Singer Shilpa Rao on her many chart toppers and finding her place in Bollywood
“It’s a great feeling holding on to a secret,” laughs Shilpa Rao. The secret being — her identity. “When my first song came out I was in a cyber café. The radio was on and ‘Toh Se Naina Lage’ was playing. The guy sitting in the next counter was singing along. It was good to see him enjoy my work. But I never told him I was the singer,” says Rao.
That was in 2007 when she started out in Bollywood. Now, of course, with a flurry of hit songs such as the recent Malang (Dhoom 3), Woh Ajnabi (The Train), Khuda Jaane (Bachna Ae Haseeno), Ittefaq Se (Paa), Anjaana Anjani (Anjaana Anjani) and Gustakh Dil (English Vinglish) to her credit, Shilpa is rather popular. After singing numerous jingles for three years, Shilpa got a break in Bollywood, recording for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s ‘Saiyyan Re’ in Salam-e-Ishq. “Shankar ji is so full of energy, he oozes positivity and I didn’t even have the time to stop and think or get nerovous,” recalls Shilpa. But the song released only after ‘Toh Se Naina’ from Anwar.
“I had gone to watch Salaam-e-Ishq with my friend and just before my song came, my friend actually started announcing loudly to everybody in the theatre “she has sung the song!”’ she adds amused.
As a child Shilpa never really aspired to become a professional singer. Her father S.V. Rao, who did his M.S. in music, trained her. It was only after she met Hariharan, sang for him and got complimented for her unusual voice did she think of pursuing music. That gave her the confidence and Shilpa moved to Mumbai from Jamshedpur about 10 years ago after she completed her schooling. “I had done a gig with Shankar Mahadevan in Hyderabad and he advised me to move to Mumbai, so I did.” She joined St. Xavier’s College. “I would finish classes and rush to the studios to record for jingles. I have lost count of how many I have done till date. I still do jingles. It helped me train because singing and recording are two very different things,” she says.
It’s been nearly seven years in the industry now and she has worked with a gamut of singers and composers in languages including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Was she nervous about working with anyone? “Not nervous, really. But I remember when I got a call from A.R. Rahman sir I had to go to Yash Raj Studios where he, Yash Chopra ji, Gulzar sahib and Aditya Chopra were all sitting together and working on the song — ‘Ishq Shava’. To see such established personalities still putting in so much hard work on a song was a learning experience for me,” she says.
Is it difficult to break in when the industry has well-known singers already flourishing? “When I started out it was tough to meet composers. It’s easy now because most of them are on social media websites. Once I met them they liked my voice. Everybody takes their own time. But as a singer when you see your name on the inlay card of a CD cover, you feel like you have achieved something,” she replies adding, “We sing for people. If I am having a really bad day and I receive an appreciative message from a fan it totally changes the day for the better!”