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Shreya Ghoshal: A Nightingale of Bollywood

By: Viren Mayani Email By: Viren Mayani
August 2010
Shreya Ghoshal: A Nightingale of Bollywood

In many ways, Shreya Ghosal is a leading face of the democratization of the Indian entertainment industry, brought on, primarily by TV talent shows. With an uncommonly beautiful voice ranging from sweet to sultry, Ghosal would nevertheless have remained unknown if not for a revolutionary change in the dynamics of how Bollywood and the Indian entertainment industry functions. Whereas in the olden days, a virtual unknown, no matter how talented, would have had almost impossible odds of getting her foot into the industry. Now, thanks to a spattering of talent-search shows such as Indian Idol, Sa Re Ga Ma, Chotte Ustaad and others, a fertile crop of talented singers such as Abhijeet Sawant, Parthiv Gohil, Kunal Ganjawala, Rahul Vaidya, Sunidhi Chauhan, and of course Shreya Ghosal are seeing the limelight.

Mentored by the legendary Kalyanji Shah of the famous Kalyanji-Anandji duo, Ghosal burst onto the scene through her immense popularity in Sa Re Ga Ma. Her first big break in films came when Sanjay Leela Bhansali picked her as the playback for the big-budget hit Devdas (2002). Voicing the character of Paro (Aishwarya Rai), she sang five songs in the movie, which earned her amongst other awards, the National Film Award for the song Bairi Piya. It’s been no looking back since for the singing sensation.

While recently in Atlanta for a successful concert promoted by Paracha Entertainment, Ghosal took time to talk to Khabar about her storybook life.

Tell us a bit about your childhood, mostly about your exposure to music.

My childhood was typical. Studies were one of the most important things, but music came to me very early. I was around four when I started learning music from my mother. My mom was a good singer. Dad wasn’t a singer, but was very fond of music, and a hardcore supporter [of my music]. Our household was the prime center for all kind of cultural activity such as rehearsals of music programs, and so, I grew up in that hungama. Music was around me all the time.

The basics I learned from classical Hindustani music. We found a music teacher in our school who used to teach Rajasthani folk music (Ghosal’s childhood town was near Kota, Rajasthan). Later, I studied under Mahesh Chandra Sharmaji, who was in Kota, which was around 60 kilometers from my town. I used to go very regularly to him to learn music – thanks to mom and dad [shuttling me] to Kota. My parents were always very supportive. I was too young to understand it at that time, but they were actually taking me everywhere to pursue my interest. And this is how the interest grew and it became quite intense. Then Sa Re Ga Ma happened, which is when I met Kalyanji uncle. He was very impressed and told my dad that I had some special gift. This encouraged my dad to shift to Bombay when I was 13. And there on, I worked a little on Marathi, Bengali albums and jingles. I did my first film at the age of 16, which was Devdas and it has been ten years now.

How was your experience singing for Devdas?

Devdas was very big for me and it was a crash-course two years in the making – from 2000 to 2002. I learned mostly all about making a film: how it is done from scratch, when it’s composed to how it’s visualized, how it’s arranged, how the singers rehearse. I was always sitting in the studios in the rehearsals with my books, because I was giving my 12 th standard exams at the time.

With every new song you have shown a lot of versatility. There is always some new angle, some new presentation in your singing. Where does this come from? Who is honing you?

Frankly, there is always an urge to do something different. You get bored very fast; you don’t want to keep doing the same thing. And it takes time for any director or music director to believe that I can do something else. But once somebody makes that effort of experimenting with me, and it works well, then everybody else also has the confidence to do it. I would say it’s a contribution of everybody – the composer, singer, people who visualize that this will sound great and it will sound new.

Who do you credit as the biggest influence for your outstanding success in your music career?

The most important person in my life who has given every bit of his energy towards making this happen is my dad. He is always there to guide me. He will never impose on me, but will very subtly guide me through. His life is completely dedicated to my work. Apart from that, there are so many people… prominent people such as Kalyanji uncle; my gurus: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who gave my first film; composer M. M. Kreem, who believed I could do commercial songs (unlike the classical ones of Devdas); A.R. Rahman, who, in recent years, has given me a lot of interesting work. There is also my mom, who constantly makes sure that I am comfortable and nothing harms me – that constant motherly care. When I wasdoing music and studying…once you start believing in yourself and doing something different, you are called an idiot – you know, the 3 Idiots syndrome. But there were some friends who were [always supportive]. I am very thankful to them.

Which composers do you really enjoy making music with?

I really enjoy working with Rahman Sir because he lets you do a lot of things. He inspires you in a way that you will not even realize that he made you sing that bit – he inspired you into it, giving the right chords and the atmosphere and the time. And the zone he creates – there is always a candle burning in his studio. I just love recording in his studio. At the same time M.M. Kreem Sir, and Shantanu Moitra, with whom I have done a lot of songs with . He is one friend I have in the industry. I really can talk crap with him. He makes me very comfortable. [Moitra] understands that music is not a joband believes you have to get into the zone. So, we are very chilled out. We watch documentaries, we talk about lots of things, and in all of that, we don’t even realize when the song is done recording.

What do you think of the explosion of shows like Sa Re Ga Ma? Have things changed from your time with the show?

[In the past], the musical ambitions of this generation of youngsters, from, say 13 to 25, did not find much parental support. That has changed! There is this rise of confidence and hope. These shows have opened up lots of avenues. It’s not just recording music. They give a platform for the contestants for concerts and performances. Earlier there were people who were struggling [to get a break]. But now, if they are talented, they make it to the recording studios. There is much more scope for newer people. Now, one film has so many singers. Every film has a new music director or a new lyricist sothe monopoly thing has gone. It’s better.

And, in my time there was no SMS and there was no audience involvement that way. The reality bit was not there – there were no sentimental videos happening. So that has come into picture… this new concept of commercial success, which is very well accepted now.

As busy as you are, where do you find time to grow as a musician? What do you do to learn and evolve?

To grow, apart from training your voice and becoming a better singer technically, one has to stop criticizing, and be open to all kind of music--be it bad or good, difficult or simple. You find new ways of looking at songs. For example, I have always enjoyed music only for the composition sake. Lyrics came second to me. Slowly, I’ve developed this affinity towards good lyrics or shaayari. [Many of us] feel that in Western songs the artist is not in tune. They are not [technically] perfect. But yet there is an appeal [for their songs]. They have an audience because they are not listening to the music, but the lyrics. Lyrics are very prominent in the West. So, its how one can grow – open up your avenues, find more ways to look at a song. Try to put your feet in the shoes of your audiences. There is a set of audience which probably does not understand your music that much. What do I do to win them?

How has commercialization affected your field? Do you feel the present crop of talent show competitors are looking for quick success? Many may have a good voice, but have they learnt music from a young age like you did? Have they learnt classical music? Done riyaz (musical training) for hours a day?

I feel there is a tendency to want huge success at the young age of 14 or 15. I hope that their parents let them find their love for the music because music is not for selling. The moment you want to sell it, it just loses its purity. So many artists, who become a craze, just survive probably a year or two. Then, they’re gone because it becomes so commercialized for them that they find that the luster is gone. In the long run, the love of music will stay with you whether or not you are getting commercial success. It’s like a partner which will never leave you. To maintain that relationship at least you’ve got to spend that much time to learn it. If not heavily, spend time in learning from listening from people who are experts in it or spending time with the people who are passionate into it. This is the only way you will find that bond with it in your heart.

What do you like to do when you are not doing music?

Given a chance, I would love to take my bag and leave for a trek or hike. Even in this tour, in Canada, whatever little time I found, I went to Banff National Park. I find extreme peace in solitude. Away from crowd in the midst of nature, I feel very emotional, and the real me comes in full form. My heart follows that. Some experiences make you fall in love with your planet more. So, at this moment I’m into that kind of zone realizing that the social issues you hear about all the time—global warming, save water, save the Earth—and when you come across nature in its full bloom, you realize really how important it is.

So on the flipside do you feel confined when you are in a studio for hours at end, or amidst fans and fanfare?

I just have one problem – that music becomes a job. I have to perform tomorrow. I’m time-bound, I have to be on the stage and I have to be in the right mood to perform the best. You’re under pressure to do music because you are on a job. And music is actually not that. It’s exactly like art: when you feel like it, when you’re inspired, you want to do it, but the profession doesn’t allow you to do that.

By the same token, do you recall performances that you have thoroughly enjoyed – ones that you say to yourself “I wouldn’t mind going on for another hour”?

On this tour, I really enjoyed performing in Edmonton, Canada. I had a great audience. Apart from them, it’s very important how the sound is and how the stage is. I really did not want to leave the stage. That happens many a times, but that one was like one of those moments which I really felt connected with the audience and the requests which came were not usual. I got the opportunity to sing some old songs…songs which I like to sing actually.

I perform at many corporate events, but people who buy tickets and come, they definitely come because they enjoy my music. Their response is definitely different and more warm, more focused. I even say [to my audience] that every time I go anywhere, the warmth, the fact that so many of them have dedicated those hours to me, to come and listen to me means a lot to me. Everywhere I go in the world, people come up to me and talk about my music, and especially young kids who say they’re inspired. I’ve seen kids shaking and they don’t know what to say. I will never understand this thing. I have never been a fan of anybody; I’ve never experienced this fanfare. I will never be able to understand what’s in a fan’s heart, but I feel grateful that I’ve been given something special by God, which pulls people like this.

[Viren Mayani is a senior freelance correspondent at Khabar who has extensively interviewed Bollywood and other personalities. An impassioned musician and singer himself, he is quite an insider to the music and entertainment industry of Mumbai.]  


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