Musically Marvellous - Shankar Mahadevan

Born in Chembur, Mumbai, to a Tamil Iyer family, Shankar Mahadevan learned Hindustani classical and Carnatic music as a child, began playing the veena at the age of five, and eventually studied music under Pandit Shrinivas Khale. The Indian singer and composer is a part of the Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy trio team for Indian films. The award winning musician talks with us about the industry, his career, and recent association with an educational initiative.

When did you know that being a musician was your calling?
Being from a middle class South Indian household, I followed the generic engineering path, but eventually, I did a bit of introspection and asked myself if this is really what I want to do for the rest of my life. When you’re doing something you love, even working 18 hours a day will not make you tired. Although my IT job was well-paying and there was a lot of scope for growth, I really felt like I should do what I love most. It was a ‘now or never’ kind of scenario for me, so I just jumped into it. I always knew music was inside of me, but the calling came only after I started working as an engineer.

What was it like moving into the music industry back then?
It happened very organically because I wasn’t really looking at how much money I might make or how popular I might become. I only focused on making quality music and before I knew it, I was already being welcomed into the industry. My songs had already started becoming popular. My partners in music and I try our best not to take this kind of adulation to our heads. The success is more of a morale booster to move ahead and see that we create better music in the future.

What is the change you have seen in the industry since you stared?
I know it’s a cliché statement but it’s also true, ‘the only constant thing in life is change’. The music industry keeps constantly changing and as musicians, we have to change along with it. A musician cannot afford the luxury of sticking to ‘the old ways’ because then we will become obsolete. So you have to just hold hands and move with the times.

What is your preferred genre of music?
Well, it is very difficult to pick. In my opinion, there’s good music and there’s bad music. So, whether it is classical music, bhajans, semi-classical, ghazal, film music, jazz, pop, rap, rock, or an item number, I don’t care as long as it is good music. I like music that has depth to it. Your melody needs to have a certain depth, your lyrics need to have content, and your arrangement needs to speak to the listener; that is the kind of music I like, whatever genre it might belong to.

Who are your musical inspirations?
Since I am involved in so many genres of music, I have an inspiration for each one because it is very difficult to live with one inspiration through your life. In Carnatic music, it would be Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, DK Pattammal, and MS Subbulakshmi; in Hindustani, Ustad Amir Khan and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi; in jazz music, Mike Davis and Chick Corea; and as for film music, I love Kishore Kumar, S.D. Burman, and Salil Chowdhury. The list is endless.

What advice would you give an aspiring musician in India?
I think it all depends on what kind of a musician you want to become. Whether you want to be a musician who churns out popular music or one who has got depth in his music and who knows what he’s talking about and what he’s performing. If it is depth you seek, then learn your music, dive deep into it, listen to every note and understand them, understand the ragas and the talas. Believe me, becoming popular has got nothing to do with how much you have learned. Popularity does not mean quality or vice versa. But if you are able to achieve both quality and popularity, you’ve nailed it!

Tell us about your association with Heartfulness Institute’s Brighter Minds initiative.
I met my dear friend of many years, Mani from Dubai and he told me about him practising the philosophy of Heartfulness for almost 20 years. I had already heard a lot about the principles, the theory they follow, and the kind of magnanimous work that they selflessly do. The thing that excites me most about Brighter Minds is that children stand to benefit from it. ‘Children are the future of this country’ so if we are able to shape them, we will be able to shape the future of our country. I am sure that with the help of Heartfulness Institute’s Brighter Minds initiative, we will be able to achieve a lot so I am very happy to be a part of this initiative.                        - as told to Tanya