Shankar’s new role

Singer, composer and now actor, Shankar Mahadevan  

For Shankar Mahadevan this November will see another career first. He will make his acting debut with the Marathi film Katyar Kaljat Ghusali in which he will essay the role of Pandit Bhanushankar Shastri. The film, a musical drama is based on a popular musical (play) by the same name.

The plot of the film, Shankar says, revolves around the feud between two musicians and their traditional gharanas. The highpoint is its music.

“We (Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy) are doing the music and I’m singing too. This is my first film as singer-actor-composer.” Shankar was in the city to sing in Deepak Dev & Friends held at JTPac. The car speeds along and Shankar pulls up the sun shades.

He is perhaps the only one to win a National Award both as singer and composer. So, if given a choice would he prefer to sing before a 50,000 strong crowd or compose songs inside his studio? “It is like comparing an Onam sadhya and Thai gourmet. They are both derivatives of music. The high that one gets from each is different. While the concert is instant communication with the audience, composing is a creative process where a song comes up out of nowhere and then transmits happiness to many, translates into money, fame or whatever.”

Shankar’s tryst with music began when he played Chal chal mere saathi and Jana gana mana on a harmonium when he was barely three years of age. He learned to play the veena from Lalitha Venkatraman, Carnatic vocal from T.R. Balamani, bhajans, abhangs and bhavgeet from Shrinivas Khale and Tara Devi. When he was eleven he played the veena in an album Ram Shyam Gungaan, in which Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar sang together. This early exposure to Indian classical music and the varied sensibilities of Mumbai created an ethos that enabled him to enjoy Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Mehdi Hassan, Stevie Wonder and Bobby McFerrin with the same fervour.

But in Shankar’s impressive roster of inspiring work one does not find the kutcheri. Why? “I do concerts but they are concept shows. There is one called Baitak Bollywood that I did, where for the first 45 minutes it is pucca Carnatic. I move on to thumris, abhangs, ghazals and finish off with Bollywood songs. For a complete two-hour kutcheri I’ll need a lot of preparation and then there are masters who are doing it so well. I did another show at the Madras Music Academy called Sampradaya that incorporates all the musical cultures from Namavali to Ashtapadi, Bhajans, folk, all in one show.”

Shankar also realises that he would be under ‘severe scrutiny’ if he decides to perform a kutcheri, “Say in one of the Chennai sabhas” during the music season. “I know that 30 per cent of the audience will be there to see what mistakes I commit rather than to listen to me. Why should I put myself up for such a scrutiny? And if at all I perform well there will still be people who would compare that concert to the masters and say that the Bhairavi I sang did not come anywhere near what Semmangudi used to sing.”

There’s one project, which Shankar hopes to put in place sometime though the idea may appear ‘far-fetched.’ “I would like to do a Carnatic concert with absolutely new krithis infused with fresh thoughts and messages. I want to sing of humanity, friendship, what’s happening to the Earth and the like. And it will be in a language that everyone will understand. It will not talk of Gods, but go beyond that; krithis that will inspire the youth to wake up and do something for the nation.”

Shankar began singing jingles when he was in college. That was a hectic phase when he used sing in 10 to 12 ad films a day and ‘make good money too.’ This was when Breathless happened. “It gave a face to my voice. Breathless was an important milestone in my life. Everything happened fast. I quit my software engineer job, decided that I would be a singer, and got married. Those days there were no platforms like the Indian Idol. It was like you decide to become a singer and then what do you do? It must have been tough for my wife getting married to a man without a job.”

Composing came later in Shankar’s life and today, after 19 years, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy has evolved into a successful brand. “It was not easy. When we did Dil Chahta Hai, two music companies who listened to the music rejected it saying it sounded like ad film music. Even after it became a hit we were branded composers who do music only for the upper classes and not for the masses. Then we did Kajrare Kajrare ( Bunty Aur Babli). That’s when the industry began to trust us. You are only as impressive as your last hit. When Bhaag Milkha Bhaag happened they said it was superb but when the lovely songs in Kill Dil did not get that reach, we learned to absorb that failure.”

Doing the background score for films can be challenging. How does the team manage to create a balance between personal preferences, artistic integrity, creative convictions and professionalism? “We call ourselves music designers. Our priority is what the director and the film demands. There is no place for ego here and one needs to respect the director’s views. It is easy to say that he knows nothing about music but he captains the ship and we design for him. Each one of us will have opinions but a decision is made after discussions.”

The Shankar Mahadevan Academy, an online music school launched in 2011, is an extension of his software engineering acumen. With 60 teachers and a presence in 47 countries and over 5,000 students studying different genres of music from 300 virtual classes every day, the academy is growing. “Just Google ‘learn music’ and we are up there. We have courses for toddlers to seniors and it is so convenient to learn from the comfort of your home. Technology might have been disruptive when it hit the audio industry but here it is moving music forward. We want to develop this academy into the Harvard of music,” wraps up Shankar as he gets out of the car, picks his suitcase and walks towards his resort room.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 11:37:19 PM |

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