that time. I had a steady pay check of `2,600 per month, my passport had been taken away because I would be sent to the US. It was all very comfortable.”
And when Shankar decided to move out of that comfortable existence, he didn’t just move into the world of music. He changed it, with his now hallmark fusion style. Back in the mid-1990s, you either sang Eastern or you did Western music. The two didn’t mix. That is until Shankar burst on to the scene. So what inspired him? “It was the kind of people I worked with at the start. People like Louis Banks, Ranjit, Ashokji. They were all people who were looking beyond barriers, and this Indian thing among Western musicians is something exotic. And it does sound good too. Plus I’m a huge fan of bands like Shakti. All of this has really inspired me.”
That was then, but is there a shift that has happened over the past 25 years that Shankar has been around? His answer is incredible. “Music is like a craving. You suddenly feel like eating pasta or Chinese or whatever. There’s no reason for that craving. So what you might like to hear today might feel out of place a few months or a year down the line. But all these are the dressing. At the end of the day good melody, good lyrics and good rhythm will always work. This core will always stay. It will always have to be aesthetic and done tastefully. Besides, whatever you do, when you have depth in it, there is always something different, appealing and timeless about it.”
So, have things turned out the way you imagined it would be? “I never imagined that I would be travelling in a BMW 7 Series to Yash Raj Studios one day to record songs. We are Chembur boys ya, brought up on vada pav and limboo sarbat,” he laughs. So does Shankar Mahadevan, the singing sensation and now Padma Shri awardee still enjoy those simple bits of life or are they all in the past? “Of course I still do all of that. Whatever my singing may have brought for me, I am still a very basic person. I get maximum enjoyment from the little things of life. With my friends I would choose Gita Bhavan over a five star restaurant. That’s just who I am.”
Don’t you get mobbed? How do you deal with it? “Well, I try and go to places in a group so that it doesn’t become uncomfortable but what is the max that can happen anyway? Ten, twenty, thirty people might come up and want a selfie or an autograph. And why do they want it? Because they love my music! Generally a human being is very egotistic. If a person is going beyond that and approaching you for an autograph, that means he loves what you do,” says the man who has never refused a single autograph. “If you refuse, he might still listen to your music but somewhere you’ve lost that connect.”
On another note, is Shankar getting to do the kind of music that he really wanted to? “I have proven myself in Bollywood and otherwise and right now I’m up to my gills with film music. But I believe now is the beginning of the kind of music that I want to do. You must understand that Bollywood is only a part of my music. Even though it consumes a huge part of my life. I personally believe that I haven’t even explored one tenth of my potential.”
So, is Bollywood actually playing a negative role in stifling the growth of non-film music? “It’s coming back in a big way and it’s happening largely due to the growth of digital platforms. Now you can connect with your audience directly. There are plenty of artists now who have not sung a single film song.” Clearly Shankar is a fan of digitisation of music. “I would say that the digital world, if it is used the way it is meant to be then, you’re at an advantage. From a pure convenience perspective, but as long as you’re using it to achieve a good end. If you’re inherently a musician and have knowledge of music then use electronics to enhance music. Today I can ask John McLaughlin to send a solo. Earlier it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to pull off.”
We carry on chatting without realising that the 20 minutes that he had originally granted us has stretched to almost 60. By the time we realise we can’t stretch it any further, there is no genuine desire to get up and leave an interesting discussion with a man who is as earthy and thoroughly fascinating as Shankar Mahadevan. And now, we wait for the rest of that awesome potential to be unleashed.