In conversation with Hariharan, who loves to experiment and break all formats

“There is an amazing lack of cultural responsibility,” says Hariharan, the versatile singer who seems to have effortlessly transcended several genres over the past three decades of his performing career. In this exclusive interview, Hariharan speaks of his music, latest projects and a bunch of candid thoughts amidst guffaws.

Tucked away in his peaceful room, Hariharan is seated in the middle of scattered stuff. Scuffling through chains, visiting cards, petty cash, phones, wires and what not, he says with casual ease, “I think I’ve conveniently misplaced the keys to my suitcase,” breaking into a loud giggle which is to stay with him, almost like a signature style throughout our conversation.

Anyone else would be panicking, with a concert just a couple of hours away. Hariharan, who was in Bhubaneshwar earlier to receive the Raghunath Panigrahi National Award for music, feels at home in the city. “My son Akshay is working on a new electronic album and I’ve sung in that also!” he says as we speak about how smoothly he has managed to wade through distinctly different genres of music such as Hindustani and Carnatic, Indi-pop, film playback and ghazal.

His mother, vidushi Alamelu Mani, is one of the senior most students of T. Brinda and that sets Hariharan’s pitch into the scene just right. “After my Carnatic music lessons from her, I went to Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan saab for my further training. My ruhaani-guru Mehdi Hassan saab was the inspiration for my ghazals. There is no specific format in which I work. In fact, I love breaking all formats. Every genre has its own colours and I love drenching myself in them.”

He adds, “I’ve abstained from giving kutcheris because classical music requires a very different life. It is, the way I see it, more introspective. Your musical philosophy needs to adhere to that. In light music, you can combine raags. The phrases are more coloured. I like to sing in my own space.”

Landmark collaboration

This year will mark another landmark collaboration with his other ‘Colonial Cousin’ Leslie Lewis. But nothing new has come up in the recent past. “I had to rebuild my studio. Now you will see four albums coming out in a year,” he says.

Is it viable in an era where music has gone viral and free-downloading is the rule of the day? “There is revenue from digital music also but now the reach is far and wide. We do albums to increase our repertoire, and stay inspired. Yes, there is some money involved. Though there isn’t much money now, an artist cannot stop doing albums. Some people are happy just doing shows. I’m not. I need to keep innovating. Success is a journey, not the destination. It keeps you young and energetic. Through the years you change as a person and that has to reflect in your work.”

Hariharan has over the years achieved quite a lot. “In 1973, India got its first black and white TV, and since 1974, I have been singing on TV. It’s more than 35 years! I’ve seen the industry transform and the sound and recording techniques change. I’ve sung with 100 people, and have done multi-track recordings where you have no clue which is your voice. I think my classicism and ghazal singing have evolved a lot over the years. I’ve created my own style. I know many youngsters follow my style, but I tell them not to imitate. Take the essence and bring in originality. Else there is no shelf life. When I do an album, I live with it for months or years. After I am done, I listen to it may be for a month and move on. We can’t have heavy hangovers. What works is innovation and newness,” he explains.

How can someone recognise the signature Hariharan style or technique, considering the vast body of his work? “I have always sung the higher octaves in soft tones using a combination of the head-voice and the throat. There is also the conversational element that comes from ghazals. Couple of years ago, I invented the ‘Urdu Blues.’ What are the blues after all? There is an element of melancholy and conversation. I found a similarity between the blues and ghazals,” he says. “Music is universal; the navarasas and human emotions are universal. Music has a solution to so many of our problems. Countries and people come together so easily with music. I did a programme called ‘Lahore Ke Rang, Hari Ke Sang’ produced by a music lover from Pakistan. I visited the place where Ustad Mehdi Hassan used to sing and felt so blessed singing there. We meet so many artists and we have an instant rapport.”

Has he ever felt frustrated? “ Some people hold power in the industry. Entertainment today involves money which is usually covered by sponsors, corporates and the media. But they sponsor only one kind of music — film music. In the South, there are still sponsors for Carnatic music which is superb. Film music is good but it cannot be the staple diet and certainly cannot be termed ‘Indian music.’”