Bengali households give a special place to art, culture, music and dance. Each young member of the family learns a form of liberal arts. Tell us about your introduction to music and possibly your collaboration with AR Rahman.
I am from Bengal, born in Kolkata and brought up in Chakdaha, 60 km from the city. I also have a house in Kolkata and I stay in New Town whenever I am in town. I learned classical music from an early age and I used to do pure classical concerts here. Then I moved to Mumbai as many musicians do. During one of my musical tours abroad, I happened to meet Mr. AR Rahman. He heard me play a recording of my music and said he would call me later. That in itself was quite overwhelming for me. A year later, I received a call from his office asking me to visit him in Chennai. I didn’t know what it was about but I discovered there that it was a collaboration with him on Tagore’s creations. It was all the more exciting for me.
Coming from a Bengali family in Kolkata, Tagore’s songs must have had a huge influence during your music lessons. How were your growing up years?
My family has always had a fondness for music. My grandmother and my mother sing beautifully. Tagore’s songs have a huge influence. The mahol is such that all kinds of music are embraced. But Rabindrasangeet mahol is very well pronounced. I began very early to train myself in Indian classical music.
Now that you’re collaborating internationally, how do you balance your professional commitments while shuttling between India and the United States?
I have been living in Mumbai for quite a long time. Then I got married and moved to California. First in San Francisco then in Los Angeles. Until the time when I was in India, I often visited Kolkata. Even now I do, but not so often. I often come to Mumbai for work. I continue to commute between Mumbai and Los Angeles mainly. Pandemic years, however, have been different with travel restrictions. I was stuck in the United States for 22 months.
Tell us about your last job.
I released a single, Damaru, on Shivaratri this year. I am a follower of Lord Shiva and always wanted to make a song about him. I started with this work in 2019. I worked on the lyrics and thought it should be his descriptions. I wrote the lyrics in Hindi.
How would you classify this kind of music in your single and what do you have to say about your collaboration with Ricky Kej and the team?
It should be world music with EDM in it. I spoke with Ricky Kej and he loved the composition. He said, “Let me use a musical arrangement and if you like it, we’ll carry on”. After a few days he sent me the track and I really liked it. For devotional songs, people do not think of such musical composition. So it’s unconventional. We liked each other’s work and thought about collaborating. In the meantime, I moved to California and the pandemic hit. In the blink of an eye, two years passed and we couldn’t release the song. A month ago when the fear of Covid subsided, we decided to post it on Shivaratri. Listening to it, I felt the need to add some hip-hop music to it. This haunted me for a long time. But the hard part was finding a rapper in the United States who could write about Lord Shiva. In LA, there are great rappers around every corner. But I had to search hard, and I came across Maya Miko and he did a great job. He read about Hinduism and came up with rap. And Mohini Dey made it more groovy. This is how it was shaped.
How is the response from your listeners?
It’s good. The best part is that young people love it. I wanted that kind of traction. Young people today do not like to listen to spiritual songs or classical music. They’re more into EDM, hip-hop and trans music. I’ve tried mixing all of these sounds together and I find that the younger ones connect better, which is quite satisfying for me.
What do you think of music made in India by the current generation, with a lot of use of technology, pitch correction, auto-tuning, etc., whether it’s film or non-film ?
Technology has made a lot of things easier, not only in the world of music but also in life. In the days of Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Rafi saab and Kishore Kumar, it was always a vocal take, even in recordings. I was very close to Lataji, so I heard their experiences from her. If there was a mistake, the whole recording went out of tune. I believe in this school of music. When I record my songs, I try to live up to this tradition. Nowadays, people don’t tend to learn with patience. Thehrao wala song nahin banta hain ajkal. Today’s popular songs don’t last a lifetime. They have a lifespan. Maybe it’s a trend now.
Moreover, it is necessary to pack your work these days. A singer can’t just sing well and expect the song to feel good…
Yes, nowadays people want to see the song rather than hear it.
With social media reels doing the rounds and music going viral on these platforms, do you think the requirement to make songs popular has been met? Is the trend here to stay?
I don’t think that’s a good thing even though social media has its benefits. But for music, it’s a difficult situation for a real musician. They’re not very comfortable posting their stuff on social media. Digital platforms are content driven. But music can never be content like platforms selling sarees, makeup, etc. It puts music in competition with this commercial stuff. And that’s not healthy competition. Serious musicians won’t have time for that.
Just like dedicated singers/musicians in serious riyaaz, Indian classical music also follows strict methods. It should not be altered. As an Indian classical musician, you produced something that appealed to young people as well. So what is the role of classical musicians in making their music reach more people – young people as well as the masses?
I work in a way that classical music stays at the heart of the music, then it mixes with other forms to reach more people. I want classical music to reach the masses. Maybe people don’t have the patience to listen to classical music for 45-50 minutes straight. I would present classical music in a way that five minutes of good performance would reach the masses.
Apart from AR Rahman, what other musicians do you admire in Bollywood?
I love Pritam Chakraborty, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal Shekhar, Vishal Bharadwaj, Vishal Mishra, Amit Trivedi among others. I also worked with a few of them.
What are your plans for your visit to Kolkata this time? Projects in the pipeline?
I am here for a leisure as well as a work trip. I will be working on a project on Rabindrasangeet. I can not wait to be there.