The lockdown hasn’t been able to suppress Shilpa Rao’s creative instincts, who has been at her very best with concerts and virtual jamming sessions through these months and is currently basking in the glory of ‘Those Words’, a song sung by her in collaboration with Anoushka Shankar and Ayanna Witter. In an exclusive interview with Deblina Munshi, the renowned singer talks about music as an art and an education, persistence and who she loves working with.
How hard was it to shoot and record from home?
In the beginning, it was tough. But, if you keep practicing, you master the art eventually. This is great since we’ve all learned a new skill, and used our brains to find new ideas to put into our songs and videos. The brilliance of human beings is that we can adapt to change. On normal days, we don’t try to change, but now by staying at home we have also lowered pollution levels. I hope this year and this crisis teaches us what our priorities should be and cut down on a lot of fluff in life and once it ends, we should not go back to our old ways.
You’ve been doing virtual jams, is it for recreational purposes or for the audience at large?
It’s both. My brother and I keep jamming at home, and we put out some of the songs that my fans ask for, so it solves both purposes. We entertain ourselves and it’s also a nice way to connect with fans. If we can brighten someone’s day, then it’s great, and we love to do that.
“Now is a great time for someone with a unique quality in their voice to come to the industry.”
Was ‘Those Words’ created in the lockdown?
Yes, it was made in lockdown. We were all in different places. Anoushka is in London, I’m in Mumbai, Ayanna is somewhere in the suburbs of London, and we all shot from our homes. The video was edited by Anoushka’s friend. So, the message that we wanted to put out was that the love for each other as human beings and for nature is coming out so strong in different parts of the world in this unrest kind of situation. We wanted to say that no matter what our backgrounds maybe, we need to fight this crisis together. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we should be there for each other.
Was this the first time you and Anoushka Shankar collaborated?
Yes, this was the first time. We’ve met, hung out, chatted during music festivals but this was our first proper music collaboration together.
You sing classical music as well as for Bollywood, how much importance do you think Bollywood lays on classical music?
As a listener, it doesn’t matter if you’re a trained singer or not, but when someone is singing that (classical music) really helps. Classical music gives more vocabulary and the freedom to sing a song. I always say this to the youth and aspiring singers that if you want to do this (singing), go and learn music. There’s no other shortcut to it.
In an attempt to make the youth listen to classical music, there has been a tendency to pep it up. Do you think this makes classical music lose its essence?
Classical music, be it Indian or Western, has a lot of purity. It’s a very pure art form and it has been so for centuries. A vocalist singing with a tanpura and no added embellishments and props is a very difficult thing to do. But if you can achieve that, how much more prowess would one need with instruments and embellishments? A lot of the musicians that you listen to right now have had that training. You can learn any form of music, but the whole point is to have a teacher and learn from them. Like we train our children for different professions if you want to do music, why not from a music school? If you want to do it, do it right.
How much do you think going to a music school will assure a person of an opportunity in Bollywood?
There’s no surety and guarantee. That’s one thing life doesn’t give you. When I was learning music, I didn’t want to do music as a profession. You should learn music for the learning so that you know how to sing. It doesn’t guarantee anything but I hope the youth can see the importance of learning music and having the education about it.
What kind of composers do you most like working with?
Well, it’s so much fun working with all of them. It’s not just about singing the song, it’s also about having that conversation with someone and learning from each other. Like Mithoon is a very composed guy and I have worked with him since 2006 and that man has changed. Even now, he’s simple and in no rush to get anywhere. He’s a very calm and focused guy, which is a quality I really admire about him. On the contrary, there’s Pritam, whom I’ve never spoken about work with. We’ve always spoken about bizarre things. It’s not just going and singing a song, you must also enjoy the whole process of interacting with them.
Do you think composers have a tendency to work with certain singers only once they see them being received well by the audience?
That’s not true actually. I still remember when I started off post the 90s, there was a huge army of varied voices and they were all so great. There’s also a huge range of female singers now and similarly in the males. There are different and varied music and we also have our independent music simultaneously happening that has a fan following in itself. I think now is a great time for someone with a unique quality in their voice to come to the industry.
How do you make a composition your own? How do you give it a personal touch?
Well, you’ve to first connect with the song as you are. I listen to the song and connect with it in my own way – with the tune, the lyrics, any element, or emotions the song wants to portray. That’s how I function. Basically, connecting to that moment. When I’m singing, I totally transform into the person who is emoting that song. That is my process, but I’m sure everyone has their own way.
What can we expect to hear you sing next?
There are a couple of projects that I have done with Pritam, a song with Sony Music that I’m collaborating on. There are more of these collaborations I’m doing with producers in India that should be out this year.
Do you have a dream project in mind?
When I came to Mumbai, my one dream was to sing for films and I thought my dreams would be fulfilled. But, dreams never end. Now that this is done, there are some more dreams. Whatever song I do, my effort is to try and do something new, make a personal connection. There’s one thing I’d like to do though. I’ve been singing ghazals since childhood. I would like to reach a global audience with this beautiful art form, one of the most romantic expressions in music and poetry.