The well-known playback singer talks about how he bagged the role as host of the popular Sa Re Ga Ma show just on the strengths of his high wattage smile, about his pre-stardom days of working at odd jobs, and of course, about the music industry?
"Encore." "Once more." These enthusiastic appeals reverberated from all corners of the venue and filled the air as Shantanu Mukherjee, popularly known as Shaan, performed with his contemporary band. His rendition of music-director duo Jatin-Lalit's Subhanallah — from the hit movie, Fanaa — soared with every note of the composition. The vocals, supported by deft chord progression, pierced through the hearts of the audience? to a point that one of them walked up to the stage and literally shuffled out a bundle of dollar bills to express his appreciation. [Though, the gesture was coolly but clearly rejected by Shaan: "Mein gaa raha tha, ya mujra kar raha tha? (Was I singing or performing a mujra?). Someone please come pick up the bills and clear the stage please."]
Up until then and even after, Shaan delighted the fans by getting down the stage and mingling with his fans, shaking their hands and jumping like a Jack-in-a-box on-stage. Single-handedly, he held the audience spellbound, delivering one hit after another. The female vocalist was but an accompaniment much like the talented band which included a keyboardist, an electric lead-guitar player, a drummer, a bassist and a percussionist. Shaan could have held the crowd all by himself for the more than four-hour concert. He performed most of his hits including "Dil ne tumko" and "Das bahane karke." Also included in the event was a mock Sa Re Ga Ma show with local singers who should surprising talent, including a woman who had recently recorded her own album.
Looking at his high energy performance and presence at the stage, it would be hard to imagine that the same man, earlier in the day, was exhausted and tense due to a long flight, missing baggage, missing band members (who could not make it on his flight), and the responsibility of traveling with family – his wheelchair-bound mother, wife Radhika, and children Soham and Shubh.
It was a sight to behold at the Atlanta airport. The man who reigns supreme with his confidence and ultra-warm smile on the Sa Re Ga Ma show was found chasing Shubh, the younger of the kids, around the baggage claim conveyer belt? while simultaneously trying to assure the attractive and fashionable Radhika, who was dressed in a "bebe" tank-top, that all her accumulated shopping would not be lost. All would end well he promised his anxious wife. It eventually did!
As fate would have it, his official ride to the hotel in which, according to the original plan, I was supposed to have interviewed him, failed to make it—giving me the cherished opportunity to chauffer the Shaan clan in my car. Gracious as he is, Shaan offered not only to hold the digital recorder, but also ended up reading through my list of questions, essentially conducting his own interview, while allowing my interjections where I sought more elaborations and follow-through questions.
Shaan is a family man. As is obvious from the warmth he shares with his two sons, wife and mother. He is forthcoming about how he met his wife, Radhika. "Yeah, I got married in 2000 — the big millennium year wedding," he said. "I was dating Radhika much before I had become well-known as Shaan. I had hardly released the ‘Q-Funk' video, when I had met her. We became friends and in conversations realized that we cared for each other. We made a pact – that if we can deal with each other for four years, then we'll get married, or else we would not drag the relationship any further. Four years passed too quickly. Initially, I used to challenge her a lot, thinking she is quite younger than me and is a daughter of a rich daddy. But over time I realized that she ? is more mature than me."
Shaan's attitude towards music and performance was molded early on. "My father was a singer, composer and a lyricist of many Bengali songs. He was classically trained and gave music for about 15 films, including Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, a Sanjeev Kumar comedy. In a way I have been doing professional music since I was four years of age, doing jingles, singing a couple lines multiple times?" he said. "Not really music but exposure to recording studios. Mom, who is also a singer, would take my sister Sagarika and me to the studios."
Speaking reverently about his father, Shaan said, "He did not solicit or get engaged in big star films as it wasn't a popular trend. As an honest composer, he struggled a lot." Having lost his father at a young age, Shaan too had his share of growing pains. He explains, "It bothered me that besides mom, who was already singing professionally, my sister Sagarika started into it even while going to college and working at an advertising company?while I was home breaking bread for free. So I started working odd jobs: I worked at a printer's, gave tuitions, worked at a boutique as well as sold points for cable TV which was very new at the time."
Eventually, being a part of a singing family rubbed on him; and he started discovering and cultivating his own voice. One thing led to another, and he got his first film break with ‘Musu musu hasi.' Much before the break in films, Shaan said he "was given an opportunity to make an album. By then the business of cutting solo albums had boomed, so my sister and I released ‘Naujawan,' and it was a big success. ‘Love-ology' followed next which also had a hit number, followed by the album ‘Tanha Dil.'"
His initial foray into solo singing and pop albums worked in his favor. While many emerging singers found a niche in replicating the style of other established singers, in Shaan's case, not having such a fallback actually helped. "There was no void that I could fill in terms of a reminiscent voice. Sudesh sounded like Amitabh, Sonu filled up the void for Rafisaab, Kumar Sanu that of Kishore Kumar and Babul Supriyo sounded like Kumar Sanu. Luckily I had no such association, and the trend for urban voices had begun and the directors were in the need of anglicized voices for upbeat and fast songs. After my very first song, I was invited by A. R. Rahman to sing for Shahrukh Khan for Ashoka. I began thinking I had arrived. However although the songs were getting to be popular, the films were not doing so well. I started to wonder if I was jinxed. In 2000-2002, things started to shift gear. In Kaante, both the film and the album did very well. I felt I had now stepped out of the evil cycles."
Though, Shaan admits, compared to his father, his success came easy: "I did not learn classical music or work half as much for it, nor do I think I deserve this [success]."
In elaborating about his makeup as a singer and a musician, he narrates, "I was born in a Catholic neighborhood. In the eighties, Hindi film music was a taboo. The music scene did not call for raagdani or exploitation of the ragas. I used to listen to a lot of Western music. I thoroughly enjoyed George Michael, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Sting, and others. Like many of them, I decided that I would not just sing but also become a song writer and composer. I failed to accept that I had not formally learnt anything, nor did I have inherent knowledge. All I knew was that I wanted to do the songs for the young and progressive generation."
Talking about his philosophy towards film singing, Shaan says, "I strongly believe that the song belongs to the composer—it belongs to the film. One does not need to convert each song to his or her style, but actually follow the feel of the movie scenes and the director's desire of presenting the song in a particular way. I attempt to smile from the inside out with the song and hence I enjoy it so much and hopefully it shows in the recording."
"With reference to my private songs, I tend again to move away from the typical lyrics of heartbreaks and separations. Most popular songs over time have been: ‘Ab Tere Bin Jee Layngey Hum', ‘Jab Dil Hi Tut Gaya,' etc. On the contrary, I made ‘Tanha Dil' for the ones that have left the country, but are missing its nuances. Considering that women have a very sharp weapon against us men—silence—with which they make us do everything, I made "Gum Sum Ho Kyon." Shaan credits Ranjit Barot, his music arranger, for drifting from the beaten path, in his album, Tishnagi, which "even today is selling pretty steadily."
What provided a turbo-boost to Shaan's run in the limelight was his television persona as the host of the wildly popular Zee TV show, Sa Re Ga Ma. A talent search show featuring budding singers provided the perfect setting for Shaan's trademark high energy smile, and his firm grip on the pulse of music in the country.
When asked about his journey into television, the singer said, "Very honestly, I did not give it much thought. I had always been a great fan of the program but feared participating in it because I never learnt music formally. I was shy of singing live on stage and my Hindi was very questionable then. So even competing was out of question, let alone becoming an anchor. Today, if my Hindi is delivered so confidently it is because, ‘If you do not perfect it in five years of anchoring a popular program then when will you?'
Shaan said it was the show's director Gajendra Singh who "had tremendous faith in me after Sonu [Nigam]. He insisted I take over. I refused initially but he came back and suggested that I at least do a pilot – I agreed and the response was encouraging. My smile pulled me through the initial episodes without massive research and rehearsals."
Talking about how the music scene has changed over the years, Shaan shares some keen observations, "The composers of the ‘60s and ‘70s were very versatile and proven. Then the audio business came to fruition and audio industry moguls took over the composers, and every item was elected on the sole criteria of salability. People no longer heard music only at homes, but all over, in cars, bars, discos.... Hit music has now become the lowest common denominator – it has to reach, be understood and appreciated by the masses. Hence the art is different today. The words have to be easy to memorize and the tunes have to be catchy."
So what does he plan to do as the ever-dynamic music scene keeps changing by the month? Shaan said he is looking forward to "retire" by the time he reaches 45. "By then I'll find some new passions. I never had a plan. Even if you had asked the same question after my first two songs my response would have been the same," he said. "Whatever I have received, I am grateful that it is good and I am happy. I really never know if this is how far I was supposed to go and so I take it, that's how it is. Right now, I am really enjoying myself. If at any point I feel that monotony is beginning to creep in or that work is evading me, then I will call it good bye."
BY VIREN MAYANI
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